Twitter and Human Evolution

As my regular readers know, I have a wide variety of interests… so I hope you indulge me here… but worry not!  I’ll be sure to include a few of my daily photos, as usual.

Twitter and Human Evolution

by, appropriately,


I have my own perspective on what Twitter is enabling. I think there is a parallel to cells in the human body and what the human decides to do with all those cells. Take a single cell in my right forearm. It’s subcutaneous, about 800 cells from the surface, neighbors a blood vessel cell, and is about 30 cells away from one that provides nutrients to the hair follicle. The little cell is in its own world. It’s only concerned about its neighbors and what it needs to survive. It doesn’t really care whether or not the human carrying it is going to eat sushi or Italian for dinner. It’s more concerned that it gets all the little nutrients it needs.

The cell sends little signals all around. “Hey, I need more salt.” “Anyone have any hemoglobin?” “I have some extra iron.” “Are you guys hot?”. Every individual cell does this sort of thing. This symphony of a million voices, when seen from the human level at another order of magnitude, helps the human to figure out the utterance, “I should really go inside and have some warm tea.”

Microbiology and genetics are only a hobby of mine, and it does not take too long before I get a bit far afield, so I asked my friend, Dr. David Sands, professor of Plant Pathology at MSU, a bit more about it before I got myself in trouble. He added, “Cell to cell communication is a very important component of overall efficiency.” He went on to say that a cell may need a particular amino acid. It will take quite a while to build all the component parts for the biosynthesis machinery. Once it is done, it can make all the amino acids it needs, and then go ahead and make a bunch extra for dozens of its neighbors. This exchange then triggers the evolution of more complex organisms where cells have all sorts of areas of specialization. Simple bacteria also communicate with one another by using consensus signals (homoserine lactone), and once that consensus is reached, the super-organism can choose to act with volition, such as producing toxins.

The cell sends short, simple, non binary messages both ASKING for stuff and OFFERING stuff. Of course, these are not explicit “messages”, but they have the same effect. In essence, it’s a short and sweet message, much like a Tweet that has room for 140 characters, each of which can be any ASCII character. It’s the same sort and complexity of message encoded in a bee’s waggle dance as a precursor to swarm behavior.

The Veins of Bangkok

Human-built networks inevitably resemble biological systems.
(pic from Bangkok)

Now I don’t have to spell out the parallels between cell communication and the Twitter world. Twitter users typically have a few hundred followers and follow about a hundred more. Occasionally, there are people that have thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of followers but follow considerably less. These Twitterers tend to offer some of the most interesting Tweets or are followed as a guilty pleasure. If a tipping point of interesting messages make it up to their level, they will often spread them among the diaspora of Twitter. The number of Twitter followers the population has adheres to the power law, as with all naturally evolving networks. This node-link relationship is consistent with all naturally evolved systems within the human body (or any complex organism, for that matter).

The most successful Twitters offer up free “data” to others and request data from others. When spread across millions of people, the collective action of the “human race” can do some fairly interesting and unexpected things. It’s better than email and phone calls. Email is too long. Phone calls require synchronous dedicated attention. I could go on and on comparing other human communication methods, but you get the point.

Twitter, conversely, forces the meat of the message into a tight space and it is automatically and immediately dispersed to people who are predisposed to react to its content. It seems as though this is finally the communication mechanism that could allow humans to act as a super-organism, enabling large groups of humans, when viewed from another order of magnitude, to have a purposeful volition.

No one entity can see the bigger picture, but together, they reflect a larger reality.
(pic from Amsterdam)

If you accept the premise that Twitter enables bottom-up decision making, then it seems to go against the grain of a top-down dirigisme. That is, we may not need brick & mortar & gun “governments” to tell large populations of people what to do with themselves. People can figure this out on their own, especially since they are more in touch with the “situation on the ground.” For example, the government has recently decided to use valuable “stimulus” resources to spend $886,000 to build a 36-hole frisbee park in Austin. This is the sort of decision that top-down design generates. Would a group of Twitterers ever get together and choose such a thing? Maybe, but I doubt it.

