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Flocking Behavior and the Digg Effect in Social Media

Flocking behavior is found in social media

(image credit – tycity)

The more I use and observe social media, the more it seems like psychology to me. I had the pleasure of attending SMX New York last week, and one of the highlights of it for me was listening in on the panel featuring the founders of Del.icio.us and StumbleUpon. Something that really got me into thinking was in the Q&A section where a member of the audience asked Garrett Camp, founder of StumbleUpon, on how SU dealt with spam. The answer was basically that the system eventually corrects itself. People flock to good content and it continues to rise, while mediocre content will eventually fail. Anyone attempting to game the system will reach a level where it cannot go any further and the general community will give it a thumbs down. So, the key point here is to have authoritative content, not a power profile. Power profiles might get your content noticed, but at the end of the day, it will still get thumbed down on StumbleUpon.

This got me to thinking more about flocking behavior. Craig Reynolds was the first to simulate this behavior using computer graphics in 1986. The basic steps of flocking consist of separation, alignment, and cohesion. These simulations mimic the movement of real life flocks of birds very well (created by Paul Richmond):

Flocking Behavior Simulator

Try out the simulation – you can even fire a gun to scatter the birds.
Similarly in Digg, your network of friends can only drive a post so far – if you ever hope to reach the front page (which may lead to the Digg Effect, if you aren’t careful). Once reaching the front page, you will see a notable flocking effect. It’s pretty cool to see this visually – check out the Digg Swarm set to popular some time, and it will look something like this:

Digg Swarm shows a visual representation of flocking


  1. Tad Chef

    People on social media will also thumbs down good content because they think SEOs should get “some AIDS” (popular anti-SEO quote on StumbleUpon) and do not understand what it is about, so this is rather a poor reply by Garrett Camp.

    People on Digg will vote for 3 Apple marketing stories a day but they will bury a great post if it contains the word SEO.

  2. Sutocu

    Hadn’t thought of it that way, interesting. That’s true though. It depends a lot on the content and not just the initial number of people you can find to Digg or stumble your article.

  3. Prank Videos

    We are on information era. As technology develops world will gradually become too small for us. Global Village hahahah

  4. Russ @ bombay potatoes

    If birds have the attention span of a digg user then they’d starve…maybe that explains the diminishing numbers of birds in my garden this year.

  5. Jenny

    1. I wonder if Garrett Camp gave that answer because that’s what really happens, or because it’s just easier that everyone believes it and they don’t have to moderate SU (think of the man hours involved)
    2. There’s isn’t really anything here article wise. It’s just a few pics of birds and a digg screenshot.

    Must try harder. Sorry!

  6. skyz

    unfortunately with user generated content you get ‘regression to mean’ – i wish there were a way to eliminate 20% of the lowest level content – but that is a difficult thing to do as who is going to decide and how – i have seen a video of buddha at the top of digg at one time and total trash at others – but people liked it or it wouldn’t be there

  7. brian

    @tad: some people will always be complainers. Also, Garrett did go on to say quite a bit more.
    SEL did a nice interview with Garrett a few months ago too:

    @sutocu: yes, content + momentum = win

    @prank: that’s probably why Craigslist broadcasts into space.

    @russ: lol. are you suggesting that people have diggbrain?

    @skyz: yes, sometimes there is no accounting for taste.

  8. David Mackey

    Good article, but I felt like it ended a little abruptly. I thought you would go more into a definition of flocking behavior and how it relates to digg.

  9. brian

    1 – I wouldn’t want to be the one moderating SU, that’s for sure 🙂 Gotta give Garrett and crew some props on reinventing how people search for things on the web, whether they patrol it or not.

    2 – fair points. I really would have liked to have made this a longer article, and will try to do so next time. Thanks for your opinion.

    @david: you’re right – it did. Wasn’t really sure how to end this one off, and you’re along the same lines as Jenny’s comments. It is always a challenge to find the right balance of depth of content vs. frequency of posting. Look for more informative articles soon.

  10. Matt Bamford-Bowes

    I think this is quite interesting and I have been trying to figure out the anthropological version of Swarm Theory, which I have written about briefly on my blog. It would be good to get to know your thoughts on this as I think Swarm and Flock theory both have a similar aspect to them. Great stuff.


  11. brian

    @matt: thank you. For those of you that wanted to check out Matt’s article (worth a read) about swarming, check it out here.

    (by the way, Matt – you really should put a search bar on your site).

    Swarming and flocking are very similar. In fact, the boids simulator is listed as a reference in Wikipedia’s definition of Swarm intelligence.

  12. florist in melbourne fl

    You seem to be missing an obvious point…by definition, anything using the term “social” will eventually lead to flocking behavior.

    Flocking is simply an artifact of “socialality” (is that a word?)

  13. paul richmond

    Firstly thanks very much for using my Boids simulator to make your point, I hope it has worked ok for all your readers. If not drop me an email (its on my website) as I would love to know which systems and setup cause a problem.

    Secondly the parallels with social book marking make an interesting point, one which I have not considered. This is strange as aside form my research into multi-agent systems I spend the rest of my time on reddit 🙂


  14. brian

    @florist: yes, most things will lead to flocking. If I were to look up in the sky and you were standing next to me, you would probably do the same – even if nothing was there.

    socialality is not a word, but good try. Google has 140 results for it, but that still doesn’t make it a word 🙂

    @paul: awesome of you to stop by – loved your simulation! Have not heard any complaints from the readership, re: functionality, but will keep an eye.

    Yes, the parallel with your work and social media is an interesting one. Glad to hear you’re in the social media ranks!