Coronavirus: The externalities of viral incivility online

“+ = Love”: Hawke street, West Melbourne, photographed by Dean Kyte.
Sign of the times: A cryptic equation appears in the sky over West Melbourne.

In my ongoing analysis of the Coronavirus situation here on The Melbourne Flâneur, today I lay out for you the next conceptual block in the argument I began to advance in my first post on this crisis.

Last week, I introduced you to the concept of ‘networkcentricity’, particularly as it relates, at a metaphysical level, to a new experience of the conditions of life in the 21st century.

La grille’, as M. Foucault calls it, has revealed a new way of regarding life and the world.  The Internet, as a cultural product, is the most visible metaphor of what we sense, in this century, to be the underlying structure of nature, of human relations, and of the artificial systems that human beings create: the network.

All the escalating problems we have faced in this century across every domain, culminating in the Coronavirus, have been particular variations on a single, general theme:  How do we evolve from a complicated, linear, ‘process-based’ view of life to the complex, non-linear, ‘network-centric’ vision of life which we feel, at a deep somatic level, to be a more accurate model of reality?

In my previous post, I put this ‘soul-problem’ for post-Faustian man in more concrete terms: all the environmental, social, political, economic, geo-political problems we have faced since September 11, 2001 may be summarized as the conscious need to come to fundamental grips, both at an individual and collective level, with the understanding of how exponential curves interact geometrically with complex, adaptive, networked systems.

In that post, I stated that the prevailing paradigm of ‘business as usual’ was predicated on a linear, arithmetic systems model called ‘Scientific Management’, an industrial and military approach to systems which was templated for global use after World War II.

Scientific Management, as a linear, process-based model of systems, is complicated but not complex: it assumes that life moves in a gently curving arc of infinite progress, with only slight, manageable disruptions, so that when unexpected, thoroughly disruptive exponential events such as the Coronavirus occur, the centralized, pyramidal structures of Scientific Management fail spectacularly because they are optimized for efficiency in predictable circumstances rather than for resilience in exceptional circumstances.

Moreover, Scientific Management assumes that the human agents who compose these linearly-organized pyramidal structures are more or less ‘fixed’ within a hierarchy: progression up or down the pyramid is possible, but only along restricted lines of process.

The Internet, as our quintessential cultural product in the 21st century, does not resemble this mechanical model of the world.  And social media, the second-generation child of the Internet, resembles it even less.

In my second post on the Coronavirus, I stated that the exponential spread of this virus around the world could be directly attributed to restrictions on freedom of speech in China.  The doctors who initially discovered the Coronavirus networked their collective cognitive resources online.  The vector along which human beings communicate their thoughts to one another is human language, and the Chinese government’s restriction of these doctors’ ability to freely communicate with one another in the early hours of this crisis facilitated the exponential curve of existential crisis we are now travelling on.

It is more than ironic, it is in deep morphological accord with the nature of this world-historical problem that the Coronavirus, as the most visible symbol of it, should have originated in the nation with the most repressive attitude towards free speech.  The Chinese have given the decadent West an incontrovertible case study of how the diminishment of the West’s most cherished value leads ultimately—and very quickly—to massive mortality and civilizational collapse.

The semantic games which the body politic of western nations have played with the issue of free speech on social media could only be played in conditions where the exponential metastasis leading to massive mortality and civilizational collapse is not consciously apparent to the players.

This toying with the ‘right to express oneself’ is part of what I called, in my second post, the ‘abuse’ of the privilege of free speech.  It is notable that this abuse is most egregiously committed by those who utilize their privilege instrumentally in order to destroy free speech as a value.

But abuse of the privilege is more generalized than that.

With the Coronavirus crisis, we find ourselves palpably confronted with the cusp of two paradigms.  The decentralized, horizontal peer-to-peer network we want—and need—to evolve to as a species is operating under the hampering restrictions of the centralized, hierarchical paradigm of Scientific Management.

Instead of geometrically enhancing our collective cognitive capacity to make sense of the brave new world of the 21st century, our quintessential cultural product, which was developed with the intention of horizontally networking minds, is forced to operate under the assumptions of the Scientific Managerial mindset, which limits peer-to-peer communication in favour of top-down broadcast.