I consulted my science-writer friend Matt Ridley in the UK with an early draft of this, and he responded, “My government did two top-down things today that make the word ‘foolish’ look polite.” He proceeded to tell me that the British government announced all ISPs must preserve and make available to the authorities ALL private emails, texts, and other messages. The second dictate involved building a $150,000 road underpass for badgers on a farm. It’s hard to imagine a groundswell movement for these sorts of things, unless there happened to be a disproportionate number of badgers on Twitter.

Similarly, I shared these thoughts with the economist Bart Wilson. As alarming new events have started to quickly spread in Twitter, he notes, “It reminded me of animal herding to avoid predators.” Certainly people in Twitter can bottom-up organize to quickly react to threats, the way one krill might dart inward when a dolphin approaches, causing his neighbor to dart the same way. We’ve already seen countless examples of this now that Twitter has become, effectively, the antennae system for humankind.

In sum, this is all early in the process and only a small percentage of the world population is on Twitter. As more people join and the network effect grows, we will see groups of humans working together to do all sorts of amazing things that previously required governments. Furthermore, the bottom-up decision-making will produce more efficient solutions, more timely results, and ultimately remind people the power an individual can wield in a self-organizing system.

This is Nathaniel

Are the Amish the ones to be “Left Behind”? Many will opt out of the slippery tech slope of self-evolution.
(pic from Pennsylvania)

Special Thanks

I’d like to thank the wonderful email chain and feedback I received from Matt Ridley, Dave Sands, and Bart Wilson, who helped me further refine some of these thoughts. I invite readers to go buy some of Ridley’s books on Amazon! I suggest you get started with “Origins of Virtue” or “Genome”.

  • Pretty heady stuff Trey! An I mean that in the good sense. Very well thought out and artfully written.

  • makes sense, I was thinking on the topic somewhat in a similar but on a different subject. I was trying to relate twitter to human relationship. Say a friend, its only sometimes we really sit down and talk, but most of the time its bits of information that we exchange and those bits build up the big picture of the person and the relations.

  • Chris

    The Scriptures tell us that we are, “to love our neighbors”. May be we are the cells in a larger body working together, giving and receiving, so that we too can live.

    Just a thought!

  • That made my head hurt Trey!! I’ll drink some coffee and read it again.

  • Jim Nix

    Deep thoughts Trey and very interesting. You should consider writing poetry (seriously). Anyone that can use words like diaspora and dirigisme, link it to badger bridges, Twitter and governmental influence has a lot going on upstairs. Good poets usually do. By the way, “synchronous dedicated attention” is pure poetry – maybe that could be the title of your poetry book.

  • Whew, not the kind of reading for a short coffee-break!
    Again, I am amazed at Trey how artfully his thoughts are. A true artist indeed! Inspiering, awakening and thoughtful insights and thoughts! Thanks for sharing !

  • I RTed your article along with another one I read last night. Both very interesting reads but yours was written better 🙂

  • Facebook User

    Loe the second pic from Amsterdam. Something different from you, and quite beautiful. As far as Twitter goes… I joined Facebook because it was said I might find a job that way. So far, not one offer. I have never considered joining Twitter and here’s why: I have only one life. I already spent a lot of it in front of the computer. I have to have time to read, watch movies, visit friends (in real life, not via a tweet), take walks, and sometimes, just do nothing. I like doing nothing. This often leads to interesting developments, especially if my camera is at hand. You are a friend of mine on Facebook because I admire your talent, you’re intelligent and funny, and what you say often stimulates me to try harder with what little photographic talent I have. We’d probably have some interesting conversations, face to face. And I often wonder if Twitter isn’t just another way for people trying to achieve that illusive 15 minutes of fame. I’ve never wanted to be famous, only rich. Heh. -Fenraven

  • Trey – Nice note. It was Ronald Coase who popularized (back in 1937) the notion that the size of the firm is correlated with the cost of information.

    Society has seen our organizational structures grow larger and larger as both the cost of data (and the shear amount of it) has scaled. 2000 years ago we lived in tribes (low relevant data costs / low coordination). That evolved to institutions (church and state) and then enterprises (high data needs / costs) during the industrial revolution.

