“Because it is composed of billions of two-way interactions per day, Twitter can be thought of as the collective intelligence of the internet and its hyper-smart.”
That was a pretty fierce thing to think about, given all of the potentially company-ending mayhem Musk was preparing to wreak on Twitter. But it also revealed something important about his thought process. Musk has long been concerned, very publicly, about the dangers that powerful electronic superintelligence might pose to humanity. So you would think that if Twitter was one of those, it would be at the top of the list of reasons not to spend $44 billion buying the company. He may not have realized this particular warning until he became the trigger. Or maybe the price he paid for Twitter wasn’t the only thing that was high.
Either way, Musk found a rich theoretical path. Flocks of birds, flocks of fish, herds of livestock, swarms of bees, even tumors, brains, and sometimes drones and software agents—what we might collectively call “assemblies”—do supernaturally intelligent things when they work in unison.
So Musk was working on something big. Biologists, anthropologists, and information theorists believe that social networks, like Musk’s Birds app, show at least some signs of being swarms. On a social network, all the likes, favourites, mutual follows, retweets and shares turn us individual users into something bigger, smarter and weirder. And the scientists hope that the mechanics of how this works will one day help tame the scariest aspects of social media — polarization, disinformation, harassment, and Nazis. Understanding Twitter as a group can make social media less polarizing and more useful.
But the thing is, I don’t think that’s what Musk meant. And since he came up with the idea of Twitter as a collective intelligence, he has gone on to get all the ramifications of that larger idea wrong. On a basic level, he simply doesn’t understand what he bought or how it works. Whether Musk can piece this thing together or smithereens, his deeper misunderstandings should make us all more anxious about the future of social media than we already are. If Twitter is a collective super-mind, then this super-mind could be a sociopath.
Resistance is useless
Here’s a chilling sentence: Elon Musk was right.
A group of seemingly randomly behaving individuals turns into a group when you follow a set of simple rules, such as “turn right when the person closest to you turns right” or “make an alarming noise when you hear an alarming noise.” From these tiny sets of instructions all sorts of complex cooperative actions (pack hunts, migrations) arise automatically, like a weaver creating an intricate twill pattern just by repeating two simple clicks of the loom. Scientists call these emerging behaviors.
But for the behaviors to appear, the animals must communicate. Fish and birds use visual cues about what their neighbors are doing–turn left, dive quickly, whatever–to cause the gorgeous gushing puffs of starlings or the swift collective ripples of schools of anchovies. Hyenas use audible calls. Ants lay pheromone trails. f people? We have a language. This is how we circulate information.
In this sense, social networks are definitely collective. Where else do so many humans communicate with so many humans than on Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok? They are groups, and things like viral memes or the Arab Spring are what show up. “Collective behavior occurs wherever you have rules for interpersonal interaction. You get emergent characteristics,” says Joe Buck Coleman, a researcher at Columbia University’s Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security who studies these things. “But that’s very different from asking, on these very large scales, are we processing information and making good decisions?”
Musk’s tweet caught the attention of Buck Coleman because he had been working for years on the idea that understanding the collective nature of social networks could make them better. Yes, people communicate on social networks. But the twist, Buck Coleman warns, is that “social networks are changing how this information is spread.” Our words go farther and faster. We don’t get any of the confidence signals our brains evolved to look for. If the bird closest to you says “turn right,” it may just be trying to trick you into voting for Donald Trump. And because we’re more likely to post new, surprising, or emotionally charged signals, misinformation and anger travel the Internet faster than truth or beauty.
But there is a positive side. As Buck Coleman and a group of colleagues pointed out last year in a paper called “Stewardship of Global Collective Behavior,” all those ideas circulating widely and quickly mean that one simple tweak can make a social network more fun. All we need to do is hit the brakes – to add more friction to the system, making it more difficult for any single expression of the viral spread.
In most high-performance networks, signals begin to degrade after only three or four degrees of separation. The masters and masters of Twitter or Facebook can set their systems so that circuit breakers shut off when an idea threatens to infect the Internet. Think of it like wearing a mask and ventilating, but for the sake of the memes. It may take a little longer for new ideas to circulate. But germs will be filtered out.
The desire for a better filtering system may be the reason many Twitter users are migrating to the new social network Mastodon like ships escaping from a drowning rat. Mastodon’s many servers (or “instances”), each with their own rules of behavior, make broadband communication less intuitive than Twitter. This adds up to a kind of “antivirus,” as technology writer Clive Thompson puts it. The network does not favor speed and distance, which makes the overall experience more enjoyable.
But Musk does none of that. Yes, find out what Twitter is. But he fails to understand how it works, or why.
The rules are not simple
Which brings us to a more common sentence: Elon Musk was wrong.
