I lost my beloved childhood doll, Jonathan, 30 years ago. A stranger named Sarah just helped me find its replacement.
If you or your child has lost a beloved plush aka stuffy, lovey, stuffed animal, or doll the power of crowdsourcing — or crowdsearching — through a distributed social network may be the answer to finding your long-lost toy.
In 1985 or 86', I was given a doll I named Jonathan. Jonathan was a ragdoll with rusty, shag carpet hair, long arms and legs, and giant feet. His face was round and sweet, freckles spotting the apples of his cheeks, and his eyes were similar to those found on "precious moments" figurines or Japanese animations of the time — blue printed teardrops that made him come alive to me. But it was his enormous feet or his "tootsies" that stood out most to me and my twin (who had also received the same type of doll, though hers was a cheerleader). Slouchy socks and lace-up sneakers adorned his feet, and we lovingly called our dolls "big foot" dolls.
While I wouldn't use this term to describe anyone today since we have a new lexicon for describing ourselves as LGBTQIA folks, in the 1980's I was considered a whole-souled "tomboy." I didn't usually play with dolls. Jonathan wore a multi-colored ball cap and had a green felted frog velcroed to one of his hands, and I adored everything about him. Perhaps some of that love came from identifying with a doll that wasn't pink and frilly. I carried him around wherever I went and talked to him like he was real, sharing all of my imaginative whims and secret fears with him. Jonathan listened and comforted as any child's BFF doll does.
A few days before Halloween of 1987, we left Texas to move across the country to North Carolina with our mom and her new husband. Our parents did not disclose the plans for our move to my birth father or his family, and we moved away from them and our deep Mexican/Tejano culture and heritage without saying goodbye. Jonathan was the only childhood toy that would make the journey with me from Texas to North Carolina, and the day we left, I hid in the coat closet of my Corpus Christi apartment and whispered, "Everything is going to be OK, Jonathan."
Things would be mostly OK for Jonathan and me until we made a pit stop at a gas station during a family road trip three years later. My stepdad was a highly successful traveling salesman who frequented several routes up and down the east coast and Ohio River Valley. He was super disciplined when traveling, documenting all of his travel stats and often competing with himself to beat his record travel times or optimize gas mileage, a habit that made us both laugh and roll our eyes.
We were already a few hours down the road when I realized Jonathan was missing, and my stepdad wouldn't turn around in fear of messing up our detailed travel plan. I was devastated by my family's decision to leave Jonathan face down in a dirty gas station parking lot, compounding the tremendous losses I had already endured when we left Texas.
I eventually forgave my parents but couldn’t forget Jonathan. Besides his images in my mind and heart, I had very little information about him to help me figure out who he was and how to replace him. I knew nothing about his make or model, and the only photo I had left of Jonathan showed the top of his head peaking out from under the pillows of my bed.
Numerous dead-end Google searches over the decades for phrases like "dolls with big feet" and "rag dolls" and "boy rag doll with frog attached to hand" led nowhere. I believed that he was gone forever and that the endless reach and power of the Internet couldn't help me recover him. It was as if Jonathan never existed.
Stumbling Across the Right Crowd
I like looking for treasures. On a junk hunt in November, I stumbled across a sad-looking bear sitting in a warehouse full of discarded stuff. I often imagine my love for finding curiosities in thrift stores, antique shops, and estate sales is just the gathering bits of my Mestizo genes expressed in a weird, modern way.
Despite the poor bear's sorry habitat, a little pool of sunlight trickled in from a window somewhere hidden above and illuminated its face in a haunting but hopeful light. I posted the strange bear on my Instagram account, and a friend promptly wrote, "Puffalump, not sure if it has a market value."
I am not in the business of flipping the items I stumble upon. My husband and I often lament the lack of cool stuff in thrift stores these days due to online curators that flip quality stuff found at low prices to maximize profit. A quick search for Puffalump to see if they fetched any money yielded an even more exciting result to me: a website dedicated to lost plush toys called the Plush Memories Lost Toy Search Service.
I had no idea that these types of groups even existed (wait, there are other grown adults out there looking for long-lost dolls from childhood?!), and this random search result led me to their highly active Facebook group where they offer "free help finding lost plush lovies." So on November 14th, 2021, I joined the group and told a sliver of the world about Jonathan in hopes that they would help me find him.