    But with the semiconductor and the internet, the model of “the firm” must change again. These technologies are driving the cost of information to almost zero. This means that society can organize successfully in smaller, more networked ways. Twitter is a harbinger of very interesting things to come (The canary in the coal mine of 20th Century organizational structures if you will).

  • Gonza

    Arup, i think thats because this kind of communication creates the illution of “contact” or “proximity”. Actuallty, been communicated and isolated at the same time, is possible. More than that, today is “normal”. We are in our work, house, on the street, etc with our notebooks, palms, iphones… we are never offline because that would dissconect us. Disconect us from what? And its all soooo impersonal, so cold. Just a few clicks and you send a happy birthday. Come on, call the guy!! When was the last time someone here actually wrote a letter in paper? I dont even remember, I do remember how great it felt to receive one. Thats because it was more “personal” in a sense. Today we receive tons of sms, mails, tweets, etc, and its not very important what it says, its important to receive them. Its important to have 3.632 “friends” in facebook to feel conected, to feel part of samething.
    But not all is bad, this easy way to communicate should help us to have a better life or world. This mass concience that Trey is proposing as a result of the advance in communication tec is a positive way of thinking that I share. Hoppefully, we will find a balance.

  • casusan

    Well written and interesting Trey!

  • Leslie

    I adore that second photo. And here’s all the evidence you’ll ever need to prove that the badger bridge was a good idea….

  • Aeran


    Your musing is both accurate and timely. I am just about to graduate from the University of Texas with a degree in government and I have spent a considerable amount of time studying ancient and modern forms of human organization, and understandably, how humans might organize ourselves in the future. My own personal conclusions and hypotheses are tellingly similar to yours. The established governments, which by now mostly serve very select private interests, will eventually come to a head with the potential of humans en masse. Technology has enabled the masses to communicate instantaneously and cheaply, and even as we speak there are moves being made (such as in Britain) to rope-in those powers of communication. If one really sits down to go through all the historical patterns as well as the modern circumstances, it is almost irrefutable that freedom of information from individual to individual is the only major step holding back human scientific and philanthropic evolution. Think about it… with the opening of all communication to all humans, governments and government securities dissolve, new scientific methods for energy production would be discovered quickly and cooperatively. With the addition of 100% renewable and personally-generating energy (such as solar, etc.), human progress would skyrocket as energy would no longer be a traded commodity and therefore no individual would be limited in their output potential by how much energy they were able to purchase. Tweeter is definitely a sign of good things to come, however, do not expect the powers that be to relinquish power so easily. In all likelihood, just as in all history, the masses will have to break through the glass ceiling in what I like to hypothesize as the coming “information war”. While most shy away from this end, I am personally excited for humankind that we could one day draw such beautiful lines in our story. Cheers to our high-minded dreaming, Trey!

  • Very cool thoughts. It works and I like it a lot! Great work, I’m going to be re-tweeting this and emailing to those without twitter. Oh, and I hadn’t seen the mirror photo. Awesome! And a great visual for this text.

  • Trey, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think that Twitter is indeed one of those generational tools that will change the way we work/live/play as people and a society. It isn’t the only “tool” that has developed like this but along with IM, texting, email and other forms of communication today a revolution in human response is coming! Oh and nice pictures too…!


  • Katee

    I found this really interesting! I am a student at Binghamton University and I’m involved in a special program, EVOS, that focuses on evolution and its applications to just about everything. I will definitely tell people to check out your article. I think you make a good point, although there are already ways where groups of humans can be looked at as a “super organism”. This article actually made me think I should finally get a twitter account for the first time, haha. Anyway, thanks for not only your great photos, but your great thoughts too!!!

  • Hey thanks everyone for the interesting feedback.

    I know a lot of people aren’t on Twitter yet, and they don’t really enjoy it until they are following at least 25 people they find interesting. Once you figure that out, it becomes “your” list, and then it just grows nicely from there as you find more people to follow.

