Swarm theory practicality for social collaboration- Part 1

Swarm theory

I drew the above picture of two ants talking to each other. It is a simple doodle sketch of two ants.

I would like to comment and talk about the subject context behind this simple doodle sketch. Hope you all will appreciate it.

A single bee or an ant is not smart but colonies of them are. We can draw intriguing insights from their behavior.  We must be thinking, a single ant should be very intelligent and confident.  We have always seen it marching so confidently up the sugar bowl in the kitchen cabinet. It is probably executing a planned action.  After all, we have seen ants making long winding lines, build elaborate ant hills and forage food like crazy.

‘It is not the case, a single ant is very incapable of accomplishing anything’ says Stanford University biologist, Deborah Gordon. She had written a good book titled ‘Ant encounters, interaction networks and colony behavior’. If you have the time, read it. It is available on Amazon. You can find the link here.

Then a question comes to our mind, how are they successful as species on earth for so long years. The answer lies in their group behavior. Colonies of ants also known as swarms are far more intelligent than a single ant on its own.  Colonies of ants can accomplish tasks, which are practically impossible for single ants to even think of. For example, colonies of ants can identify the shortest possible route to the food source and they can even organize and allocate various tasks to other ants. They are able to do all this with something called ‘Swarm intelligence’.

Please read our blog post article:  Swarm social media systems, intriguing swarm insights

It is not just with ants. There is a host of other insects and animals, which display the swarm intelligence. A school of Herring fish, for example, can coordinate their behavior collectively and turn their direction in a split second to avoid a threat.  They do this action collectively. It turns out there is no single fish within the school that is aware of the big picture. Scientists term this behavior as the ‘Swarm theory’.

Swarm theory practicality

Many scientists are intrigued by this swarm theory for the past 20 years and research is underway for the past 10 years to gain insights from this intriguing behavior.  Applications of swarm theory are enormous and can be used for wide applications in Artificial intelligence and Robotics to bring business efficiency.

Further, an interesting insight from the colony of ants is that none of the ants have a boss or a manager. The ants forage food, follow other ants, through a pheromone trail, and have countless interactions. They are self-organizing and collaborate among themselves. They have learned to adapt to this swarm behavior for millions of years. Their strengths lie in being together as a swarm and therein lies their success.

Please read our blog post article: Do ants have brains

Similarly, birds do not have a leader. Have you ever seen how migratory birds fly (There is Swarm theory in action!). There are countless pictures of them. Birds change the leadership often, as and when the lead bird gets tired. No bird is telling the other birds what to do. Birds just follow their neighbor as they fly across the sky. For once it is not about individual decision making. It is just blind following and trust on the neighbor birds, to coordinate their movement.

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The crowd effect: when crowds have a mind of their own even in social media

Crowd effect

Crowd effect happens all the time. Sometimes they are so mundane that we hardly take notice. Yes, we hardly take notice that there is a lot to learn from a humble fish. The fish under the spotlight is the Golden Shiner. For starters, making an effort to be selfless is one.

Crowd effect is a special state of fascination, where the ‘hypnotized individual falls into the hands of the hypnotizer’.

I borrowed the above line from the book titled “The crowd: the study of the popular mind” written by the French author Gustave le Bon, published in 1895.  Gustave le Bon was a French polymath and a gifted doctor.  He worked in diverse fields such as Sociology, Psychology, and Physics.

Computer technology never existed then nor was there any social media during his time.  But then, his study on the Psychology and Sociology of crowds led to the book. He is considered one of the pioneers in that area.  You can find the book here on Project Gutenberg.

His works on understanding crowds and their behavior ring so true in today’s social media usage. Understanding human nature is important. It has a considerable influence on individual and the crowds, social institutions, religion, education, work execution, office rumors, industry unions, trade associations,  fanaticism, celebrations, social mobilizations and much more.

The fact is Technology is secondary and it is an enabler.  Understanding human nature is primary within the context of social media and the crowd effect.

Perfectly sane individuals behave so differently in the midst of a crowd. They are swayed by the opinions and feelings of the crowd. Isn’t it.

We have seen it happening to ourselves. How many times have we stopped and looked at a construction site or a random event that happens on a busy road? We have stopped because we have seen other onlookers standing by on the roadside. They are puzzled, just as you are and they are eager to know what is the hustle all about. Being curious, huh?

 A busy construction site
A busy construction site

If you are looking at the above construction site picture and forming an opinion, then there are chances that hundreds of other people are also watching the same page, this very moment and forming opinions just as you.

Thoughts collide.

