Charles Darwin has always been a hero of mine (I was a science geek before I became a tech geek), so it seems fitting to post something relevant to his work on the great man’s 200th birthday. So, here’s a quick take on how natural selection could apply to Twitter.

In The Origin of Species, Darwin defined the characteristics of the environment that enable natural selection to drive evolution. With a little imagination, we can find similar processes at work in Twitter.

Excess production: Just as far more organisms are born than go on to reproduce, so far more tweets are written than are ever read.

Variation: Although a tweet is only 140 characters, that’s more than enough to allow for an almost infinite variation in meaning (phenotype). Many tweets are trivial and go unnoticed, but some have certain traits that mean they get attention.

Competition: Each tweet must compete to be heard amongst the noise of so many others. As most of us can only follow a limited number of people and read limited number of tweets, we tend to be selective in what we read.

Selection: A tweet with traits that are well suited to their environment – that is appeal to the followers of the person that created it – are successful. They get read. Successful tweets give feedback to the person that created it in the form of@replies, clicks on links, retweets and new followers. As a result, subsequent tweets are more likely to have similar traits, allowing for cumalative selection. Unlike the genetic world where we have to swap DNA to pass on traits, in the Twittersphere traits can be adopted and spread quickly through cultural evolution (e.g. #hashtags).

Time: I’m sure I’m not alone in spending what seems to be an enormous amount of time on Twitter. If we extrapolate from (Stephen) Fry’s Law of Digital Time, a second in twitter could equate to years in the real world, so there’s ample time for selection to operate.

Changing environment: Traits that are successful now almost certainly won’t be in the future, so remember, it’s not the strongest or most intelligent that survive, it is those that are the most adaptable to change.

And if you want to know what the great man would make of this, or anything else, you could always follow Charles Darwin on Twitter.

Disclaimer: Unlike Darwin’s work, this post wasn’t informed by years of painstaking observation and reflection. Nor did I face the anguish of sharing a great truth despite it undermining my own beliefs. But then, that’s what made Darwin a truely great scientist and me an ex-scientist who writes stuff like this!

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