And because, under the extractive assumptions of Scientific Management, every actor in the network is jockeying to be at the top of the hierarchy, broadcasting his views to the network at large so as to centralize attention to himself, the Internet is polluted by egregious abuses of the right to express oneself.

The broadcast mindset of the Scientific Managerial paradigm economically rewards the centralization of attention to oneself (and thus the extraction of cognitive resources from the commons) in a multi-polar arms race of escalating bile, banality and abuse.

Rather than putting us in a position to make good sense of this crisis, our quintessential cultural product, hobbled and hampered by a moribund paradigm which restricts its efficacy, has, instead of geometrically networking minds, geometrically facilitated the pollution of disinformation, misinformation, and information which not everyone in the network needs to know, broadcasting these ‘externalities’ into the ecology of our collective sensemaking environment.

Web 2.0, the ‘Social Web’, the network of social networks, has facilitated this pollution.  The danger which attends the universal right to the free expression of thought—a danger which can never be satisfactorily counterbalanced—is that actors will abuse their privilege by virally disseminating disinformation and misinformation, or by broadcasting information which is not ‘in the public interest’ of the collective—or by speaking uncivilly to one another.

Just as in our physical environment, there are ‘externalities’ which are displaced and deferred to the cognitive commons when agents who are act extractively under the Faustian, Scientific Managerial mindset pollute the virtual environment of collective sensemaking in order to mine a derivative profit from it which they centralize to themselves.

Privatizing the profit, they socialize the cognitive cost of what I call ‘viral incivility’.

What makes finding a global solution to the Coronavirus crisis—and to all the other n-th order infinite impact risks which it has set in train—more difficult is that the exponential curve of the virus in our polluted real environment is matched by the exponential curve of poor collective sensemaking in our equally polluted virtual environment.

And the vector along which pollution in the collective sensemaking environment travels and is externalized to the cognitive commons is the vector of free speech.

When free speech is abused by individuals availing themselves of the sword of incivility, our collective ability to make sense of this crisis is weakened, as our willingness to communicate freely with one another, sharing ideas which may be horizontally scaled to solve this existential crisis with exponential speed, is diminished.

Human beings are neither essentially co-operative nor essentially competitive.  We ‘optimize’ our behaviour towards either co-operation or competition based on the strategies we perceive others in the social environment to be using.

In an environment of extractive value-taking, such as the one that operates under Faustian, Scientific Managerial conditions, a social strategy of competition for resources is an optimal short-term approach for an individual to take.

However, in a network-centric environment of mutual value-giving, the player who is optimized to compete by extractively centralizing common resources to himself will find himself outnumbered by co-operative, collaborative players who endogenously censure him.

In 2016, Antoci, Delfino, Paglieri, Panebianco, and Sabatini published the article “Civility vs. Incivility in Online Social Interactions: An Evolutionary Approach”.  The researchers designed a game whereby players could choose to behave civilly (strategy P) in face-to-face and online interactions with others, uncivilly (strategy H), or could choose to ‘opt out’ of online interactions completely and keep their face-to-face interactions with other players to an absolute minimum (strategy N).

Antoci and his colleagues found that if the number of trolls who only meet other trolls in the social environment is less than the number of civil players who only meet trolls, then the social network optimizes towards a strategy of civility.

The researchers conjectured that this is because trolls have an ‘aversive reaction’ to meeting other trolls: they get less pay-off from encountering people as uncivil as themselves, and thus seem to abandon the strategy of incivility as the social network preponderantly selects for polite interaction.

If, on the other hand, the number of civil players who only meet other civil players in the social environment is less than the number of trolls who only meet civil players, then the social network will virally optimize towards a strategy of incivility.

Trolls will get more of a pay-off under these conditions because the number of ‘victims’ upon whom they can visit the sword of incivility is greater, and the cost to civil players for interacting with the preponderant number of trolls discourages them from pursuing civility as a strategy.

But the truly interesting finding concerns the third strategy, N.  Opting out of online social networks altogether and reducing one’s face-to-face interactions with others was found by the researchers to be the optimal social strategy, despite the fact that N players received less pay-off than either civil players or trolls.

Where all players in a social network opt out of online interaction due to incivility, the researchers found that a strict Nash equilibrium is created; that is, all players know the strategies of all other players in the social network, and no individual player can gain a personal advantage by simply changing his own strategy.

