Is Twitter a Complex Adaptive System?

November 19 2009 / by VenessaMiemis
Category: Information   Year: 2009   Rating: 2

cross-posted from

I've seen a bunch of posts bubble up over the past few days that are really sparking my curiousity about what is really going on with Twitter, so I need to do a little brain dump. Bear with me.


Insight #1

An article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter was just published today on the Harvard Business Review website, titled On Twitter and in the Workplace, It's Power to the Connectors. In it, she highlights the fact that there is an organizational trend moving away from the hierarchical networks of the 20th century, and towards complex, distributed, non-hierarchical structures of business organization and leadership. She also points out that success today is based on a person's ability to leverage power and influence within their social networks, to act as "connectors" between people and information, and in turn build social capital. She leaves the evaluation of the significance of Twitter open-ended, but she lays out a few characteristics of Twitter that I found most interesting:

In the World According to Twitter, giving away access to information rewards the giver by building followers. The more followers, the more information comes to the giver to distribute, which in turn builds more followers. The process cannot be commanded or controlled; followers opt in and out as they choose. The results are transparent and purely quantitative; network size is all that matters. Networks of this sort are self-organizing and democratic but without any collective interaction.

(just keep those points in mind, I'm going to come back to it)

Insight #2 

Also published today over on Stowe Boyd's blog, /Message, was a post titled The Rise Of Networks, The End Of Process. He makes a case for the abandonment of worn out systems of industrial management thinking, and a move towards a social way of structuring work. He points out that the explosion of the social web is allowing us to connect with others in a previously impossible way, and the ability it's giving us to share information and ideas is actually reforming our learning process and the way we think:

People are thronging on social sites like Facebook and Twitter because they are a straightforward way to stay connected with others, and this in turn shapes our worldview.

This same sentiment was also hit upon by JR Johnson on mashable in the post Social Media can Change the World through Common Ground. He also points out that as we are awakening to the power of this interaction on the web, the most progressive companies and individuals are the ones actively creating new business models around this information, hybrids that combine existing frameworks with new social models.

From a social viewpoint, the architecture of business seems all wrong.

It's becoming clear that to constrict a person's capabilities into rigid, set roles that limit creativity and innovation just doesn't make sense. Diving talent into silos is an outdated paradigm. Rather, we should be encouraging the facilitation of diverse groups of people working together on common problems. I touched on the potential power of this in a previous post, "The Future of Collaboration Begins with Visualizing Human Capital." I think his points completely validate the need for a new approach to thinking in general, which is exactly what I'm outlining in my 'metathinking manifesto'. 

Insight #3

Wim Rampen is also noticing a trend, with yesterday's post, Connecting the Dots, referencing Graham Hill's recent post, A Manifesto for Social Business, and Mitch Lieberman's post Social Just is..., both acknowledging the power of customer networks, looked at through the lens of Social Business. Hill laid out fifteen trends shaping the future of business, which clearly outline the fundamental shift underway:

I would almost go as far to say that we are fast approaching a period of ‘Business Enlightenment', based not so much on the linear thinking that drove the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, as on networked, emergent thinking which is driving so much new thinking in the 21st.

Everyone is catching on - Lieberman's post also references Esteban Kolsky's new 5 part series on the Roadmap to Social CRM, an in-depth series of blog posts that outlines how to develop a Social Business strategy. 

Insight #4 

Here's where things get interesting. From a learning standpoint, there is proof emerging that using Twitter builds intelligence. A study revealed these benefits:

All of the study participants were new to Twitter and had not previously used it or any similar microblogging service.....In a relatively short period of time, the participants formed quite sophisticated peer networks.....Peer support became a key feature of this student network, with activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or during revision for exams. Content analysis of the messages indicated clear evidence of the emergence of personal learning networks.....Twitter is also very attractive as a data collection tool for assessing and recording the student experience, with a wide range of free and increasingly sophisticated online analysis tools available.


At the surface level, one could look at this information and agree that yes, social networks, and specifically the real-time network of Twitter, enable people to communicate and collaborate on new levels. I think there's something deeper happening. I've been reading about complex adaptive systems lately, and many of its key properties seem strikingly similar to what's occurring on Twitter:

