24th September 2021

The evolution of cultural traits in interactive online environments

Thomas Franz Müller, PhD., postdoctoral researcher @ Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin

In this talk, I will present two studies of online behavior concerned with cultural evolution and the emergence of conventions.

The first study (Müller & Winters, 2018) focuses on the phenomenon that repeated transmission can result in a set of cultural traits becoming more compressible over time. Using a large-scale dataset from Reddit Place, an online collaborative art project, we investigated the evolution of compressible patterns on a 1000×1000 pixel canvas. Here, all Reddit users could select a colored pixel, place it on the canvas, and then wait for a fixed period before placing another pixel. By analyzing all 16.5 million pixel placements by over 1 million individuals, we found that compression follows a quadratic trajectory through time. From a non-structured state, where individual artworks exist relatively independently from one another, Place gradually transitions to a structured state where pixel placements form specialized, interdependent patterns.

In the second part, I will briefly present work in progress on an “unconventional Turing test”. Here, we aim to investigate humans’ ability to recognize bot impostors in an online environment that lacks the opportunity to make use of language. In particular, we are interested in whether, in a minimal environment, access to the personal interaction history of a human can make a bot impostor more deceptive. In the task, humans are presented with an empty 2D space and two simple shapes (an orange square and a blue circle). While the square is under their control, the circle is controlled by either a human partner or an impostor bot, and participants have to interact within the space to make their guess about the partner’s identity. By comparing bots that imitate behavior from either a different dyad or the own human partner, we expect the results to provide valuable insight into the emergence of communication through reciprocity and conventionality.


The meeting will take place live at Zoom at 1 pm. To participate please fill in the survey: https://forms.gle/4K1MJ7V9JW8MDKmq7 – the link to the meeting will be sent sent to the email address passed in the form.

The first part of the meeting (the lecture) will be recorded to be later uploaded to our YouTube channel. While we will only be recording the slides and speaker’s audio, we kindly ask that those of you who do not want to risk accidental sharing of your personal image turn off the cameras and turn them back on in the second part of the meeting, a discussion, which will not be recorded.