What being in a Facebook group where we all pretend to be ants taught me about politics

July 21, 2020

When I joined, the implied rules of the group were simple: (1) anyone can post or comment on a post, (2) the ants must ‘work together’ through comments to achieve proposed community goals, and (3) when you comment, you must speak the ant language: capital letters with spaces between each letter.

More tangibly, what this means is, if I want to build an ant tower to the moon, and need 1,000 comments of supporting ants, everyone will chip in and comment ‘B U I L D’ or something to that degree to support the mission. The closest analogy I can think of is impromptu petitioning at a micro-level. Every person, whether original creator or contributor, matters. (As an aside, we’ve seen the same collective power from individual contributions at scale in recent events: COVID-19 mask wearing, BLM, voting)

This signals not only the equalizing nature of the group, where each comment is essentially 1 vote to push a certain agenda, but also the democratic nature of the group where everyone is encouraged to participate. This is a broader theme of the Gen Z culture prevalent in apps like TikTok as well, where anyone can become famous overnight, virality as a commodity that used to be only accessible to existing celebrities.

But it gets better… in late May, the ant language upholding the group broke. A new ‘announcement’ (read: law) was passed to discourage having spaces between letters. With the number of members in the group reaching upwards of 1 million, people with text accessibility enabled on their phones were not able to participate as much due to incompatible screens.

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While good intentioned, this was actually when I noticed less commenting and participation, perhaps due to lack in coherence. In fact, this was one of Plato’s criticisms about democracy – how democracies can actually become too democratic, even in a ridiculous environment like a Facebook group where people pretend to be ants: the epitome of a low-stakes and ego-less environment. However, in the real world, I could totally see people factioning off into new groups to preserve the original / traditional culture if they cared enough.

It’s fascinating to watch how this ‘regulation’ or tangible labeling of something intangible (an implied language / embedded culture) impacts behavior over time. I’ve seen the proportions of people commenting with the original language from spaces evolve from 80% (in May: met with initial resistance), 50% (in June: tipping point of inertia / majority of those who now conform), to about 20% (currently in July: mostly transformed to a new culture).

Perhaps, soon it will be completely without spaces, or perhaps, there will always be remnants of the old language co-existing peacefully in tandem. While the language originally started off as the running inside joke of the group that created the culture to begin with, it’s cool to witness its transition from one kind of homogeneity to another kind, while still maintaining elements of the collective culture, like the small-scale petitioning efforts.

Still, I am impressed by how this group emerged out of nowhere so quickly -which is likely the reason why culture was able to evolve so quickly. I’m surprised that it already larger than Dogspotting, the OG dog pics group.
>> To give some point of reference, the Dogspotting group was created in Feb 2008 (personally I have been in this group for more than a decade, with ~400 friends out of 1.76M total members).
>> The ant colony facebook group was created in June 2019, with 1.92M members, which is more than 5.5x the current population of Iceland.

ANTditional thoughts
>> Group coherence is based off of shared language and beyond language, originating first from shared values (which establish the foundation of communication), which informs culture → goals → customs → coherence → which then feeds back into values. Structure could let us feel coherent in an environment, but doesn’t always feel safe or allow for fluid creativity.