    Good thoughts above on governments and evolution… I’ve enjoyed reading the comments very much! 🙂

  • Charles F

    that is a very interesting analogy. and it makes sence, and i often spend time wondering about such things…i wonder just what we are a part of….if you could scroll out on the Universe much like a Mouse wheel i wonder what it would be…does the sun burn becuase of the frictions or some force that we are unaware that exists…it is much assumed that in the big bang that we are the center of unverse as we watch the edges of it grow and explain new images as the edge of the solar system…as far as we know we may be the edge of the ever growing system. im a amazed at the knowledge man has discovered up to our very existence…i only wish that i could see it 1,000 years from now. what they will know, i wonder if evolution will still be center of debate among scholars or will they find something and it will dispel religion and evolution…what will we believe?

  • Facebook User

    If things progress as you suspect, the world will be a “only the strongest survive” kind of place. Governments have many faults, and special interest groups are one of them, but sometimes governments make the decisions that the majority of people will not make in order to protect an important minority. Sometimes they do it wrongly, and it may seem ridiculous to build a badger bridge, but what about protecting park land or endangered species? The majority of people don’t care, or would rather mine oil or build commercial centers, but the government is responsible for making sure that profit is not the only thing that drives decisions. There can never be a world without some form of authority that can make the decisions that the general public won’t.

  • First of all, I love the second image! Very nice composition and execution.

    Secondly Trey, you touch on something very worthwhile in regards to economics. The example of the frisbee park is just one of countless errors in judgement made by our current government administration. As you wrote about Twitter, I though of a grassroots movement happening right now. Tea parties. Although highly ignored from the “select few” in office and mainstream media, the tea parties were a physical twitter gathering in my eyes.
    It would be nice if our society moved in a direction where every day ciitzens had more say, but unfortunately, I am afriad we are moving towards more governmental control.

    -Concentrated power has always been the enemy of liberty-

    Ronald Reagan

  • Mike

    Those old theories of sociology describing society in biological terms never seems to end. Maybe you should read up on both Durkheim and his opponents as well instead of reducing society and interaction between people to determinism.

  • Hi Trey,

    I opened my feed reader this morning expecting to see more excellent HDR photography from Stuck In Customs. Instead I got a great dose of insight right alongside the imagery!

    I agree completely with your observation that human-built networks will ultimately resemble biological systems. Without the humanity of a network, there would be no appeal to it’s users and no function that would better lives. Websites like Twitter are less structured than friend-based sites like FaceBook and MySpace. As a result I think that they more quickly resemble biological systems because they are more dependent on that natural evolution. Just as we evolve and adapt to our environments, Twitter will continue to evolve and adapt to it’s users.

    What some consider a weakness of Twitter – only having 140 characters to express oneself – has become it’s greatest strength… brevity.

    I wonder what government can be doing to use the power of networks to involve people more directly? This would require bold moves by each individual of government. Connecting directly with the masses holds great promise and significant dangers. But when everything is networked and connected, everything can communicate cohesively.

    Regardless of your political leanings, I believe that many of us will look back at the Obama administration as the beginning of wide-spread government participation in social media. Sure, it was mostly used for campaigns and self-promotion, but it demonstrated the effectiveness of these networks and the expectation will only continue to grow with future generations. It will take some time for momentum to be generated, for marketing to be replaced with conversation, for social networks created for the people to be adopted by the people’s governments.

  • Michelle Greer

    Nice post. This is why I do what I do.

    Ultimately, social media is just a medium. It is only as good as we are and is merely a catalyst for our behavior. If people are selfish and inhumane, we will have a selfish and unhumane collective. If they are honest and compassionate, we can achieve great things.

    I am cautiously optimistic. Hopefully people see that by contributing a little, we ALL get a lot.

  • Dara B. Szane

    If I understand your reasoning, Twitter is a sort of organism. The cells of this organism are essentially the human participants in the Twitter network. That’s right?
    You make various analogies to how organisms function that raise questions that would be interesting to discuss. For example:

    1. Exchanges of information on Twitter can culminate in some sort of act that might be considered as purposeful volition of the “super-organism”. Volition is conscious choice or decision. So, does this imply that Twitter has consciousness? If I were asked where my consciousness ‘resides’, I would point to my brain (It seems to be there, but I could be wrong). Is there an organ associated with Twitter’s consciousness? Does Twitter have organs?

