Novel Stigmergy Structures in the Internet
The Web is a vast collection of software
multicellular organisms. Novel stigmergy structures are growing in the
Internet and exerting their organizing power in new ways.
The vast messaging structure called the Internet harbors many
multicellular digital structures. More evolve every year.
Linux source code, for example, can be thought of as a software termite mound, that is,
a new kind of digital stigmergy structure.
code is organized by the “blessed” Concurrent Versions
System (CVS) repository that is under the control of the Linux “inner
circle” (Linus Torvalds, Alan Cox, etc). Clearly, the Linux CVS
code tree is both built by, and helps to organize the efforts of, the
worldwide community of Linux programmers. Classic stigmergy!
Before the Open-Source revolution, it was pretty much taken for
that large-scale, robust software had to be built by a corporation
to its success. The corporation provided a co-located stigmergy
structure of servers, programmers, buildings, marketing arms, PR flacks
and large financial resources. However, Linux, Apache, MySQL,
and OpenOffice all directly compete with key portions of Microsoft's
funded Windows monopoly. Clearly, an open, distributed software
structure offers advantages that were previously underestimated.
The Internet supports many other public stigmergy
structures that are collectively managed and used by humanity.
The entire Web is itself a distributed stigmergy structure constantly
being modified and constantly influencing the organization of the
humans and computers
that use it. The Web as a whole is a living digital stigmergy structure
a sense analogous to the Gaia
hypothesis that the entire Earth is a living biological/chemical
Examples of emergent digital stigmergy
structures in the Internet include:
- Google and other search sites -- consisting of
crawlers, databases and servers. These search sites create and maintain
meta-level stigmergy structures that adapt to the changing content of
the Web. These constantly changing structures in turn affect
both the browsing and the remodeling of the Web.
The task of keeping up-to-date metadata is massive. Google manages
their metadata stigmergy structure(s) on upwards of two million
stripped-down Linux servers organized in a multi-cellular
architecture. The distributed architecture includes apoptosis mechanisms for
identifying and removing failed servers.
- Twitter -- a case of a self-organizing system built upon a
data and communication structure. It is an organization layer based, at
initially, upon cell phone SMS text messages. Texting itself is an
proposed in 1985 over an already existing secondary low bandwidth radio
between cell-phones and cell towers that had been used only to
to phones about reception strength and to supply them with information
incoming calls. In 1985, the GSM telephony standards committee, led by
Friedhelm Hillebrand, proposed
160 character text message protocols.
Twitter is now used over the Web on media other than just cell-phone
texting. And a large searchable database of tweets has been
accumulating -- it is, in effect
the digital world's diary. It will be archived forever by the US
Library of Congress.
On April 14, 2010, @librarycongress tweeted, “Library to acquire ENTIRE
Twitter archives --
All public tweets, ever, since March 2006!” The archives are quite
processes more than 50 million tweets every day.
- MMORPGs -- Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games such
World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Second Life, and
many others are based on servers that maintain "models" (in the
Model-View-Controller sense) acting as the stigmergy structures
around which tens of thousands of online gamers organize their play.
The game model
is altered in real-time by the behavior of the players and the
player's behavior is altered by the constantly changing model. WoW has
at least 6.5 million users and claim that they have
supported over 250 thousand simultaneous users.
- Instant messaging communities (AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and others)
where the stigmergy structure is the “presence registry” that tracks
who is online at any given moment. By the act of
logging-in to an Instant Messaging community, each user deposits
information into the stigmergy structure: the IP address of the users
machine and perhaps other status information e.g., do-not-disturb.
community of friends can know that they are now accessible. People who
use instant messaging recognize how their behavior is modified by being
aware in "real time" of their friend's and colleague's online presence.
- Public databases. For example, most medical and
post-genomic bioinformatics research world-wide is completely dependent
upon public databases such as GenBank, PDB, Pub Med, and BIND.
Most academic and/or public affairs
disciplines, where data is usually assumed to be a public good, have
similar sorts of communities organized around major databases.
These databases, are stigmergy
structures in which the data is updated by the users and, in turn,
helps to organize the subsequent behavior of those same users.
The databases often support easy-to-use, yet sophisticated
domain-specific search functions. Social incentives, such as mandates
set granting agencies are encouraging researchers to put their new data
into these databases and most researchers focus much of their activity
around use of that public data.
VOIP and video conferencing services (e.g., Skype) are similar to the
messaging communities except that they communicate with higher
bandwidth voice or video rather than text messages. The stigmergy
includes not only a presence registry, but also may use the combined
of the users machines in a peer-to-peer model.
(P2P) file sharing networks (e.g., Gnutella, Freenet, and BitTorrent),
construct a virtual distributed stigmergy structure supported by a
constantly shifting collection of client machines with the appropriate
set of P2P message APIs. Each
participating machine makes available some files. Together they
collaborate to maintain an ever-changing distributed presence registry
that enables individual machines to search out desired files.
Music file sharing communities, together with the new end user
devices, are reshaping the way people relate to music and thus
reshaping the entire music industry.
They threaten to do the same for the movie industry.
- Blogs and Wikis are other
examples of public stigmergy
“selves.” Wikipedia, for example, is an open
encyclopedia with over 1.1 million entries in the English version that
is created and maintained by users
all over the world. It's stigmergy structure evolves
minute-by-minute, 24 hours a day, as the human "termites" add and
modify its pages. The content is supported and served by more
servers running Linux and Apache.
- Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook
help form and organize human digital social groups.
as Flikr and del.icio.us collect and organize tags for
unstructured data. Folksonomy stigmergy structures consists of
both the data
(e.g., photos or bookmarks) and the database of tags that support
search. Thus, while the data and the tags are each stigmergy
structures, their interdependence strengthens both.
Note that all of these novel communities are organized
around new stigmergy structures, i.e., new digital selves, of a sort that
didn’t exist previously. Their worldwide scope,
speed, and enablement of new kinds of interaction emerge out of the
scope, speed, and protean flexibility of the Internet. They
also typically operate in a climate that is diametrically opposed to
the tendencies corporations have to hoard and leverage secret or
Open Internet-based systems mutate and grow by the self-organizing
activity of large numbers of users that share a stigmergy structure.
mutate and evolve more rapidly than corporate IT infrastructures.
For example, P2P networks grow
organically because their infrastructure grows at the same
rate as their “customer” base. Each user contributes some
resources to the network in exchange for participating in the network.
Thus Skype, a free VOIP network, grew very rapidly in its early stages
with almost no expenditure of its own resources while the Telcos
to adapt. Similarly, public databases,
once accepted in their relevant communities, can grow much more rapidly
than can a competing proprietary database. Many a bioinformatics
company has found it impossible to provide
proprietary for-fee databases in competition with free public databases.
“humanity” is an overstatement. Only the digitally connected can
participate. But cell-phones are making inroads even in rural Africa
and smart-phones will eventuall follow.
The reach of the net is threatened, however, by attempts to balkanize
Internet into censored and controlled subnets, e.g., in countries such
Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.
GenBank manages DNA sequence data, PDB manages protein structure data,
manages biological and medical publications, and BIND manages
interaction data. There are hundreds of
other useful bioinformatics databases freely available on the Web.
Contact: sburbeck at mindspring.com
Last revised 6/11/2012