30th June 2007

Did Charles Darwin launch Web 2.0…

Ok…maybe not.  But as a distraction, I picked up the latest National Geographic (July2007) and sat back for a read and behold, the article that jumps out at me is "The Genius of Swarms:  Ants, bees, and birds teach us how to cope with a complex world." 


Wow…what a great alternative way to describe the value of mass collaboration.

One method of describing community never works for everyone, so whenever I can add to my portfolio some great new examples that tell the story, I take note.  In fact, it’s not unusual for part of the resistance to this emerging trend to be some form of "it’s not natural."  It’s not hierarchical like a normal businesses, so how can these apparently leaderless communities accomplish anything, much less do so efficiently.

Well, thank you National Geographic.  The article explores how collective behaviors in nature have enabled many species to survive, thrive and solve seemingly impossible problems.  For years, scientists have been mapping, studying and simulating these swarm tactics in an effort to both understand it and to apply it to business problems.  Overall, the article asks a very important question…THE question: "How do the simple actions of individuals add up to the complex behavior of a group?"

A few of my favorite parts of the article:

Deborah Gordon (Stanford biologist):  "If you watch an ant try to accomplish something, you’ll be impressed with how inept it is.  Ants aren’t smart.  Ant colonies are."  …as colonies they respond quickly and efficiently to their environment.  (swarm intelligence).

I love this term…"Swarm intelligence" -  Though I think it would be a mistake to assume "swarm idiocy" also doesn’t exist - though this may be unique to human swarms:)

One key to an ant colony, for example, is that no one’s in charge.  No generals command ant warriors.  No managers boss ant workers.  The queen plays no role but to lay eggs. Even with half a million ants, a colony functions just fine with no management at all - at least none that we would recognize.  It relies instead upon countless interactions between individual ants, each of which is following simple rules of thumb.  Scientists describe such a system as self-organizing.

I describe such a system as an online community. Simple rules of thumb are the code of conduct (written or unwritten norms) in a community.  Yes, ok, many communities benefit from some moderation/leadership in some form, but these are not leaders in a hierarchical sense - in fact, they are able to lead precisely because it is not a hierarchy, and if they leave others fill the space.

The bees rules for decision-making - seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices.

Nice job Dell…lovin’ Ideastorm.

That’s the wonderful appeal of swarm intelligence.  Whether we’re talking about ants, bees, pigeons, or caribou, the ingredients of smart group behavior - decentralized control, response to local cues, simple rules of thumb - add up to a shrewd strategy to cope with complexity.

…an important truth about collective intelligence.  Crowds tend to be wise only if individual members act responsibly and make their own decisions.  A group won’t be smart if its members imitate one another, slavishly follow fads, or wait for someone to tell them what to do.  When a group is being intelligent, whether it’s made up of ants or attorneys it relies on its members to do their own part.  For those of us who sometimes wonder if it’s really worth recycling that extra bottle to lighten our impact on the planet, the bottom line is that our actions matter, even if we don’t see how.

Beyond the obvious intersection with communities, there’s a broader message here I like as well about the additive impact of individual actions…There’s plenty more to love about this article including a couple of great business examples and input from James Surowiecki.

Hope you love the story as much as I do!  What do you think?


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This entry was posted on Saturday, June 30th, 2007 at 12:21 pm and is filed under Social Media, Why Community Matters, web 2.0. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 3 responses to “Did Charles Darwin launch Web 2.0…”

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  1. 1 On June 30th, 2007, Mobile Technology in TAFE » Blog Archive » Importance of going Camping said:

    […] he is into World of Warcraft), and providing drinks at the restaurant.  Maybe next time Sean you could join us as […]

  2. 2 On July 2nd, 2007, Mark Larence said:

    You can bet that Swarm Idiocy exists, as that’s how western culture got (contextual age-defining moment to follow) Pet Rocks … and Pez!

  3. 3 On August 5th, 2007, Why did I start this? « Complex Adaptive Systems said:

    […] After a couple of days I was handed a copy (by my boss and CEO, ain’t that positively great) of a book titled: Complexity | The emerging science at the edge of Order and Chaos. And that did it for me; i knew that I needed to get myself involved in this somehow. Now, since I am not a scientist, i resorted to the next best (arguably) contribution effort, blogging (later on my passions for Web 2.0). Funny enough, it seems that this theory best explains the value of community based collaboration (the basis of Web 2.0), as Sean describes in his post “Did Charles Darwin launch Wen 2.0…”. […]

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