Birds are the animal one would be most likely to associate with social networking/microblogging site Twitter. But scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems, along with a US scientist, have found that the behavior of people using sites like Twitter and Facebook is similar not to tweeting birds, but swarming locusts.
To understand how bees and other insects swarm, fish swim in schools and herds migrate, scientists have been building computer models since the 1980s. As Science Daily notes, the mystery of how so many animals can all move together in the same direction is even more of a mystery “when there is no clear leader of collective behaviour.” Adding to the mystery is the fact that each animal is only able to see a small area immediately in their vicinity, and that the group often finds itself in “unpredictable changes in the environment.”
The scientists both reviewed earlier studies of how opinions are formed in social networks and studied 120 locust nymphs marching in a ring-shaped arena in the lab:
Studies have shown that the decisions you make, or the opinion you have, are strongly influenced by the decisions and opinions of your friends, or more generally, your contacts in your social network.
Locusts rely heavily on swarming as they are in fact cannibalistic. As they march across barren deserts, locusts carefully keep track of each other so they can remain within striking distance to consume one another — a cruel, but very efficient, survival strategy.
Using a computer model that deliberately replicated the social network among locusts, the scientists found that “the most important component needed to reproduce the movements seen in the lab is the social interactions that occur when locusts, walking in one direction, convince others to walk in the same direction.” I suppose you could say it’s the insect equivalent of trending topics, when a significant percentage of users all start tweeting about #thesamething.
Says one of the study’s authors, Gerd Zschaler:
“We concluded that the mechanism through which locusts agree on a direction to move together (sometimes with devastating consequences, such as locust plagues) is the same we sometimes use to decide where to live or where to go out: we let ourselves be convinced by those in our social network, often by those going in the opposite direction.”
“We don’t necessarily pay more attention to those doing the same as us, but many times [we pay more attention] to those doing something different.”
If you’re tweeting about, for instance, the ancient Greek poet’s dactylo-epitrite meter, it is likely that you are probably tweeting to yourself. That might be your intention, but if you want to gain more (quite aptly named) followers, you tweet on trending topics or follow people with lots of followers, to increase the likelihood of more people seeing your tweets and following you. By following who everyone else is following, you get more followers, and they get more followers, and the next thing you know, Twitter goes down from over-capacity, the whale picture fills your screen and no one can tweet anymore. (Perhaps that’s the equivalent of locusts literally consuming each other?)
Swarming is essential for the locusts’ survival, the scientists writes in the study, which was published in the July 15th Institute of Physics and German Physical Society’s New Journal of Physics. Perhaps it’s no surprise that, for many of us humans, social networks have come to seem as essential?
The video of a locust swarm below was taken in Socorro, on the west coast of Mexico.
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Photo by mariahagglof