Swarms are one of nature’s most impressive organisms. There seems to be something special on how a swarm of birds or school of fish move around. It looks as if it was one single organism even though it is created by each one of its participants by following very simple rules. Google+ is a smart swarm. Peter Miller describes in his book “Smart Swarm” how ants, bees, birds, fish and termites get organizing in creating organisms much larger than themselves such as hives, schools, and ant heaps.
Ants follow pheromone trails during their patrol tours. The interesting thing is that ants will wait on the entrance of the heap for other ants to come back. The more ants that come back, the more ants will go out. The equivalent in Google+ is people re-sharing posts. Sharing a post indicates a fellow plusser the “pheromone path” to an article. Re-sharing is “coming back to the hive” and thus exposing it to new readers.
In schools of fish and murmurations (groups) of starlings the individual birds take their cues on how to move next from their closest few neighbors. In Google+ every user is exposed to the content shared by people in their circles. They will in turn re-share what they find interesting with their own circles, just as a starling signals to its neighbors where to fly next. As in murmurations a single user will take cues from a reduced number of “neighbors”. We all have our 1+ preferred sources in our streams, and while they might change with time we will be more inclined into looking into a post if it comes from them.
Bees select the location of their new hive using a complex dancing system. Explorer bees will go scouting for new places and when they come back will do a dance that indicates the direction and distance to the place they found. Interestingly the better the location is the harder they will dance. This will result in other scouting bees going to the same place and casting their vote when they come back. Google+ readers use the +1 mechanism to signal that they like a given post. They vote like the bees and this will motivate other readers to read the full posts. The more +1’s the liker for an article to be read by someone else.
Termites build their castles by means of indirect collaboration. If they find a deposit of material they will deposit their contribution on top of it. They basically interact with the building based on what previous termites have done. Google+ members also interact indirectly with other members. The castle they are building is their stream. They help fellow members build their castles by leaving their contributions in form of posts in a stream.
As Jeff Cobb summarized it in his article about Peter Miller’s book, smart swarms use decentralized control and multiple interactions in their distributed approach to problem solving. Google+, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks follow this recipe. They allow for friendly competition of ideas and diversity of knowledge but have effective mechanisms for narrowing choices. The mechanisms that Google+ uses are a little different than its competitors. By opening streams to everyone and doing away by the reciprocity requisite for entering a discussion they broaden the amount of topics in which users can participate. Each user stream results from indirect collaboration while being shaped by the forces of influence. These last 2 elements are the strong points of Google+ since it allows for larger post size and exposure to a wider audience.
As Michael Wolff from Wired puts it in his last article on Yuri Milner, there are people who see networks like those created by Twitter and Facebook as steps in the development of a global brain. The entire social landscape adds up to a new collaborative consciousness that transforms the nature of information.
This thought of Google+ being a smart swarm has several repercussions. Starlings join the murmuration for survival reasons. Brains that actively participate on Google+ will also benefit. The question is how?
How have you benefited from joining the Google+ smart swarm?