Attentive bee colonies and social graphs

Greater variety in an audience ensures greater attentiveness to the message.

All the bees in a colony are the offspring of one mother – the queen. However, there can be as many as 20 different fathers to the 60,000 social insects. The queen leaves on her first flight out of the hive as a virgin and returns, with all the sexual experience, and sperm, she will ever need. During that one maiden flight, she will mate with many drones from various colonies- drones are the only male bees in the colony, they are stingless and useless except for their sperm and the first to get kicked out when food sources dry up.

The diversity created by having various different genetic lines inside her is an important survival attribute for the colony. Colonies with greater number of “fathers” are more resistant to disease and better able to regulate colony temperature.

Diverse colonies are also more attentive to the famed “waggle dance” of returning foragers:

Scout bees leave the colony in search of food, whether pollen or nectar, and having found some return to the hive. Upon arrival they are greeted by as yet flightless bees who take their precious cargo. The returning bee then does a dance which  indicates the position of the pollen or nectar supply in relation to the colony and the sun. This dance is accurate enough to guide bees to the exact spot where the pollen was collected up to 3 miles away.

But not every dance results in bees using the information to go foraging themselves. The enthusiasm with which the forager dances may indicate the scale of the found bounty, and a limp dance may not recruit new foragers. Interestingly, in colonies where there is only one father, the bees inside the colony are less attentive to the dance of the returning forager.

Relative strangers make for more attentive groups.

Mapping the bee colony onto the human web, where other users are pollinators who go out foraging and report back what they have found, my experience suggests diversity does the same in information streams. I am more likely to click on links from the strangers of Twitter (varied group including users I disagree with) than I am links posted on Facebook (all are in some way friends) – though there are admittedly fewer links on Facebook.

Assuming my experience is not isolated, it seems that Twitter and Facebook emphasise different aspects of a social “superorganism” like the bee. Whereas Twitter is function-oriented, Facebook is cohesion-oriented.

The group of twitter people I interact with is not too concerned with identity. We do not belong to a group other than “twitter users”. While Twitter does have some cohesion-focused functionality (favourite’s, follow back, RT), the main thing that Twitter serves for is to seek out and distill the kind of information that I am interested in. It highlights sources and tells me how to get there. People engaging eachother on Twitter are bound more by what they want to do than by who they know. They are brought together (not united for these “swarms” are temporary even if repeated) by common endeavour or interest.  Twitter encourages stranger to stranger relationships in which collaboration is the first (and perhaps last) act of relationship.

On the other hand, Facebook’s hive analogue is not the forager and waggle dance, but rather the queen’s mandible pheromone. It is this pheromone which is passed from bee to bee, holding the colony together under the joint identity of the current laying queen. Similarly, Facebook’s functionality allows us to engage is social activities that reinforce our belongingness. The goal is reinforcing identity, mutuality, friendship. There are even some bona fide queens out there, making sure they post on everyone’s wall, inviting all to their events, unconsciously putting their stamp on interactions (through the innocent act of catalysing or stimulating others to take part in FB). Collaboration in Facebook emerges from the development of relationships – you invite people to events because you already know them.

When there is identity around familiarity there is a need to maintain familiarity. The bulk of Facebook transaction is maintenance of cohesion. When identity is around activity, the action itself maintains identity. On Facebook my social graph, my colony, is determined by who I know. On Twitter its determined by what I do. In Facebook the superorganism is effectively static (add or subtract new friends from a pool), in Twitter the superorganism us flexible – whoever I am following today or whoever has tweeted a term I have searched.

Which is better for monetisation and honey? A beekeeper wouldn’t hope that his honeybees prioritised action over cohesion or vice-versa, but should prefer and encourage diversity.


Diversity of online groups not only creates attentiveness but also helps “break echo chambers“. It may be the very act of being exposed to other points of view that makes us more attentive.


In cash we trust

In cash we trust. We trust that price tags reflect all the costs we are expected to bear (bar the VAT, “optional service charge”, booking charge, luggage).

There are other costs associated with our purchases which don’t get included in the price though. These are reffered to as “externalities”. Some of these we do pay for – though not at the till – others are incurred in distant hinterlands.

Externalities are those costs, such as environmental or social impact, which are not passed on to the buyer and are generally not incurred by the vendor. This might be the cost to communities of being forcibly evicted from land to make way for rubber plantations in Cambodia. It could be the cost in lost lives as workers commit suicide rather than bear the conditions in which iPhones are made. It could be the cost of the loss of biodiversity to an ecosystem, contaminated water basins, erosion of soil as rainforests are felled to make way for cattle.

