Wikipedia, Ants and Stigmergy

herring swarm

Swarming herring

I like to discover new words, new fields of study - new things in general. My new one for today is STIGMERGY. According to Wikipedia (an apt source or the definition, as I will explain) is stigmergy is a "mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions.” That is not a very clear definition.

The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities. Those activities cover a wide area: social insects, social media, robotics, web communities, and the wider human society.

One principle of stigmergy is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. This can explain the way an ant colony operates. It can also explain how Wikipedia articles are created and changed.

Social insects, like ants and bees, have long been a model of collaboration. Global knowledge sharing through asynchronous collaboration is a newer example. I believe I may have heard this word a or concept more than a decade ago when "Web 2.0" was a new and much-talked-about idea. Now, I hardly ever hear Web 2.0 mentioned - and that's not because we got past it and into Web 3.0.

The word is not all that new. It was coined in 1959 by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in reference to termite behavior, from the Ancient Greek stigma, "mark”, “sign" + ergon "work”, “action."

You might hear the word used in a conversation about swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial and it is employed in work on artificial intelligence and applications such as cellular robotic systems. It has been studied in the natural world in ant colonies, bird flocking, hawks hunting, animal herding, bacterial growth, fish schooling and the somewhat scary world of microbial intelligence.

The World-Wide Web is the first stigmergic communication medium for humans. The earlier telephone and even email don't count as stigmergic communication since they are only readable by the people on either end. Stigmergic communication means the messages are readable by everyone. And radio and TV don't fit the definition because they are read-only mediums for most people (until the Web emerges and the read/write of Web 2.0 takes hold). 

Wikipedia with its millions of contributors is an example of stigmergy. Its editors are a good example of how these traces of articles and edits left in the wiki environment stimulate the performance of a next action, by the same person or a different person(s).

I discovered (or possibly rediscovered) stigmergy from an episode of the podcast with guests Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Clint Penick, an ant researcher and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University.


"Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components" 


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