Your Inner Ant: How Popularity on the Web arises by Trail and Error

12 April 2014 by Joe Dramiga, posted in Uncategorized

Every animal needs food and every animal likes food. Food is quite popular one could say. For foraging, some species like ants use the so-called trail-laying and trail-following behavior for finding the shortest path between a nest and a food source. The trail-laying and trail-following behavior consists of the following three basic principles:

1. Each time an ant moves, it lays a pheromone trail.
2. For finding its way, it senses its environment and

a) follows existing trails, if there are any. The probability that the ant chooses a
certain trail is proportional to the amount of pheromone on that trail.

b) walks randomly, if no trails can be found.

3. Pheromone evaporates over time. If a trail is not used, it will vanish.

This is quite a simple behavior. However, it is sufficient for finding the shortest path – or a relatively short path – between two geographical locations. The ants travel from the nest to the food source, and back again. In the beginning there are no pheromone trails, so all the ants will walk randomly. The ant that randomly chose the shortest path will arrive first at the food source, and is also the first one to go back to the nest. For the way back, there is a high probability that it will use the pheromone trail it created by itself. If it does so, the strength of this trail will be doubled. When the other ants arrive at the food source, the trail of the first ant will be the strongest one. For this reason, the other ants will probably follow it as well. If so, the strength of the trail for the shortest path found will be increased further. Now it’s likely that the trail holds a significant concentration of pheromone. Consequently, all the other ants will follow it with a high probability. As a natural consequence the traffic on this path will increase. In summary, the trail-laying and trail-following behavior is another incidence of the ”rich-get-richer” phenomena.

This model reveals how individual ants follow chemical trails and that simple and local rules allows social insects to coordinate group responses over large temporal and spatial scales. Basically humans interacting on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter do behave like ants which forage (We look for brain food and soul food): They lay digital trails by posting links and hash tags and they follow digital trails by clicking links.


"The work on ants has profoundly affected the way I think about humans."


E. O. Wilson

Usually this behavior depends on the choices made by others because the choices of other people convey information that is useful for us. We’ve seen that these types of coupled decisions, where behavior is correlated across a population, can lead to outcomes very different from what we find in cases where individuals make independent decisions. One of these outcomes which has been studied by social scientists and marketing analysts for decades is popularity.

Popularity is a phenomenon characterized by extreme imbalances: while almost everyone goes through life known only to people in their immediate social circles, a few people achieve wider visibility, and a very, very few attain global name recognition. Analogous things could be said of books, movies, or almost anything that commands an audience.

It is easy to quantify such imbalances in real time on the web. Just take a snapshot of the full web and simply count the number of links to high-profile web sites such as Google, Facebook, or Youtube. Thus using the number of in-links to a Web page as a measure of the page’s popularity. Alternatively you could count the number of hash tags for a certain topic on twitter.

Now let’s make a bold step and turn the whole thing upside down by asking: Can we get new insights in the social behaviour of ants by studying popular trends on social media? I think the answer is yes.

It would be the first case where humans would serve as an “animal model” for another species ;-).


"Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television."


Lewis Thomas

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