But of course, what is mathematically ‘optimal’ is hardly optimal as a social strategy.  The researchers described the Nash equilibrium created by everyone choosing to opt out of online social interaction as a ‘social poverty trap’.

‘The analysis of dynamics shows that the spreading of self-protective behaviors triggered by online incivility entails undesirable results to the extent to which it leads the economy to non-socially optimal stationary states that are Pareto dominated by others,’ Antoci and his colleagues wrote.

In an economy of attention such as our collective sensemaking environment, an environmental strategy of incivility will transmit itself virally among players, with those who are most adept at wielding the sword of incivility extractively centralizing to themselves the resources of collective attention.

Not only is the ‘social capital’ of collective cognitive resources available to solve problems extracted from the network as more and more players opt out of it due to viral incivility, but the ‘social capital’ which is available to the most uncivil players, the social network of minds they can activate through influence, is extracted from the commons and privately centralized to them.

Those who are richest in bile, banality and abuse profit the most from online social networks operating under Scientific Managerial restrictions in terms of the ‘prestige’ they garner to themselves by adopting a competitive, linear approach in these non-linear, network-centric environments.

But, as Antoci et al. make clear, there is an externalized cost which these actors displace and defer to the commons, one which we all must bear as the well of collective sensemaking becomes progressively poisoned by viral incivility.

Citing the work of Fred Hirsch, these researchers noted that the preferential adoption of opting out of the network is not driven by ‘mutating tastes’.  We do not want to ‘self-isolate’ from the virus of online incivility.

As Hirsch says in his book Social Limits of Growth (1977): ‘If the environment deteriorates, for example, through dirtier air or more crowded roads, then a shift in resources to counter these “bads” does not represent a change in consumer tastes but a response, on the basis of existing tastes, to a reduction in net welfare.’

Likewise, in the reduction of net welfare which the Coronavirus has introduced into our physical environment, we are forced to massively divert economic resources to counter the externality of this ‘bad’, and to adopt ‘social distancing’, a self-defensive behaviour which is perverse to our deeply social nature as human beings.

And just as in our physical self-isolation from each other due to the Coronavirus, ‘social distancing’ from the virus of online incivility is an attempt to mitigate the externalities which have been introduced into our collective cognitive environment.

So how does this virus of online incivility, which causes us to socially distance ourselves from each other even in real life, operate?

I am going to propose a model of viral propagation in online social networks for you to consider.

There are two main models of viral propagation, the ‘threshold’ and the ‘cascade’ models.  My intuition is that, in online social networks, both models of virality are interacting.

As a node who enters an online social network, you can initially only influence your nearest neighbours, or what are called your ‘degrees’.  Your degrees are the people known to you from real life whom you link to (or forms ‘edges’ with) in the social network by sending them friend invitations, following them, or by availing yourself of the sundry other instruments which social networks offer to facilitate linkages between their users.

The sending of solicitations to others as invitations to form edges with you I am going to call ‘outgoing edges’.  Initially, you are trying to form these outgoing edges by creating linkages in the online network between yourself and the degrees you already know offline.  You are forming outgoing edges with degrees you are already ‘in sympathy with’: these are your friends and family members, people with whom you share interests, hobbies, preferences—and even biases.

And as Saurabh Mittal says in his paper “Emergence in stigmergic and complex adaptive systems: A formal discrete events systems perspective” (2013), ‘As nodes with their preferences and biases acquire links, their behavior seems to facilitate more link making, i.e. they start portraying affinity for new links’ [my emphasis].

As people accept your solicitations to form outgoing edges with them, you receive positive feedback:—who knew that you were such a ‘socially likeable person’?  The famous dopamine response kicks in and you hunt high and low for new opportunities to form outgoing edges with people further and further afield.

Within the individual economy of the node, this is the beginning of the exponential curve towards network-wide virality.

At a certain point, you will start to receive a small number of solicitations—what I shall call ‘incoming edges’—and the satisfaction of being sought after by others is even more pleasurable than the dopamine response you get from having your outgoing edge solicitations accepted.

A person who gives a fair amount of time to the exchange of edge solicitations, and to nourishing their small strong-tie network of edges, will form part of a cluster: a group of tightly connected nodes which evolve around shared interests, preferences, and biases.

