How Online Mobs Act Like Flocks Of Birds

Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory writes about the growing body of research suggesting human behavior on social media is strikingly similar to collective behavior in nature. Published in Noema Magazine.
swirling abstract pattern in pink

You’ve probably seen it: a flock of starlings pulsing in the evening sky, swirling this way and that, feinting right, veering left. The flock gets denser, then sparser; it moves faster, then slower; it flies in a beautiful, chaotic concert, as if guided by a secret rhythm.

Biology has a word for this undulating dance: “murmuration.” In a murmuration, each bird sees, on average, the seven birds nearest it and adjusts its own behavior in response. If its nearest neighbors move left, the bird usually moves left. If they move right, the bird usually moves right. The bird does not know the flock’s ultimate destination and can make no radical change to the whole. But each of these birds’ small alterations, when occurring in rapid sequence, shift the course of the whole, creating mesmerizing patterns. We cannot quite understand it, but we are awed by it. It is a logic that emerges from — is an embodiment of — the network. The behavior is determined by the structure of the network, which shapes the behavior of the network, which shapes the structure, and so on. The stimulus — or information — passes from one organism to the next through this chain of connections.

renee diresta

Renee DiResta

Research Manager, Stanford Internet Observatory