  • Emergence: Rather than being planned or controlled the agents in the system interact in apparently random ways. From all these interactions patterns emerge which informs the behaviour of the agents within the system and the behaviour of the system itself.
  • Co-evolution: All systems exist within their own environment and they are also part of that environment. Therefore, as their environment changes they need to change to ensure best fit.
  • Requisite Variety: The greater the variety within the system the stronger it is. In fact ambiguity and paradox abound in complex adaptive systems which use contradictions to create new possibilities to co-evolve with their environment.
  • Connectivity: The ways in which the agents in a system connect and relate to one another is critical to the survival of the system, because it is from these connections that the patterns are formed and the feedback disseminated. The relationships between the agents are generally more important than the agents themselves.
  • Simple Rules: Complex adaptive systems are not complicated. The emerging patterns may have a rich variety, but like a kaleidoscope the rules governing the function of the system are quite simple
  • Iteration: Small changes in the initial conditions of the system can have significant effects after they have passed through the emergence - feedback loop a few times (often referred to as the butterfly effect)
  • Self Organising: There is no hierarchy of command and control in a complex adaptive system. There is no planning or managing, but there is a constant re-organising to find the best fit with the environment.
  • Edge of Chaos: Complexity theory is not the same as chaos theory, which is derived from mathematics. But chaos does have a place in complexity theory in that systems exist on a spectrum ranging from equilibrium to chaos. A system in equilibrium does not have the internal dynamics to enable it to respond to its environment and will slowly (or quickly) die. A system in chaos ceases to function as a system. The most productive state to be in is at the edge of chaos where there is maximum variety and creativity, leading to new possibilities.
  • Nested Systems: Most systems are nested within other systems and many systems are systems of smaller systems.
Complex adaptive systems are all around us. Most things we take for granted are complex adaptive systems, and the agents in every system exist and behave in total ignorance of the concept but that does not impede their contribution to the system. Complex Adaptive Systems are a model for thinking about the world around us not a model for predicting what will happen. I have found that in nearly all situations I can view what is happening in Complex Adaptive Systems terms and that this opens up a variety of new options which give me more choice and more freedom.

Is this perhaps the framework that we've all been hitting upon without realizing it? Many people have been sensing there is something special about the way we're able to access and exchange information and ideas on Twitter, organize into Twibes and niche groups to tackle problems together, and develop strategies (like using lists and separate accounts) to filter out the content that matters most to us.Final question: Is Twitter not a social media platform, but an actual entity, an intelligence made up of all of us?


further thoughts: If you have room for one more idea to provide another context, consider yesterday's post by Tim O'Reilly on The War For the Web. If we start to experience real, measurable collective benefits from our ability to leverage the intelligence of the real-time web, will it be exploited, or will we ensure a system that keep our information and knowledge flows open source? 

sources of the thoughtstream: I would also highly suggest taking a look through Pierre Levy's slideshare on Collective Intelligence & Cyberspace, which I found on Victor Godot's site

Insights from the Twittersphere

@SmartStorming Innovation is really a game of connect-the-dots. Try combining two or more seemingly unrelated things in a new way that creates value.
@spikenlilli Halpern: "How does one learn to see?" "Make associations between data points" - relational, generative, gestalt, anticipatory design #IPF09
@Innovation360 Can innovation be systematized?
@acarvin Hargadon: social media can unleash our latent creativity. #ncti2009
@WebStudio13 RT @craignewmark - RT @AlecJRoss: “The more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes.” via @ariannahuff

People referenced in this post 

Rosabeth Kanter @RosabethKanter

Stowe Boyd @stoweboyd

mashable @mashable

Wim Rampen @wimrampen

Graham Hill @grahamhill

Mitch Lieberman @mjayliebs

Estaban Kolsky @ekolsky

Tim O'Reilly @timoreilly

Victor Godot @victorgodot 

This post made possible by:

@SameerPatel - RT'd @stoweboyd's article

@SocialNetDaily - RT'd @AnneDGallager @HarvardBiz @KellySpors to @RosabethKanter's article

@Wildcat2030 - RT'd @UniofLeics @TheHistoryWoman @timeshighered to Twitter in academia study

@emahlee - RT'd @anildash to @timoreilly's article

@phaloo - tweeted @mashable article

@ekolsky - tweeted Roadmap to Social CRM article

note: I'm going to try as often as possible to reference posts in this way, because I think it's a good illustration of how thoughts and ideas are developing as a result of distributed knowledge, and it's easier for me to follow my own train of thought. I saw all of these posts within the last 48 hours in my twitterstream.... I don't know that I would have come up with this by reading RSS feeds or by using other news sites.


Comment Thread (3 Responses)

  1. Nice post! Short answer: Yes, Twitter is most definitely a complex adaptive system, which is build on top of another one called the Internet, which is in turn build on another called the telecommunications grid. As you said, they nest and they are everywhere.

    Thanks for visiting my blog, btw. It seems we share many of the same conclusions.

    Posted by: ESivan   December 23, 2009
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  2. Hmm I don’t think so. Instead of focusing on the big picture I think these social networks are mostly a microcosm for idle chatter and pointless self-aggrandization. It may be personally satisfying if, lets say, your youtube video gets 1 million views. But when that is not tied to any real result it is just a number on a page, and generally that is the case with most of these systems.

    Not to discount the multi point list above about complex adaptive systems. However one might say that about a major city, with its pipes, roads, sidewalks, stores, and neatly carved out living untis. Zoom in to a busy market. All these shopkeepers show up, smile at prospective customers who happen to be standing nearby, post signs for specials of the week. And meanwhile the paths get worn down from where the shoppers walk the most. At the end of the day the market closes and everyone goes home.

    Its more of an understood phenomenon than an collective intelligence. This is how individuals behave in a group. On the internet, individuals are pushing around electrons much the same way they might move around cars, bikes, a pen to write a note, a brush to paint on a canvas. It is an extension of the human interactive process.

    It gives us access to more information, sure. But the social aspect is more of an enjoyable angle that provides emotional context to the experience of being alone at a computing device.

    Posted by: michael2343   January 01, 2010
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