While we've seen the impact that Twitter can have on organizing protests in Egypt, Iran, Tunisia, and the U.S., social media sites still have a reputation as time-wasters. That reputation may change, though, now that photo-sharing site Flickr has yielded a genuine scientific discovery.
Hock Ping Guek, a Malaysian photographer, posted pictures of an interesting-looking insect on Flickr last year, not realizing at the time that it was a species that had never before been recorded. Guek was contacted a few months later by Dr. Shaun Winterton, Senior Insect Biosystematist with the California Department of Food & Agriculture, who had seen the pictures while randomly browsing the site. Although he recognized the species as a green lacewing, Winterton noticed unusual markings on the insect's wings, which were something he and his colleagues hadn't seen before.
It was another year before Guek found another specimen of the species, which he trapped so it could be studied.
Winterton and Guek agreed to name the insect Semachrysa jade (Jade is the name of Winterton's daughter). After verifying that it was, indeed, a new species, they sent the insect to be classified by Steve Brooks, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London.
This discovery (or at least how it happened) highlights another potentially important aspect of social media: that it can help transcend national and political boundaries to create, in effect, a global laboratory.
(Photo from Hock Ping Guek/Flickr)