Kwak, Lee, Park, and Moon found in their 2010 paper “What is Twitter, a Social Network or a News Media?” that sharing behaviour is based on a principle of homophily, whereby users share content more frequently—more virally—the more similar are their shared interests, preferences and biases.

At this stage, I am suggesting, virality is still rather a local affair.  It is assumed that civility is the dominant internal communication strategy of the cluster.  These are, after all, people who like one another and share interests, preferences and biases.  And it is at this stage of ‘local virality’ that I see the threshold model of neighbouring nodes influencing each other operating.

But for virality to occur at a network-wide level, clusters require a lot of ‘weak-tie connections’: each node in the cluster will know degrees who are outside the cluster, and who are themselves nodes in other clusters.  It is along the edges formed by weak-tie connections, the casual communications between people who know each other and are in varying degrees of sympathy with each other, that the threshold model of viral incivility has the potential to metastasize into a cascade model.

Stanley Milgram famously found that only ‘six degrees of separation’ lie between two complete strangers.  We all know people who seem to know everyone.  These people are particularly socially adroit, with above-average communication skills.  They have catholic interests and preferences, are unusually well-connected across all stratas of society, and seem to have a cognitive capacity to maintain social relationships well-above Dunbar’s Number.

These people, with anomalous numbers of edges connected to themselves, are what are called ‘hubs’, and hubs are very important in regulating the flow of information in social networks.  Indeed, without hubs, who activate the power law which underwrites the exponential virality of information flow across social networks, disparate clusters with disparate interests, preferences and biases would never join together to form a social network because the differences between them would be too great.

Hubs are the ‘social glue’ which hold large social networks together.  Being popular, they are ‘highly levelled’: that is, they have a high number of interactions with a high number of incoming edges.

And it is specifically on the pivot of the hub that I am suggesting the phase transition from threshold to cascade is activated in terms of viral incivility.

Jordan Hall, citing the work of Joseph Henrich, has observed that one of the very few hard-wired traits that human beings are born with is the habit of scanning their social environments with a view to identifying the most important people in it, the people they should pay attention to.  They do this, Hall says, by paying attention to the people whom the other people in their social environments are paying attention to.

Earlier I said that the collective sensemaking environment of Web 2.0 is an ‘economy of attention’.  What I meant to say is that it is an ‘economy of prestige’, where attention is to prestige what cents are to dollars.

We ‘pay attention’ to people online, and in so doing we give them ‘prestige’.  The thing about prestige, as Cataldi and Aufaure found in their 2015 paper “The 10 million follower fallacy: audience size does not prove domain-influence on Twitter”, is that it rarely extends beyond a certain domain of ‘expertise’.

Online, we talk of well-connected hubs as being ‘influencers’: the prestige they gain from the attention of friends and followers enables these hubs to exercise influence upon them, with long tails into their weak-tie networks.  But Cataldi and Aufaure found that the influence of hubs rarely extends beyond a domain in which they are acknowledged to be expert by their followers, and therefore have prestige.

And not only are the most influential hubs ‘highly levelled’, the domains in which they are acknowledged to be ‘expert’ are influential, and thus ‘highly levelled’.

This is the case of celebrities such as movie stars, pop musicians, and politicians: they are regarded as being ‘authoritative’ in their respective domains by the incoming edges who direct attention to them, and the credibility these hubs have with their incoming edges underwrites what I call a ‘prestige economy’—an economy of preferential attention.

However, despite their inordinate penetration into weak-tie networks, most hubs don’t have significant influence beyond their domains of prestige.

As Cataldi and Aufaure noted, when Barack Obama (who was the most influential hub in the political domain on Twitter at the time of their study) tweeted information in fields other than the strictly political, the dissimilarity of this information with the interests, preferences and biases of those edges affiliated with him because of his perceived authority in the political domain tended to restrict its virality.

However, well-positioned hubs whose influence straddles adjacent, highly-levelled domains of interest, and who thus have the attention of incoming edges across multiple domains, have the potential to activate virality at the cascade level due to their extraordinary degree of penetration into diverse weak-tie networks.

And the information which is most viral;—that is, which tends to spread the farthest fastest in social networks forced to operate under the extractive assumptions of the Scientific Managerial paradigm;—is bilious, banal, and abusive, exercising the attention of the cognitive commons in negative ways.

