While even the most casual observer understands the boost that a mention from Twitterati like Ashton Kutcher or Kim Kardashian can provide to a cause, the campaign to find Sjoberg extends far beyond mere awareness to coordinated action.
"On December 4, 2010, we learned that Joe had researched private airstrips in Wisconsin. Within 90 minutes of posting a request for help on the 'Joe Sjoberg Missing' Facebook page, volunteers had contacted the almost 600 private airstrips in Wisconsin, and faxed or emailed flyers with information," Mandell-Rice told me in an email.
"Subsequent posts for help have received an overwhelming response, allowing us to contact over 200 Wisconsin-area hotels and more than 200 local hospitals. Volunteers have emailed or faxed hundreds of flyers to gas stations and local businesses. They have also searched miles of airport parking lots in Milwaukee, Madison, and Chicago. Without social media, this process would have taken police weeks to complete."
On Reddit, where Redditors have for years been responsible for enourmous acts of charity and benevolence, the AskReddit thread generated more than 400 responses suggesting methods of tracking down Sjoberg, including accessing his bank records and emails.
The disappearance of Joe Sjoberg is more than just a human interest story about a community spontaneously built around finding one man. Social media has proven an incredibly effective resource at tracking people down, even those who don't want to be found. In August 2009, Wired writer Evan Ratiff tried to disappear completely; he bought prepaid cell phones, disguises, and gift cards to avoid being recognized or tracked through his bank account. He shaved his head. He carefully monitored his phone usage and IP addresses so as not to leave a digital footprint. He took on a fake identity and created a new life for himself in New Orleans. Wired offered a reward to readers who could track down Evan, say the code word ("fluke"), and snap a picture. After several months of cat-and-mouse with casual readers and participants from communities like Reddit and 4chan, Ratiff found himself cornered. "You wouldn't happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?" The game was up.
But the everyday citizens after Ratiff were motivated by a monetary prize. What drove thousands of complete strangers to lend their efforts to hunting Sjoberg? Compassion and sympathy are obviously answers: many Redditors shared similar stories of friends and family who had simply disappeared. In the digital world, the faintest sense of horror over a distant family's pain is incentive enough for a stranger to help. As Clay Shirky noted in Here Comes Everybody, social media has drastically reduced -- if not totally eliminated -- the costs of participating in collective action, especially those costs associated with distance. The search for Joe Sjoberg "has gone global," Mandell-Rice said. "People as far away as Egypt, Spain and Thailand pitching in to help." With conventional police departments often overburdened with heavy caseloads, the capacity to crowdsource support from a vast online network may serve as a useful resource for future instances like this. "You don't need a background in public relations or technology to do something like this," Mandell-Rice said.