Groups only emerge when they follow simple rules laid down by physics and biology – when the group itself decides a course of action. But social networks are built on rails governed by algorithms that interfere with self-regulation. Musk doesn’t seem to realize that Twitter can’t degenerate into a collective cyber-human if it doesn’t let it, the owner, have a mind of its own.
“Elon’s tweet is basically adopting the invisible hand of social behavior,” says Buck Coleman. “We just connect everyone and the invisible hand of collective intelligence is going to usher in a utopia with free speech and no violence? That might sound good on Joe Rogan’s podcast to an awkward listener, but it’s no different from claiming that the economy will run on its own.”
Just like any economy, the social network has rules and regulations. And the current rules deployed by Twitter and most other dominant social networks are designed to subtly promote conflict. The thermostat is set slightly higher; The chairs are a little cramped. why? Because all those algorithmic choices keep us clicking. “They raise engagement and drive our attention to feed us ads that we interact with and buy, and generate revenue for the site,” says Buck Coleman.
No group can develop collective cognition if all its members are trolling each other. “A brain that is in a state of internal conflict and unable to reach consensus will not be able to function,” says Ian Kosin, an expert in group behavior who is director of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior at the University of Konstanz. “We don’t have natural selection working on Twitter, so the analogy fails. Facebook and Twitter — all human social networks don’t have that property.”
In this construction, perhaps the social network has become a collective superintelligence, have the capitalists left it to us? – Special devices. But the algorithms and ads that make it profitable rule out the possibility of mass perception emerging. They kill superintelligence in the bud, and in its place we get a stupid machine optimized to extract profits from our attention.
The truth is somewhere in between. Musk may have been right, but he was wrong about his health. The social network on the rails of the algorithm can be a budding great brain and also be outrageous, an online super-intelligent that will be very hard-line in the pursuit of profit.
The nature of Twitter’s superintelligence, like Musk’s, remains a matter of faith.
The science of collectivism suggests that social networks come in two types: kind and gentle, or profitable. Think of all the different approaches to social media: short videos, long blog entries, short text, still images, moderated, unmoderated, anonymous, etc. Until now, all those profit-seeking had ended up in Chaotic Evil. But even the most prominent experts in the field will be the first to admit that they don’t really know why it is, or how to fix it.
“We have no idea what produces collective intelligence among humans, especially on large scales,” says Duncan Watts, a computational sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked as a researcher at Yahoo and Microsoft. Finding some science to tame social networks would be nice, of course—”a very important question, both for science and for society,” Watts says. “But it’s so far from what most social sciences have established, I’m not sure we know anything useful at all.”
Cousin says the same. “It would be helpful if there was an openness about these algorithms,” he says. “There is an interesting ethical aspect of control, the subtleties over which they should control the information architecture.”
So what did Musk do the moment he took over Twitter? He launched the team that studies these and shares the data with outside researchers. So the nature of Twitter’s superintelligence, like Musk’s, remains a matter of faith.
We’re really all in this together, unfortunately
The single most impressive piece of evidence supporting the proposition that Twitter is a positive, uplifting, and emerging superintelligence comes, perhaps paradoxically, from what appears to be the last act: the fact that so many people leave it.
One of the primary things a group does is move around, whether it’s bacteria attacking a new member or elephants walking to water. So the way everyone on Twitter is walking through the digital field toward the Mastodon, Couzin says, “appears to be a mass migration, sharing many of the distinctive features we see in animal webs.”
But not just any animal web. Specifically, we all act like honeybees looking for a new nest. When a hive malfunctions, a swarm of honeybees sends scouts out with ideal nest specifications encoded in their brains — things like entrance size, location, square feet, and so on. Scouts are the realtors of the honeybee world. They find the candidate sites and then return to the bee colony in search of a new home, where they argue their case. by dancing.
Each Scout choreography encodes the direction and distance to the location it is promoting. The better the location, the more the Scout will dance and be active, recruiting other Scouts and non-Scout bees to his moves. The scene eventually turns into a full cell dance – “Step Up: The Swarm” – until only one team is left. All the bees are aligned in the Bollywood number of a huge apiary who also teaches everyone the coordinates of the new nest. Then they all take off.
So: to be a bee or not to be a bee? Under Musk, Twitter has entered the dance phase. I probably spend too much time there, but my experience these past two weeks has been that of a bee watching the Scouts return. some groove towards the mastodon; The others descend to Cohost. I even did some new dance moves. I’d be sad if the super smart of Twitter started singing a Kubrickian cover of “Daisy” and exploded into a pile of melted lonely chips. But I look forward to being part of a new group, wherever we decide to locate our next brainchild.
The analogy is not perfect, of course. And as scientists are quickly pointing out, you can’t equate people with insects. “Humans are much smarter than bees,” says Kosin.