Some of these do end up becoming costs to businesses: Apple’s manufacturer Foxconn has had to install “suicide nets”, commercial cattle farmers degrade the land to the point where they have to pay to clear more land. A business case for sustainability is that negative externalities will eventually manifest as a cost to business which can be more cheaply paid now.

Our transactions largely ignore these externalities, though there are legislative and voluntary attempts to include them in the price. Carbon trading or taxing places a cost on greenhouse gas emission which companies have to pay. Certification schemes such as FairTrade, FSC and MSC invite consumers to pay a little bit more to guarantee fair wage distribution, sustainable forest and fisheries management.

But there is great difficulty in factoring in all externalities and there are many we are not even aware of yet. Ultimately this is because of the needs of transaction.

Transaction cuts out externalities on both sides. When I hand over my cash, it isn’t dripping in sweat, it doesn’t carry my hopes that this will finally be the year I get healthy, it isn’t burdened with my anxiety at buying into a product whose sustainability I am doubtful of. Cash is cash, unburdened and unattached.

So here is a suggestion. Rather than have a point of transaction which ignores externalities, we could try to blur that point of transaction, stretching it in both directions; closer to production and further into the consumer’s life.

This could be achieved by more common ownership.

Imagine a dairy farm which had shares in Tescos. At the moment the externality associated with the low cost of milk (21p to produce, farmers paid 17p) is that small dairies are going out of business, affecting livelihoods in towns and villages around the country.  The dairy could use its voice as a shareholder to argue for a fairer purchasing policy. The producer is in this way moving closer to the consumer.

Imagine now that I also have some stake in the dairy, whether financial or I visit the area occasionally for walks and have “adopted a cow”. I might be more willing to pay a bit more for my milk as I will have a better idea of the costs and needs and externalities involved in running a dairy.*

Instead of a single point of transaction, at the till, I am in a more regular relationship with the milk. I am part of the equation again not simply a cash dispenser. I am an advocate, a supporter, a campaigner, a stakeholder, whatever the actual relationship is, me and my customer externalities are part of the transaction.

In me we trust.

In us we trust.

* As supermarkets drive small dairies out of business, it seems that proposed superdairies will produce too much pollution and that the supermarkets themselves will not buy from them.


Contributor not consumer

Rachel Botsman ( @RachelBotsman) at the British Library today clearly surprised a few old business heads. Some of us will be familiar with many of the examples she mentions as part of her Collaborative Thinking chat, and certainly the trends the examples reflect.  Her contribution is to go far and wide with examples from diverse sectors (travel, automotive, music, convenience) and introducing collaboration as a method to businesses. She is a great speaker deliberately speaking the language of business. (follow twitter chat on #collcons )

One concern I had was that bringing to light of these models and ways of working might help extend the reign of incumbents who really don’t “get it”. Nike’s Run Plus is held up as an example of collaborative consumption and community creation in which buyers are “contributors not consumers”. This, she says, has increased the amount of Nike products the ex-consumers buy. The lesson here to established firms is something like improve your marketing. Other businesses that take collaboration-lite may continue their dominance of markets by carrying out arms-length collaborative marketing excercises. Important to note that at the core of this model, the contributors are contributing to brand, not company, and contributing to shareholder value.

Maybe because many of the organisations Botsman used as examples are relatively new ( TaskRabbit, AirBnB), they have not yet dealt with the next collaboration that needs to happen for a real revolution – Botsman claims that the collaborative consumption model will be a revolution on the scale of the industrial revolution. I asked whether the new collaborative platforms, which apparently refer to users as “members not customers” are also collaborative in their ownership structures – are they including their members in share offerings? For now, said Botsman of the examples she knew, they include members in decision making and in parties they throw, but their funding comes significantly from the usual places – Sequoia in the case of AirBnB ( She did mention growing cooperative movement and the excellent People’s Supermarket @TPSLondon ). So, the collaborators are still creating value for shareholders. (OR is this the point, capital collaborates with people to create conditions in which capital gets what it wants and people get what they want?)

Towards the end Botsman touched on the concern over who owns the social graph and suggests that in future we could have reputational value. Perhaps using this would be a way to include the collaborators in the ownership structure. Afterall, Facebook needs the confluence of a whole lot of dollars and a whole lot of social graphs, so why not value the social graphs as a means to give some form of ownerhsip to ex-consumers. This way they could contribute to shareholders, fellow users and derive their own value from the service.

By the way, I have a copy now of  Whats Mine is Yours – let me know if you want to borrow it.