Murmuration. It’s a biology term, and it’s the phenomenon that results when hundreds of starlings fly side-by-side in unison and coordinate their flapping to make spectacular flight patterns.
You’ve seen them: A flock of birds in the night sky, swirling this way and that, feinting left but then swerving right. The flock gets denser, then sparser, moving faster, then slower – but always in a captivating pattern, like they’re being controlled by a secret rhythm.
In a murmuration, each bird, on average, pays attention to its seven closest neighbors. Why seven? According to researchers, six or seven neighbors optimize the balance between group cohesiveness and individual effort.
So it sees the seven nearest birds, and it will adjust its own behavior. If its nearest neighbors move left, it moves left. If they move right, it moves right. The bird doesn’t know the flock’s eventual journey’s end and can make no radical change to the whole. But each of these birds’ slight reformations, when occurring in swift sequence, shift the course of the total and in fascinating patterns. (It’s just like the 2° I talk about in my article, The Power of Small.)
I cannot fully understand it, but I am impressed by it. I’ve been reading a lot, and the way I interpret it is that it’s a logic that emerges from simply who is sensing whom (aka, the function of the network structure). The flock’s performance is determined by the construction of the network. This, in turn, shapes the behavior of the network.
(*Writer shakes head)
The pattern — or information — passes through this chain of connections from one bird to the next.
(*Writer is still shaking her head)
Each bird is a node in the system of influence and can affect the behavior of its neighbors. Scientists call the process in which groups of disparate creatures move as a cohesive unit of collective behavior.
Human behavior on social media. Strikingly similar.
New research suggests that human behavior on social media (coordinated activism, harassment mobs, etc.) bears strikingly similar to the collective behavior performed by birds. Picture birds, fish, or ants acting in collective behavior without hierarchical direction from a designated leader.
Crazy to think about, but once you start, you get it!
One bird follows another.
I retweet you; you retweet me.
It’s the construction of the network.
For birds, the signals along the network are passed from the eyes or ears to the brains. For humans, though, the signals are passed along our screens, from news feed to news feed along this artificial superstructure designed by humans. And this superstructure is mediated by algorithms. And curation by the algorithms is how content appears in your feed. In essence, the algorithm determines the seven birds… and you react.
First, the nudge to assemble into flocks. Next, the nudge to engage. The nudge to engage is also known as “bait.” Twitter’s Trending Topics, for example, shows a nascent “trend” to someone inclined to be interested. The algorithm is signaled once the user takes the bait, and the topic’s profile is raised for their followers. Now the bait is curated into your friends’ feeds. Why? Because they are one of your seven birds. Frenzies begin to take shape. Are you with me? And once this happens, there are consequences: users are driven mad with rage, and small subsets of people become larger flocks. All before anyone knows anything has happened. Eventually, an armed man may decide to free a DC pizza parlor or a violent mob blitz a nation’s capitol.
We often say “it went viral” to describe our online murmurations, but, come on, we’re not wholly passive here. We have agency, and we can decide not to take the bait. We aren’t actually birds. Saying it went viral is a pathetic attempt to absolve ourselves of all responsibility. I remember my mom telling me that a rumor does not simply spread; it spreads because I spread it.
I used to think the bait cascading across the network was the problem, but I don’t anymore. Most of the bait is old; history repeats itself. Instead, the size and speed of networks are the real problems. In the early 1900s, bait may have been confined to a village or town. In the 60s, it might have percolated across television. In the 2020s, it pushes through a murmuration of hundreds of millions of Twitter users and is picked up 24/7 by mass media.
Winston Churchill said, “We shape our tools, and then the tools shape us.” Social media infrastructure shaped society, which shaped behavior, which is shaping society…
The content is somewhat secondary. So, is what we see of value? We’re technically not seeing what we want to see but instead what the structure (algorithm) wants us to see. And if this is the case, the only possible result is a social disaster (which I’m seeing). Instability results from immediate public reaction to incompletely understood matters magnified by instantaneous feedback.
Because curation organizes and directs the flock’s attention, the potential downstream impact on real-world power is absolute. Disinformation, hate speech, and harassment mobs; we’re intractably polarized.
And what are we doing?
We are treating the worst dynamics of today’s online ecosystem as problems of speech rather than challenges of curation and network organization. Content moderation needs to be reworked. What does this look like? Well, I don’t know. How many birds should we see? Which birds? When? Nudges and bait seem to be attention traps. And attention traps seem to lead to bad things. We need more tech reformation conversations. Some bills mandate transparency, and there are calls to reform 230, but revoking legal protections or breaking up business grabs is challenging. Someone needs to prioritize rethinking design. For example, Twitter could eliminate its Trending feature entirely or in specific geographies during sensitive times like elections. It might limit nudges to surfacing actual large-scale or regional trends, not small-scale rage bait. Instagram could enact a maximum follower count. Facebook could introduce more friction into its Groups, allowing only a certain number of users to join a specific Group within a given timeframe. These are substance-agnostic and not reactive. Design interventions.
But, again, the design shapes the system and spawns the behavior. But if the resulting behavior includes less time on site and fewer active flocks, well…
So what do you think? How much online mobs and flocks of birds have in common is truly starling, right!