    2. What kind of organism is Twitter, something closer to a rotifer or to a primate? Could we make a ‘geneological’ tree of the different ‘super-organisms’ of human networks (like a phylogenetic tree for living organisms)? What is the LUCA (last universal common ancestor) and where is Twitter in the tree?

    3. What will be the selective pressures that will make Twitter adapt and evolve? Is this super-organism subjected to Darwinian evolution?

    4. You state that Twitter is bottom-up decision making and you imply that this is incompatible with top-down decision making. But as a primate, I know that in some cases I can use my brain to over-ride what the cells of my other organs “have decided” to do. Yoga/meditation and hypochondria are examples of biological top-down decision-making in action.

    Looking forward to responses.

  • As an ex-microbiologist/geneticist I can deeply appreciate the parallels you draw in this post Trey. The energy (ATP for the nerds in the house) behind Twitter is the predisposition of people to share. Twitter has been invaluable to me as its an instantaneous way for information to circulate between myself and like minded friends. The longer I’ve been on Twitter the larger my circle of like minded friends has become and in turn I’ve been introduced to great people and great information resources.

    A lot has been said this week as to what the true adoption rate is of new Twitter members. While the pool of users may be important to the business folks and analysts to me it doesn’t matter how large the population is that plugs into Twitter. What matters most is the quality of people taking part. So far so good on that front. I’ve met people that I would have never had the opportunity to talk to with out Twitter… writers, business people, organizations, PR folks, analysts and even great photographers. Twitter will continue to thrive as long as the quality of membership is high. In turn ground up initiatives will continue to grow in this social media petri dish.

    Twitter has continued to surpass the expectations of the nay sayers. I expect to be pleasantly surprised for several months and years to come all while reaping the benefits of conversing with my very informative network of contacts.

    (jimgoldstein at Twitter

  • Claire

    Perhaps the big question is how do we get Dave Sands on twitter and then how do we follow (understand) his tweets?

  • T In China

    Very much interested by the possibility of social media. Consider if you will evolution of dialect and accents in language- caused primarily by geographical isolation of populations over prolonged periods of time.
    Take away the possibility of this – twitter on the macro scale – and you have the rapid homogenisation of language. Effortless or near effortless communication in a simple universally understandale form ( if you speak basic english)
    As far as conciousness evolving in the twitterverse i cant see it ..but i can see it as a tool for social activism…

  • Jeremiah abrams

    Nicely done, Trey!
    We should be aware and cautious: bottom-up decision making within a closed self-organizing system can have devastatingly negative value too, spreading instantaneous mental epidemics of huge proportions, and, lacking a quick enough feedback-correct loop, can produce grave injustice or disaster. Consider the paranoid plague on Twitter a few weeks ago around the Amazon glitch, which was probably the result of human incompetence and digital error, but which nevertheless unleashed a lynch mob of self-righteousness, projection and presumption based on previous injustices.

  • Thanks for the good comments everyone…

    Dara, to address your q’s:

    1. Exchanges of information on Twitter can culminate in some sort of act that might be considered as purposeful volition of the “super-organism”. Volition is conscious choice or decision. So, does this imply that Twitter has consciousness? If I were asked where my consciousness ‘resides’, I would point to my brain (It seems to be there, but I could be wrong). Is there an organ associated with Twitter’s consciousness? Does Twitter have organs?

    I don’t know… I guess no one really knows what consciousness is, after all. It’s sort of an imperfect symphony of desires of constituent parts of the organism.

    As for “organs”, I think that subsections of Twitter will begin to specialize in a few focused areas. Cells come to specialize, and eventually “kidneys” and such will develop.

    2. What kind of organism is Twitter, something closer to a rotifer or to a primate? Could we make a ‘geneological’ tree of the different ’super-organisms’ of human networks (like a phylogenetic tree for living organisms)? What is the LUCA (last universal common ancestor) and where is Twitter in the tree?

