What songbirds could teach us about constructive tweeting


What mechanisms allow birdsong cultures to accumulate, instead of collapsing into either high conformity or chaos? In the lab, the emergence of song culture can be studied by establishing a new songbird colony, starting with an isolated bird that never had an opportunity to learn a song from an adult tutor. This new song will be abnormal: isolated songs are often not even recognisable as belonging to the species. Juvenile birds, however, will readily imitate the abnormal song of their isolated colony founder, as will their offspring. But with each generation, the songs become slightly more similar to the typical species ‘format’, and within four generations a culture of wild-type songs will emerge de novo. This is because birds have an innate sense of aesthetics: while imitating a song, the bird modifies it a little to make it sound ‘right’.

An app that uses Instagram to find lobbyists.

An app that uses Instagram to find lobbyists.

This week, Justin Elliott wrote about new House Financial Services Committee chairman Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) attending a weekend getaway with banking industry officials.

One of the ways he found out who was at the getaway was by using the Instagram photo sharing service, which turned up a snowy snapshot taken by Len Wolfson, a lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association (which had contributed to Hensarling’s PAC). Wolfson has since set his account to private.

The Instagram site has no search function, so finding shots like this can take a lot of digging. However, Instagram has an API with a “Media Search” endpoint that returns data both by timeframe and distance from a certain latitude and longitude — a perfect way to see who’s at a certain place at a certain time.