The Content Anthill

1. Simplifying Ants

About fifteen years ago today, we were sitting in a computer lab at university and wrote code that would become part of the behavior of simulated ants. Our task: To make the code as simple as possible to achieve emergent behavior. (Hungry and food in sight? Dig in! – Enemy in sight but hungry and alone? Run!)

We were slightly puzzled when our tutor told us to not plan for the emergence but just have it, well, emerge. He was right: The more we planned, the less the ants did what we wanted them to, some collapsing under the rules piled on their shoulders.

Then, we stripped down the code, deleted rules and roles and responsibilites, and, presto!, there it was: A beautiful column of ants, neatly arranged, dragging food to the anthill.

2. A Result of Swerves

About 20 minutes into the Radiolab episode Emergence there is a brilliant segment about how city neighborhoods seem to just emerge from out of nowhere. Says Jad Abumrad, emphasis mine,

Where does organization come from? […] How do you get the complexity of an ant colony if there is no leader and everyone in town is stupid? Steven Johnson proposes that the city is the emergent quality of the swerve.

A swerve is a seemingly random aberration – say, when you’re on your way home from work, smell a whiff of flowers around the corner and take a detour, just to find this newly emerging flower market, growing in the fertile soil of a series of little accidents. “Multiply the swerves, and you get a neighborhood,” says Robert Krulwich, and: “buried in the system, there is a rule, a system of direction.”

But — which rule? Where? And how? Researcher Deborah Gordon replies:

That’s the wrong question, and that’s what’s so uncomfortable. The instructions aren’t anywhere. The instructions come out of the way that the [ant] colony lives. And behaves.

3. Antsy Teams, Antsy Content?

Take a team that is involved in creating content, or strategizing, curating, governing: Authors, editors, strategists, pointy-haired bosses, stakeholders. Oh, wait, readers. Readers, gotta remember them, right?

So, where does your anthill end, where does the next anthill begin? What are the rules that are governing your teams? Would it be easier to leave everyone just as dumb as the ants, providing them with sets of simple if-then clauses? Or give them big, heavy rulebooks? Or maybe, hey, let’s just make it a free-range team and just see what happens when they run into each other by accident?

A courageous decision. And one you’re going to have to make.