Editorial: Tech is a flock of starlings

Brad Hill
B. Hill|03.18.13

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Editorial: Tech is a flock of starlings

You've seen the videos -- thousands of starlings flocking in the sky to swirl and surge across wide, cloudless backdrops. The beauty of their coordinated motion is stunning. The phenomenon is expressively called murmuration.

There might be purpose to starling choreographies, but if so, it is movement without destination. The flock shapes and re-shapes itself continuously. Doing so makes preying on the flock difficult, but beyond that, the motivation of these group flights is ineffable. If ornithologists told us that starlings were imitating the group behavior endemic to tech-adoption culture, it would be easy to see the similarity. The science behind murmuration extends the analogy even further.

Besides the undulating beauty of starling murmurations, they display astonishing coordination. Huge flocks are immediately responsive to whatever movement cues occur within their dense broods. Each throng seems to be governed by a group mind and appears to be acting as a single organism, so quickly do they shift direction and flow into new shapes. Small clouds of starlings charge onto the scene from offstage as if bent on collision, then integrate perfectly and instantly with the larger formation. Sinews of movement spin off from the main clutch yet remain connected elastically by tendrils that eventually snap them gracefully back to the fold. A sense of unification commands the entire performance.

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Responsiveness within a flock of starlings is fast, but not in fact instantaneous. The birds do not demonstrate the "spooky physics" of entangled quantum particles. Scientists at the University of Rome accomplished research using video techniques and software that enabled an analysis of the birds as individuals. Through this and other work, we know something about the uncanny murmurations of starlings.

The birds communicate their movements very quickly, and in discrete increments of influence. Any starling in the flock affects the flight variations of the seven closest birds. The adjustments made by that circle of seven are quickly transferred to their circles -- 49 more birds, minus however many are flying in multiple circles. A third generation of this effect includes about 343 starlings, and you can see how the compounding influence escalates rapidly. Keeping this in mind while watching a murmuration brings a new logic to the swelling, rolling movement exhibited by the flock as flight changes ripple through it.

The circles of influence in a flock of birds resemble (perhaps not flatteringly) how our online social networks shape traffic flow to content. It is ironic that at least one murmuration video went viral, while depicting virality in nature. Clouds of flocking starlings as natural memes is a viable analogy, but there is a crucial difference. Human social influencers vary in power -- in fact, finding truly influential social operators is a holy grail for web marketers and service companies like Klout, Kred and Tellagence. In contrast, starlings apparently enjoy an influential equality in which any one of them can start a concentric cascade in a new direction.

Still, the clustering and flocking that we do around tech and gadgets resembles clouds of birds:

  • Viral content: We swarm around bits of video in the short term, memes in the medium term and content structures (like blogs) in the long term. This flocking is of value to creators.
  • Web traffic: The big data that now informs audience-development research scans large waves of shape-shifting traffic flow. The largest web publishers spend millions on the data and analytics to understand the influential behavior within those waves.
  • Product adoption: As consumers, we flock to embrace new products and product categories, though the movement can start small. The flocking can be tribal and ferocious (witness derogatory "iSheep" and "Fandroid" labels).
  • Product development: The OEMs flock as imitatively as consumers do. Samsung copied aspects of Apple's mobile OS. (Litigation and multiple judgments in process.) Microsoft has borrowed successful trends from competing browsers for Internet Explorer. Progress is usually a mash-up.
  • Social influence: As noted, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and their ilk closely resemble starlings in a throng. The trends with which social influence radiate outward from individuals to followers, and from followers to large, undifferentiated populations, is a brass ring of internet marketing.

The blazing difference between flocking birds and the flocking tech sector is the quest for destination. While the quarterly objective of gadgetry is square and pedestrian -- revenue and profit -- the heart of all invention is improvement of life and evolution of the human condition. It is for that soaring purpose that we flock and swarm and argue, and share what we think is superior. And we wait. We wait for the next true innovation among the tiny incremental enhancements that mark the 24-hour tech news cycle. It is the genius innovations that impel our huge social movements around breakthrough tech, for which we turn as a global flock, winging onward to our evolutionary destiny.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He would spend one day flying with starlings if he could.

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Editorial: Tech is a flock of starlings