Friday, May 26, 2006

Blogging = Stigmergy

To whom is this blog addressed? Everyone, no one?.. Yes.

Stigmergy is indirect communication, that is, communication which is not based on transmission to a specific receiver, but rather to a general audience (Paranak, 2002 - PDF). Not only is stigmergic communication indirect, but it is also many to many, which means not only is the stigmergic medium readable by 'everyone' but it is also writable by that same audience.

Well, blogs are indirect communication to be sure, but are they writable? Utilising the comment function makes them more so, and the fact that anyone with web access can start a blog for free in minutes, means they can respond to the blogosphere's stimuli with their own blog. Of course bloggers respond directly to other bloggers' posts with thoughts, ideas and information which is perhaps directed very specifically to another blogger, but, anyone else passing by can also read this post. This difference is highlighted by the distinction between a blog and an email - if two bloggers email responses to each other, then other bloggers and readers are left out of the conversation. This is not stigmergy.

I'll give a real-world example of stigmergic blogging in this very post.

Although I decided to write about this theme (blogging and stigmergy) independently, I nevertheless did a search and came up with a few others discussing the same issue on their blogs. Below is a beautiful (and well linked to) metaphor posted by Joe Gregorio describing what I'm doing right now:

"If this weren't on the web, what would be the closest analogy for what I am doing [blogging]? Writing my thoughts and ideas down on a chalkboard on a street corner is the closest I can come. Imaging a street with chalkboards mounted at random points along the thoroughfare. I write my stuff on my chalkboard. Other people have their own chalkboards on the same street. Sometimes I walk by their boards, read what they have to say and if I find it interesting then either I scribble a little note on their board (if their weblog has a comment system) otherwise I run back to my board and scribble a note about what I read 'over there' and what I think about it. If I find something interesting happening on the street I go back to my board and write about it. We never speak directly. We only communicate through the boards. Writing on our own boards, or scribbling even smaller notes on other peoples boards is the only way we converse."

What Joe described is exactly what I did by visiting his blog and writing about that visit on my blog. And just as he states, we have never exchanged words in any form of direct conversation, rather we have only communicated through our blogs - so far ;-).

If we are engaging in stigmergy via blogging, then how are gradients of the human equivalent of pheromones being generated? - pheromones being the means through which termites stigmergically communicate. Furthermore, what is the substance of these gradients? Information, reputation, network value? As stigmergy was originally coined with regard to the study of social insects, perhaps more research is required to adequately apply this term to human affairs. More on this in the soon to be released post "Human Stigmergy"...


At 5/29/2006 4:54 AM, Blogger Julen Iturbe-Ormaetxe said...

If I understand stimergy as you explain it in your paper at M/C Journal, a blog is and is not at the same time stigmergical. If we haven't got tools like Technorati or Bloglines perhaps we could speak about stigmergy within blogging, but there are some 'technological-aided' behaviours that are ver fary from stigmergy, I think. Perhaps we can integrate serendipity (Steven Johnson talks about it, as well as Nicholas Carr and Richard Boyle), stigmergy and RSS pull technologies into a new way of understanding cooperation (collaboration?) among human beings.

At 5/29/2006 6:38 AM, Blogger Mark Elliott said...

Very interesting insights Julen.

I agree that the ability to search for and or aggregate specific information stands out against our - or at least my understanding of stigmergy. However I'm inclined to think (on a purely intuitive and unsubstantiated basis) that it is likely that social insects would have methods for filtering and localising specific messages in the milieu of the hive. Though, even if this were the case, this is still a long way from Technorati or Bloglines!

Regardless, the main point for me is that most stigmergic processes as I'm discussing them are derivative of 'unconscious' actions observed in the insect world, whereas in the human realm, they are decidedly more conscious and have yet to receive the research and attention they have gained in the realm of entomology. In the human application, stigmergy seems more mixed up with direct, message based communication, and not quite so easy to nail down as 'indirect'. Though as I alluded to above, I think if we could experience stigmergy on the ant or termite's level, things might be a bit more tricky to sum up so easily :-).

Serendipity - what a great connection to make! This might not be quite the way you were interpreting it, but when ever I'm online and bored &/or doing some 'free research', I often feel like an ant with no job to do. I just meander along until - bang! - I come across something (which for me often feels serendipitous) that I drag kicking and screaming back to the hive of my more focused pursuits, signalling to my internal and external collective to come for a feed. I think that serendipity is an inherent part of the stigmergic process - by seeing an environment as a field of messages, we can roam through it until one pops out - perhaps not even noticing that we were reading messages all along until one of meaning triggers a response. - I think I'll blog about all this soon ;-)

At 5/31/2006 5:37 PM, Blogger Mark Elliott said...

Googlearchy or Googlocracy?
By: Filippo Menczer, Santo Fortunato, Alessandro Flammini, and Alessandro Vespignani

"Conventional wisdom says that search engines make big websites even more prominent. New research, though, says "not so fast" on jumping to that conclusion."

-Perhaps the (stigmergic) web promotes serendipity after all?


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