    I think it’s a pretty simple organism… Only a few million cells now, right?

    3. What will be the selective pressures that will make Twitter adapt and evolve? Is this super-organism subjected to Darwinian evolution?
    That is true…that evolution is often caused by external competition. I think there are little bits of competition in the network, though, that will cause it to evolve.

    4. You state that Twitter is bottom-up decision making and you imply that this is incompatible with top-down decision making. But as a primate, I know that in some cases I can use my brain to over-ride what the cells of my other organs “have decided” to do. Yoga/meditation and hypochondria are examples of biological top-down decision-making in action.

    That’s true that the brain can override stuff, but it still derives its “options” from bottom-up information gathering.

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  • Thanks for the human cells/twitter analogies…. I’ll keep reading! If you haven’t read Bruce Lipton’s Biology of Belief, or Spontaneous Evolution, check them out. …He’s a cell biologist and explains cellular structure, function (communication included…) in ways beyond any I’ve read.

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  • Justin

    Not sure if you’ll even read something this old, but I was linked over here from your recent picture on Flickr, and found this a very interesting analogy! While the paracrine functions of cell signals certainly mimic Twitter in some regards, I believe this can be taken even further!

    For example cell-surface proteins and receptors in a way function very much like this blog you have here! Rather than photos and articles however, they contain notes in the form of “Hey, hey, I have Fas Ligand!” or “I have CD11…”, things like this act very much like a profile and an active blog in cell form. Similarly endocrine functions much like e-mail, or rather more like posting on some public forum, for everyone to see. Neurocrine even acts a lot like instant messengers! Taken to length, any form of communication has some sort of biological analog.

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  • Trey,
    A very interesting post and some great comments as well. I think your analogy between cell-to-cell communication and the way Twitter works is plausible and for the most part accurate, but I worry about the conclusions you draw from it. Twitter certainly does cause information to be “automatically and immediately dispersed to people who are predisposed to react to its content” but that fact must be reconciled with Jim Goldstein’s fantastic point, “What matters most is the quality of people taking part.”
    Two things always come to my mind when people bring up the potential power of Twitter. (1) Lance Amrstrong tweeting about a practice bike ride in Griffith Park the evening of Sept 9th, and showing up there on Sept 10th with hundreds of cyclists ready to go. (2) The idea of the flash mob (as I originally read and loved through Larry Niven’s sci-fi books), but more recently brought to life through various forms of social media (both twitter and non-twitter, with both benign as well as malicious intent).
    My belief is that while things such as the Lance ride are cool, and the organized chaos of 200 people flooding a Hyatt lobby to randomly applaud for 15 seconds is (to some people) just funny, these events show that not all organized, bottom-up decision making is smart, well-intentioned, or good for humanity as a whole. Just take a look at what the Philadelphia police are having to deal with:
    So as an addendum to your conclusion that Twitter will enable “humans working together to do all sorts of amazing things,” I think it must also be noted that Twitter also enables foolish people to partake in foolish behavior that much easier than before. Commenter Jeremiah abrams’ word of caution should definitely be heeded. Ultimately I think if systems can be put in place to safely and effectively extract ideas and action from Twitter or other “social organisms” for the benefit of humanity, that will be a much better situation than simply leaving the organism to sort things out for itself.

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  • You’ve hit the ball out the park! Incerildbe!

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  • ricardo

    i’ve read around that Evolution, unlike other theories like Relativity, has stood the test of time and trial (that was nice!) never being disputed or disproved (another one!), only refined and added upon by tools like statistics, genetics and such.
    You ponder, will twitter obey Darwinian Evolution? and the answer is a big yes. Read about Memes, which are to ideas and concepts what genes are to life and organisms. Memes are units of cultural inheritance (like doing great HDR and teaching it) and their phenotypes are behaviour and ultimately conscience.
    When HDR is well taught and faithfully passed on, the phenotype won’t change that much. Question is, twitter is fast and ubiquitous, and memes will evolve much faster than genes. And that, to an old geezer like me is – scary! 😉

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