Consider the Albatross: Foraging and Activity Feeds

A is for Albatross by Chick Family Ink on Etsy

I came across this post on Quora on “Lévy-flight personalization” and optimizing Quora’s activity feed for novelty-seeking users. Its inspiration is the albatross, a long-range ocean forager that’s larger than you think.

Lévy flights are seen in the behavior of many animals. It’s the pattern that emerges when an animal darts around randomly in one area foraging for food (exhibiting Brownian motion) then, once they feel they’ve used up all the likely food sources, heads off in a random direction to a brand new area, and forages there. In the case of the albatross, that leap to a new area can mean a flight in a straight line across an ocean. Lévy flights are “random movements that can maximize the efficiency of resource searches in uncertain environments.”

Lévy flight pattern

Seth Godin has applied Lévy flights to website usage patterns. Edwin Kite, the author of the post on Quora, notes that Lévy flights are optimal for locating resources when those resources are:

  • Randomly distributed
  • Sparse
  • Once visited, are not depleted, but remain targets for future searches

He argues that Brownian motion makes sense for activity feed usage on “campfire” social networks, like Facebook. But Quora thrives on novelty and new connections, the effects of which can be addictive. “The kind of people who could make Quora great are allergic to sameness and want intellectual challenge. They need Lévy flights.”

This is actually how I experience the Etsy activity feed.

By Katty Bouthier

Someone in my Etsy circle whose taste I like will favorite an item of interest, and I’ll head straight there and start foraging. I’ll check out the shop, then check out the admirers of the shop and their favorites, then check out the shop owner’s favorites, then check out admirers of the item and their favorites, then see which Treasury lists the item has been featured in, the admirers of a list, the list curator’s favorites and their other lists. Any one of these paths can lead across the ocean to a new area rich with resources. And I’ll leave favorites behind as clues for the people who have added me to their circles.

Etsy is a rich environment but also an uncertain one, in that you’ve never seen most of things you’re likely to encounter there in a given session. It can be a murky or overwhelming place with short sightlines, like Kite says Quora is, until you get plugged in and start receiving guidance from the right people implicitly. Etsy’s activity feed, and the clues it can provide from other foragers, can facilitate leaps to new areas and lead to transactions you weren’t planning on. This ends up being addictive.

This Lévy flight post is a good example of why I like Quora, and why I’ve been gradually getting pulled in deeper and deeper since Quora engineer Tracy Chou startled me out of lurker mode with a direct question—the site is populated with smart people offering interesting perspectives on fields outside their own, in addition to their own. In this case, a grad student studying astrophysics and working on the the early Mars climate problem has me thinking about applying bird flight patterns to activity feed design. That doesn’t happen on a lot of websites.

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