Analyzing online communication as ecological systems

April 23, 2021

An international team of scientists including researchers from IFISC (UIB-CSIC) has published a study in which they analyze online communication systems from the point of view of ecology. The article, published in Nature Communications, proposes a model in which the struggle for visibility among users causes changes in the architecture of the communication network, making it evolve into self-similar and nested structures. To do so, they posed a theoretical model of information propagation that was then validated by comparing the dynamics proposed by the researchers with real data covering several events, ranging from the national elections in Spain to the earthquake in Nepal in 2015”

We live in the information age in which, in the context of online communication, a huge amount of small pieces of information are constantly being produced, manipulated and disseminated. This, added to the fact that human cognitive abilities are limited, leads to a cognitive bottleneck that ends up generating a fierce competition among information to be visible.

In this context, where actors are both senders and receivers of information, communication can be understood as a competitive network in which mechanisms historically applied to ecology (such as mutualism or adaptation) are responsible for its evolution. To analyze the structure of online communication networks and how they change over time, the researchers measured mainly two parameters: modularity and nestedness. While the former accounts for how many separate subgroups exist, the latter analyzes how subdivided and hierarchical the information is.

The researchers found, on the one hand, that a high level of modularity corresponds to a fragmented attention scenario in which users focus mainly on their own topics of interest, a certain subset of hashtags (keywords that tag the content), facilitating the emergence of identifiable blocks. On the other hand, they observed that high nesting values lead to a self-organization of the system to cater to one or few topics. In these cases, communications revolve around a small set of hashtags and generalist users, with very active individuals participating in many facets of the discussion.

The study opens up new possibilities in the analysis of human online communications using powerful tools well known and used in the field of ecology. This will make it possible to apply models and strategies that allow, for example, to break the dynamics of false information expansion or extreme polarization.


Palazzi, MJ, Solé Ribalta, A., Calleja Solanas, V. (et al.) (2021). An ecological approach to structural flexibility in online communication systems. Nat Commun 12, 1941.


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