Field of Science

Speciation in the virtual social world: Facebook vs. G+

ResearchBlogging.orgIt may just be me and the people I follow, but isn't Google+ used more for serious stuff that people want others to see, while Facebook is for whatever friends do to each other. That would make sense, I suppose, given that you can't control who follows you on G+. But does it mean that G+ and Facebook are not really competing for the same niche? Even if there are overlapping functions, as there clearly are, are the two so diverged from each other in function that they will continue to coexist side by side in this virtual sympatric habitat of the internet?

In other words, from whence they both came, are they now effectively different species?

Biological species - and by that I do not exclusively mean reproductively isolated species - may compete for many of the same resources, and yet still remain isolated from each other. This can mean that there is no gene flow between them (or rather, not enough to break down the species barrier), better known as no sex despite all the interspecies love. In the case of asexual species, it can mean that one species doesn't outcompete the other because their ecological niches are different enough that negative frequency-dependent selection saves the species that becomes scarce. I believe Facebook and G+ are asexuals, even though code may transfer horizontally between them, just as with unicellular microbes in the world of biological life. Therefore, as long as Facebook is the best at something not insignificant, and G+ is better than anyone else at some function that people really like, then it is unlikely that one will trash the other.

Niche dimensionality have an effect on speciation. Both theoretically and empirically there is mounting evidence that the more ecological niche dimensions (i.e., traits, such as ability to use a certain resource, or the service of video uploading) between diverging species, the higher the chance that the species barrier will persist (Nosil & Sandoval, 2008; Garant et al., 2007; Gerhart & Brooks, 2009). Think of the chance that two species are going to be different from each other in some essential way: the more things they can do - the higher the niche dimensionality - the more likely that they will not completely overlap in function. And the more distinct they are from each other, the higher the probability that they will not drive each other to extinction.

Negative frequency-dependent selection occurs when it is advantageous to be rare. For example, if two species overlap in the use of some resources, but also both use some resource that the other one doesn't, then when one species becomes scarce, the resource it is specialized on becomes abundant (since that species is the main consumer of it). This in turn makes that scarce species have higher fitness, because there is so much resource available to so few, and it again grows in number. On the other hand, if a new species totally covers the function of another species, then it can drive the weaker species to extinction. I wonder if this is what is happening to MySpace (which I have never used, so I am not sure what the trait overlap is between that and Facebook)? Is MySpace all but dead already?

Same question for Twitter and G+. Is there anything you can't do in G+ that Twitter can do? Couldn't G+ just has well fuel revolutions, or is there a special benefit to a 140 character limit? For mobile devices, perhaps? I do actually use Twitter (@CarnyEvolution), but am guilty of only posting - I can't see why I would go there to get updated on anything ever (but then again, I have not been involved in any revolutions lately, nor do I own a mobile device with the capability).

Mutations, changes in code that alters traits, may eventually make either G+ or Facebook better than the other at everything, and then the other should meet its end. Yesterday I was reading about the history of multi-user dungeons (MUDs), which I played for a while in the early nineties. No one plays those anymore, because they have been superseded by massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like EverQuest, which do all the same things, but adds graphics, which makes them fitter. In biology, there is plenty of empirical evidence that mutations confer higher fitness to a species (more precisely, to a population) in its current environment (i.e., adaptation), both empirically (Barrick et al., 2009) and theoretically (Østman et al., 2011).

Environmental change may eventually change this situation of hostile coexistence, if mutations don't do it first. The hardware may change again, such that some of the services offered on Facebook and G+ become obsolete. Or user preferences may change, for example by many people being really annoyed with Facebook's privacy policy, leading to massive exodus, and bankruptcy.

So, what's your prediction about the future of virtual online social media? Will G+ drive Facebook out of business by being better at everything? Note that Google does many other things that G+, so it is not likely (at all) that G+ will disappear now that it has some traction, because Google gains lots of fitness from al those other traits (search engine, RSS, maps, YouTube, email, etc.). Google really is like the rats or the cockroaches of this world: hellishly adaptable and not so easy to get rid of. Facebook, on the other hand, aka LinkedIn for teenagers, only does one thing, which is dangerous. But as long as it does this thing better than anyone else, perhaps it will be safe?


Nosil P, & Sandoval CP (2008). Ecological niche dimensionality and the evolutionary diversification of stick insects. PloS one, 3 (4) PMID: 18382680

Garant D, Kruuk LE, McCleery RH, & Sheldon BC (2007). The effects of environmental heterogeneity on multivariate selection on reproductive traits in female great tits. Evolution; international journal of organic evolution, 61 (7), 1546-59 PMID: 17598739

Gerhardt HC, & Brooks R (2009). Experimental analysis of multivariate female choice in gray treefrogs (Hyla versicolor): evidence for directional and stabilizing selection. Evolution; international journal of organic evolution, 63 (10), 2504-12 PMID: 19500145

Barrick, J., Yu, D., Yoon, S., Jeong, H., Oh, T., Schneider, D., Lenski, R., & Kim, J. (2009). Genome evolution and adaptation in a long-term experiment with Escherichia coli Nature, 461 (7268), 1243-1247 DOI: 10.1038/nature08480

Østman, B., Hintze, A., & Adami, C. (2011). Impact of epistasis and pleiotropy on evolutionary adaptation Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0870


  1. HaHaHa! I stared at the image for like 5 minutes before I started reading the post. :P Good job. Google was not very successful with their earlier attempt at getting a social network working (Orkut). G+, however, seems to have created a "buzz" (pun intended!)...

  2. Yeah I confess I was immediately drawn in by the animated image. Where's that from? I haven't seen that!

  3. Awesome.

    One can also think in terms of competitive exclusion in space (e.g., Orkut being huge in Brazil, MySpace still being big in some countries), or in time (LinkedIn for daytime, at work where Facebook is blocked, while Facebook at night-time at home when LinkedIn is boring).

    There are also other specialized niches. MySpace is big with music bands (and their fans) and with kids who are from lower socioeconomic classes and thus mostly not college-bound, while Facebook if for college-bound kids and those with college degrees (see the work by danah boyd on this).

  4. The image is from here. I have no information about the actual incident.

    Bora, it's true that spatial structure can have a huge influence of the dynamics. I am personally most interested in sympatric speciation, and assumed that for ease, but it may indeed be that some survive in overlapping niches because of "geography".


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