I am in indebted to Olivier Driessens of Ghent University for providing the next conceptual component in the model of online viral incivility I am proposing.  In his journal article “Celebrity capital: redefining celebrity using field theory” (2013), Driessens extends Pierre Bourdieu’s analyse des champs by adding a new form of ‘capital’ to Bourdieu’s taxonomy which I think is useful in understanding what I am calling the online ‘economy of prestige’.

Driessens, adapting his definition of ‘celebrity capital’ from the work of Robert van Krieken and Joshua Gamson respectively, describes it as ‘a specific kind of attention-generating capacity’ that is not reducible to Bourdieu’s concept of ‘symbolic capital’—another name for ‘distinction’, or what I am calling ‘prestige’.

According to Driessens, ‘celebrity capital finds its material basis in recurrent media representations or accumulated media visibility.’

In the model of online viral incivility I am proposing, you first gain ‘celebrity capital’ by generating large numbers of incoming edges who are in sympathy with your interests, preferences and biases.  The key driver of virality is the capacity to extractively centralize the attention of incoming edges, whose esteem hierarchically elevates you as a hub of influence.  At this stage, viral influence is local and threshold.

At the point where you become a hub, you have amassed sufficient celebrity capital within the field as to be able to convert the currency of inward attention into Bourdieu’s ‘social capital’: you now have a network of minds centralized to yourself who acknowledge your authority and prestige in a given field.

The preponderant social capital you have gained within this cluster is being disseminated to the in-group’s weak-tie network, gaining more or less attention from users with adjacent interests, preferences and biases.  To the greater or lesser degree that the information you propagate through bile, banality or abuse is similar to the interests, preferences and biases of these weak-tie nodes on the periphery, to that same extent does your local, threshold capacity to generate viral incivility have the potential to cascade exponentially throughout the entire social network.

It does so because, when a certain level of critical mass is reached, the social capital you have centralized to yourself in a Pareto distribution is again convertible into Bourdieu’s ‘symbolic capital’.  The Pareto-dominant actor has ‘distinction’ within the field: his extraordinary authority is recognized as ‘legitimate’ by those under him in the hierarchy.

But, more tellingly in this model, symbolic capital is not merely recognized as legitimate by your followers, it is legitimated when it is misrecognized by your enemies.

What do I mean by this?

If you have accrued such a Pareto-dominant following that you have acquired symbolic capital with a cluster of people sympathetic to you, the mere fact that those outside the cluster who do not regard your symbolic capital as legitimate pay you any attention at all is itself a recognition of the legitimacy of your symbolic capital.

In an attentional economy, you gain prestige even from your enemies.  If you have surfed the exponent to the extent that it has brought you to the awareness of those most dissimilar to you in their interests, preferences and biases, and who thus regard you as a threat to be watched, you are further compounding the attention you are extracting from the network.

The classic example I would adduce of just how far surfing an exponential wave of bile, banality and abuse can take an individual actor, a well-positioned hub capable of transcending fields under the model I am proposing, is the present leader of the free world.

Mr. Donald J. Trump is a hub who had celebrity capital across multiple fields—principally financial and entertainment—when he chose to run for the highest office in the land.

As a hub with an inordinate weak-tie network, he was able to convert the celebrity capital he had centralized to himself with his bilious, banal and abusive plays for attention into a huge social network of minds, many of whom were prepared to accept him as an authority in a field he had, in 2016, no legitimate pretensions to—the political.

Having centralized attention to himself, Mr. Trump had an inordinate number of clustered vectors in adjacent domains along which he could propagate bile, banality and abuse in viral surges which were capable of washing through his extraordinary weak-tie network into the social network as a whole.

Activating the social capital he had accrued by exercising his social network with cascade surges of bile, banality and abuse, Mr. Trump gained the attention of enemies who exponentially contributed to the symbolic capital he had gained with his followers.  Their refusal to recognize the legitimacy of his claims to the political field was itself a compounding recognition of the legitimacy of the symbolic capital he had gained with his followers—for his enemies invested him with the symbolic aura of a bogeyman one should pay attention to, and be legitimately fearful of.

Whatever you think of Mr. Trump, I submit his Pareto dominance on social media as the exemplar of my theory of how the externalities of online viral incivility operate under the Faustian, Scientific Managerial paradigm.

