Brow Beat

A Biologist Explains Why She and 1.8 Million Others Are Role-Playing as Ants on Facebook

Membership has skyrocketed as the locked-down flock to the virtual ant colony.

Facebook page of an ant
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash.

For many people around the world, everyday life—working, shopping, exercise, entertainment, even connecting with loved ones—now takes place on a screen. Some of the activities that have gone virtual would have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago, like attending funerals and graduation ceremonies, teaching elementary school, hosting television shows, and, recently, pretending to be ants.

Since early March, a private Facebook group titled simply “A group where we all pretend to be ants in an ant colony” has attracted more than 1.8 million members. The premise is as bizarre as it is self-explanatory: People join the group and act like ants. That’s it. That’s the whole idea. Originally founded in June 2019, the group had a modest following until social distancing rules went into effect earlier this year, sending the numbers skyrocketing. Once accepted by the moderators, users role-play as ants in a variety of ways, posting from the imagined perspective of members of a vast and collaborative colony. Most of those posts consist of images of food with captions like “help me bring this to The Queen!” to which other users comment “LIFT” or “HELP.” Others include calls for assistance in “TUNNEL #75642” and announcements that “someone just peed on my whole family.”

For a scientific perspective on this strange and strangely wholesome corner of the internet, Slate spoke to Allison Cohen, a biologist and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco—and a member of the virtual ant colony herself. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Slate: How did you first hear about the Facebook group?

Allison Cohen: I want to say it was a week into quarantine. The lab had recently closed, and, like most people, I was at home talking to all of my colleagues on the internet. Our watercooler conversation had all gone digital, and we’d been sending a lot of memes and jokes to one another on Slack. One day, one of my lab mates slacked me a link to this Facebook group, and that was when it all started.

Why did you join?

Well, at first I was very confused. But I was quite curious, so I applied, and, once the moderators let me in, it turned out to be surprisingly wholesome and fascinating and fun and low-risk. I usually stay off of Facebook, honestly. I don’t post a whole lot. I’m a little bit afraid of the internet. Maybe you can relate to that, as a reporter. The nice thing is that you’re anonymous because you’re in this … colony … right? So whatever comment you make on anything, nobody can really jump on you personally.

What kind of research do you do?

I am a biologist, but I study mostly fungus. The lab I work in studies a particular kind of fungal infection, a fungus you can inhale that can make you sick. Our labs have been shut down for a little while now, and I recently started volunteering to test COVID samples.

How does the group’s role-play compare to what you know about actual ant behavior? Is it similar at all?

I don’t know a ton about ants, but my understanding is that they do communicate with one another to make collective decisions. This kind of insect behavior is a really cool area of biology right now. There are actually some great ant science articles on the group page that link to studies about the division of labor within colonies between forager ants and soldier ants. So I guess in that way it’s similar.

How do you participate in the group?

I’m mostly just a viewer and an occasional commenter. I haven’t posted anything. I also think, as it has gotten bigger, some bad behavior has begun to crop up. The world has started seeping in. The moderators are trying to control it, but it has gotten a little too big, I think. It’s out of hand. I have begun to see posts about coronavirus and Trump, which is against the rules technically, and it’s also just a bummer. That’s just not something I want to deal with right now.

How often would you say you check the group?

It has kinda taken up my Facebook feed. There are hundreds of posts every day, and each one gets thousands of comments and likes and responses, so I’m sort of flooded by it.  I probably look at it—and this is a hard thing to admit—at least once or twice a day.

What are the most memorable things you have seen on the page?

I have been really into the scientific articles. There was one where researchers were tracking the movement of ants in a colony, and they found that there is one subset of ants that doesn’t seem to be working all that much, and then another subset of ants that seems to be working a lot. So there was a pretty funny thread about that, with people really railing on the lazy ants.

Also, as a mycologist, I’ve always been really fascinated by the Cordyceps fungus, also known as the “zombie fungus,” which infects ants and changes their behavior in a way that favors the fungus. There are direct parallels here to infectious diseases in mammals. For example, the rabies virus is able to completely change the behavior of its hosts to favor transfer of virus in saliva, the parasite Toxoplasma seems to make mice less afraid of predators, and I’ve been seeing a lot of work lately suggesting that the microbes living in our gut can change our behavior. Scientists are only beginning to understand these phenomena. Also, the behavioral infection control practices of ants are really sophisticated, and it’s hard not to draw parallels between those behaviors and what we’re trying to do to stop the spread of COVID-19.

I know explicitly mentioning politics and COVID-19 is against the rules of the group, but do you feel like allusions to the real human world are present?

Oh, God, yes. Despite the rules, it still is pretty explicit. There have been some “essential worker” comments that have cropped up. And some references to communism, which, if you had to pick a political system for ants, it would probably be some sort of communist dictatorship.

Are you into the political stuff, or would you prefer it to be … just ants?

I would prefer just ants. I’m really just here for the ants. Though I will say I enjoy making puns every once in a while, which I guess qualifies as a human activity. There are a lot of ant puns. I just don’t like it when it gets too serious.

What’s an example of an ant pun?

Ulysses S. GrANT. ObamANT. ANTmanuel Macron.

Why do you think the group has become so popular?

Well, I can’t speak to anyone else’s reason for being there, but for me it’s kind of a release. It’s a break from all the serious and upsetting conversations taking place on the internet, on Facebook and other places. Especially right now. For me it is pure escapism.

I can understand that. But … why ants?

I have no idea. I mean, ants are really cool. Plus, ants are accessible. They’re everywhere. As a scientist, I have always been into ants. And I think the weird experiment in collective action is really interesting right now. Also, the group has really developed its own little culture now. It has also developed this whole weird linguistic style. Everyone writes in all-caps and with spaces between the letters, which is something I haven’t seen anywhere else on the internet. I’m guessing it is sort of a founder effect. Like, the first couple members started doing that, and then it caught on. Seeing how this little microcosm develops and changes is, to me, sort of endlessly fascinating.

While it’s clear that the group is a joke and many of the posts are quite funny, it seems to be more than that, too. For the most part, the people engaging with it are very earnest and committed to maintaining the game.

Yeah, I think everyone is just really burnt out on bad news right now. And burnt out on news in general. The internet and social media can be so manipulative. I think people, especially people of younger generations, are so used to everything on the internet having some agenda or marketing campaign or political fuel behind it. We are used to the toxicity and the fighting. And so what is so great and refreshing about this group is that it’s just simple and pure. It’s just ants.