The Twitter Cellular Automaton

The magic of Twitter is in its ability to draw more and more people in with a vague promise of building their digital brand and having an audience. People are indeed drawn in en masse, and the snowball keeps rolling. This enables grand ideas like using the vast stream of Tweets for searching content on the web and zillions of other uses.

What’s the trick behind the Twitter’s success? it doesn’t really matter anymore, because it’s too late to compete with them anyway. Simplicity, celebrity founders, and luck definitely played a key role. What does matter, though, is understanding the psyche that leads people to participate. Here’s a feeble attempt at explaining that, following the Einstein Principle stating that a scientific theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.

One of the most elegant ways to explain complex systems is through cellular automata, and Twitter is turning us into a huge one indeed. As with any cellular automaton, each cell (=twitter user) acts according to a very simple set of rules. Here are the rules for the Twitter Cellular Automaton:

1) If you think you have something interesting to say, tweet.

2) If x minutes/hours passed since your last tweet (even if you don’t have anything to say), tweet.

3) If a followee tweets something that looks even remotely interesting, retweet.

4) If enough people follow somebody, follow them too.

5) If somebody follows you, follow them (or not, depending on how highly you think of yourself).

What does this say about us, the individual cells? does this degrade us to the basic animal-instinct level? I don’t think so, as you do have to be somewhat educated and eloquent to be able to use the service. Instead, it peels layers of shyness and fear and exposes our animalistic, reflexive communication skills on a grand scale – and that’s a good thing, or at least seems like one at this point.