It is pretty much in the same way as how we behave and interact on the internet. It is one massive crowd (3.7 billion active users, at any given time, to be precise).  All of them swayed and influenced by each other’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

Crowd effect and the group mind theory

There are many theories surrounding this crowd behavior and the crowd effect. One such popular theory is the group mind theory.  The theory states that individuals are motivated by each other. Even though they (individuals) exist apart, they act as one group.

Individual thoughts and feelings are stimulated by each other’s thoughts and feelings.  The understanding is that when there is a common cause in a group, individual minds in that group co-operate towards that cause.

The group mind is not the sum of all the individual minds. In fact, the ‘crowd has a mind of its own’ distinct from the individual minds that constitute it.

Crowd effect: Answers from the animal world

There are numerous examples of such behavior in the animal world. Fish, bees, and ants are all good examples.

Iain couzin from Princeton University has spent a considerable part of his life studying animal behavior in swarms and flocks. His particular interest fell on a very tiny bland fish called the Golden Shiner.  The Golden Shiners swim in shoals and they prefer to swim in the shadier parts of the ocean which are darker than usual.

Both, the lab experiments as well as studying their (Golden Shiners) behavior in their natural environment and habitats, have shown remarkable patterns of intelligent crowd behavior and crowd effect.

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Social listening: Go beyond data and look for meaning

Social listening for social media conversations

We listen to social conversations all the time. Listening to these conversations helps us to understand other people and also understand the world. Active listening also helps us to learn and build relationship with others. That way, listening is a very important skill. A new kind of listening has surfaced in the recent years ­­– listening to social media and it is called as “social listening” by some media experts.

Social listening happens when you listen to conversations that happen around your brand or company on social media. A simple act of listening to understand others has gained prominence in the commercial world. Now social listening (Commercially at least!) is all about gaining insight about your brand and company by paying attention to the conversations that happen on social media.

Companies have begun to realize the importance of gaining insight and market intelligence about their products and services.  An interesting article in the HBR: “How to get more out of social media-think like an anthropologist” talks about how data scientists and managers should read into these online social media conversations and not straight away reject or pass them.

There is an emphasis on meaning management. Managers glean data, not just on consumption patterns of top brands and general perception of the products but also the culture, the geographical and political landscape of the place and the people. When you want to find meaning in a conversation, you need to understand the context.

Data managers and data scientists need to move away from looking at data as merely points on a graph, when they glean from social media sources for information processing. Even though Big Data analytics is essential, understanding social media conversations requires, delving deep into the culture and social perceptions of the people involved to gain insight.

Social listening requires cultural sensitivity and understanding context

Interestingly, the authors in the article point out that, modern day Data scientists lack the skill and effort required to understand and glean the meaning out of such conversations. Truly to their job and function, as data managers, they have the reductionist attitude.  They reduce complex data into lower level data as Ones and Zeros.  It is good for other data processing (for example: – Efficiency and profitability calculation), but may not add any value to the process of meaning management for online social media conversations.

Social listening efforts for gaining insight and understanding customers requires marketing professionals and company personnel alike to straddle between information and meaning. As mentioned earlier, finding meaning requires sound understanding of the context.

It is time for cultural sensitive data analysts and info-culture builders within organizations to read the meaning out of such conversations.  Such culturally sensitive data analysts can take complex data and form higher order and meaningful information out of social media conversations.

Finding meaning in a conversation involves context. Context is naturally out of the question for information processing professionals and data scientists. Context involves, for example such information deriving questions such as: “Who said it?”, “Why they said it?” and “What are the challenges ?”. Answering such questions gives meaning and valuable context to social media conversations.

Insight and intelligence can be derived from the context.

It is touted that gaining insight through social media conversations should be a regular feature for company personnel. This should not be relegated to the marketing department alone. Infact, the ‘C’ positions of the organization should also get into this art of social listening as an everyday affair.  Understanding “Customer thought and intent” is after all the Holy Grail in business.

Social listening has the potential to drive innovation and corporate strategy. A recent example was the social media conversation, about a major food chain brand which went viral on Whatsapp, a popular social media tool. The conversation and spread on the social media was about the poor quality of uncooked chicken which was served to customers. Even live photographs of the food condition went viral.  The food outlet was shut down eventually after the event. This event alerted the company officials to rectify their grave mistakes.

There are many such examples around the world. Data scientists need to be sensitive to such information on social media. There are all kinds of signals sent about a brand. Some are true, some may not be and still some are amplified by culture as well. Thorough research may be required for the company to make a response but then the representative samples may not include the actual consumers. Any information coming out of social media is relevant as long it talks about the situation or the mistake at hand.

Finally, what makes it worthwhile is that, it pays every effort to interpret online social media conversations and embrace the context involved in the conversations to gain insight and to understand customers thought and intention.

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