The Power and Science of the Right Crowd
In the case of Jonathan, the search terms used by my crowd and their results went well beyond mine, and included:
- Vintage rag doll
- Pillow people
- Etone rag doll
- EUC merigold doll
- Rag mop
- Knickerbocker rag doll
and finally: Vintage Graphics International Tootsie Plush Ragdoll
and from that, the search term used to solve the mystery of finding Jonathan: Tootsie Doll. But what’s the science behind crowdsourcing, and why did this work?
Crowdsourcing is a distributed online problem-solving model that leverages a community's collective intelligence and computing power to produce an agreed-upon outcome. In the last several years, crowdsourcing has become a household term with cool things like citizen science, true crime podcasts, and news web platforms like the New York Time's Diagnosis being leveraged to diagnose mysterious illnesses with the help of everyday people all over the world.
Let's look at the underlying systems at play in crowdsourcing. We can first turn to distributed computing to understand why it's such an effective model for solving hard-to-solve problems, like finding a toy from 30 years ago with zero information about its brand or manufacturer in a sea of lost and forgotten toys.
According to IBM, a distributed computer system "consists of multiple software components that are on multiple computers, but run as a single system." The distributed system used to find Jonathan was made of 15,700 personal computers running search engines (software) spread all over the globe connected by Facebook's Express Backbone network (EBB), one of many possible configurations that a distributed computer system can take.
Essentially, with crowdsourcing, the crowd is a defined group of people that share emotions and put their collective energy toward a common purpose. Add the crowd's shared goal, collective intelligence, and feelings to their distributed computing power — accumulated CPU cycles and diversity of thought — and unsolvable problems suddenly become much easier to solve. Let’s then define crowdsearching as a way to leverage the power of crowdsourcing to search for, and hopefully find, something lost.
So Many Lost Lovies and their Hurting Humans
The night before Sarah wrote me to tell me that she had found Jonathan, I had completely given up finding him. It had been two weeks since I posted my plea to my crowd, and my hopes had grown high knowing there were so many people helping me look for Jonathan, 15, 700 to be exact.
I had even drawn a picture of Jonathan from memory as folks started to hone in on possibilities for what he could be, my 7yo daughter lovingly writing his name (with a backward J) and his size at the top and bottom of my drawing, respectively. Yet the group's Facebook Admin chimed in to remind people that they needed to pay attention to the details that I had provided before making recommendations — many "Raggedy Andy" type dolls and "Pillow People" flooding the comments of my feed, which left me disheartened.
As we were falling asleep that night, I told my husband that Jonathan would never be found, that he probably never existed (even though I knew that was false), and that I would finally need to make peace with that. He reassured me that Jonathan would be found and asked me to hang in there another week or two.
The following day I woke up to a notification from my group, and I was shocked to start my morning with a picture of Jonathan's face, which I had begun to forget, staring right back at me. Sarah, a member of my crowd, had written, "I finally figured it out! It's Tootsie Doll."
I burst into tears and ran around the house looking for my husband so that he could share in my excitement, to which he promptly reminded me of his stance the previous night. We ordered him immediately. Jonathan was a package deal and would be shipping with three of his Tootsie Doll buddies. I also learned that his official name was Buddy, though he would always be Jonathan.
Looking back to my crowd, I wrote Sarah and thanked her for helping me mend such an old wound. I continue to support the Plush Memories Lost Toy Search Service group hoping that one day I'll be someone else's Sarah, using my own spare time and computing cycles to help solve someone's impossible problem.
In the short couple of months since joining the group, I've seen adults who grew up in the foster system, trans youth, and children of color alike get reunited with their long-lost lovies, a small consolation in a world where marginalized people often live with a lack of needed resources and support.
Their stories are heartbreaking and intriguing, hopeful and triumphant, and both ordinary day and Christmas day unboxings leave the reunited and those looking on sobbing. With so much noise and information (and misinformation) surrounding us, this is one bright spot in the world of digital clouds that we've created. There is a genuine silver lining in finding that the most precious friends of our childhood — sometimes our first friends and only consistent family — who we thought were gone for good had only been misplaced for an unbearably long time.
A crowd of strangers sits willing and ready to lead each other back to our lost first friends, or at least their replacements, a disbelief that I’m happy to suspend along with many others.