Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Ugly online mobs have a beautiful real-world analog, flocks of birds.

When starlings flock, they ebb and flow, zig and zag, rise up, twist about and head off in new directions. Scientists call this avian dance a “murmuration”.

Let’s take a look.

Starlings flock on the English countryside

Here’s some of what we know about it:

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…

… Scientists call this process, in which groups of disparate organisms move as a cohesive unit, collective behavior. The behavior is derived from the relationship of individual entities to each other, yet only by widening the aperture beyond individuals do we see the entirety of the dynamic.

Research suggests the same flocking behavior exists in social media information cascades, harassment mobs and collective activism. Here, we do not know what the whole is doing, but we react to and emulate those around us. Basically, the “like”, “upvote”, and uncommented “repost” (among other actions depending on the platform) are largely performative displays of effortless camaraderie that others can see. 

We do them. We do them because we see others doing them. And others are doing them because we’re doing them. We zig and zag. We ebb and flow. We dart like murmuring starlings.

The algorithms created by our dominant platforms understand this. They try to pry a response from us. They set bait traps.


Twitter’s Trending Topics, for example, will show a nascent “trend” to someone inclined to be interested, sometimes even if the purported trend is, at the time, more of a trickle — fewer than, say, 2,000 tweets. But that act, pushing something into the user’s field of view, has consequences: the Trending Topics feature not only surfaces trends, it shapes them. The provocation goes out to a small subset of people inclined to participate. The user who receives the nudge clicks in, perhaps posts their own take — increasing the post count, signaling to the algorithm that the bait was taken and raising the topic’s profile for their followers. Their post is now curated into their friends’ feeds; they are one of the seven birds their followers see. Recurring frenzies take shape among particular flocks, driving the participants mad with rage even as very few people outside of the community have any idea that anything has happened. Marx is trending for you, #ReopenSchools for me, #transwomenaremen for the Libs Of TikTok set. The provocation is delivered, a few more birds react to what’s suddenly in their field of view, and the flock follows, day in and day out.

Aside: I joined Mastodon about six weeks ago. It famously does not have an engagement algorithm. Things trend but it doesn’t feel manipulative. It doesn’t feel angry or aggrieved. I also tend to have more engagement on individual posts than I did elsewhere (say, Twitter) even though I have thousands fewer followers. Take that as a survey of one.

Thoughts? Ideas? Comments?

Send me a note or reach out on Mastodon.

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