Bile, banality and abuse work.  Swap out Mr. Trump for your favourite YouTuber as an example of ‘bile’, or your favourite model on Instagram as an example of ‘banality’, and I think my theory holds.

In their review of the literature, Antoci and his colleagues found ample evidence to support the empirical observation that many social media users have made: that people—including themselves—are much more ready to behave badly online than in face-to-face interactions with others.  Experiments show that computer-mediated communication tends to make users more impulsive in responding to textual cues, more assertive—even aggressive—in their speech and writing, and quicker to abandon the civility they would ordinarily employ in face-to-face encounters.

In other words, computer-mediated communication tends to ‘disinhibit’ people.  As Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire put it in a pioneering study, ‘The overall weakening of self or normative regulation might be similar to what happens when people become less self-aware and submerged in a group, that is, deindividuated.’

I have already observed that clusters in social networks form around shared interests, preferences and biases.  The deindividuated anonymity of computer-mediated communication, the way the screen itself acts as a ‘mask’, seems to lead to a decoupling of the spiritual and somatic senses of self: in the non-corporeal space of the online cluster, people coalesce in a metastatic fashion with other disembodied avatars who, like some perverse deity, are the million amorphous faces of the ideas, opinions and ideologies which collectively, memetically possess them.

Thus you have a basis for the polarized virality we see on social media, as armed camps of decorporealized, deindividuated agents coalesce around ego-based ideas of ‘who they think they are’.

And yet the curious paradox of this process of deindividuation is that every node in the cluster of memetic possession feels itself to be an ‘authentic individual’.  Certainly, as Driessens admits, one cannot acquire celebrity capital without recognizability, the differentiated ‘well-knownness’ which comes from repeated self-representation on social media and accumulated visibility within the panoptic cluster.

Gina Gustavsson, of Uppsala University, put forth an interesting metric with which to measure how different people value individualism in her paper “The Problem of Individualism” (2007).  On the one hand, we have what Gustavsson calls ‘internal individualism’, or freedom of thought, and on the other, ‘external individualism’, or freedom of action.

In Gustavsson’s view, low internal individualism is a function of subconscious forces within the individual himself, lower ‘selves’ consisting of ‘irrational desires such as passionate love and hatred or the need I might feel to conform to others’ expectations, or to distinguish myself from others and show originality at any cost.’

This is the ‘memetic possession’ of deindividuated virality which I spoke of.  A person with low internal individualism is fettered by these memetic lower ‘selves’, which interfere with his capacity for sovereign, original, individual thought.  He is the prey of ideology, and within the cluster, individuals accrue celebrity capital from the paradoxical display of an outrageous, provocative ‘originality’ which is, in fact, deeply conformist with the interests, preferences and biases of the in-group.

With viral contagions on social media, I would contend, what you see is a deindividuated coalescence of phony ‘individuals’ clustered around charismatic hubs with whom they identify their ‘individuality’.  And these hubs, it should be mentioned, are themselves often under the memetic possession of ideology.

The lower ‘selves’ of the in-group may be provoked to reaction by out-group others in the online space, and certainly, as Antoci and his colleagues found in their survey of the literature, these lower ‘selves’ do not restrain the person low in internal individualism from behaving uncivilly online.

Interestingly, Gustavsson proposed that a person high in internal individualism, one who intrinsically values freedom of thought, will value freedom of action instrumentally, as a mechanism to safeguard his intrinsic value.  Conversely, a person high in external individualism, one who intrinsically values freedom of action, will instrumentally value the freedom to think what he likes in order to guarantee that he can do what he likes.

According to Gustavsson, those who prefer external individualism will manifest a high preference for doing, rather than thinking, whatever they like.  In the online space, if you value the right to ‘be who you are’ (or rather, who you believe yourself to be), in the prestige economy of social media, the right of free speech is instrumental to acquiring celebrity capital for the still more instrumental purpose of activating social capital in the viral dissemination of memetic representations of who you believe yourself to be.

This, of course, creates externalities in the networked commons.  The instrumental abuse of free speech, which I said, in my second post, is merely the mechanism by which free thought flows in the neural network of our cognitive commons, by virally disseminating bile, banality and abuse may privately profit the individual low in internal individualism, but it socializes a cost we all must bear.

And when, as a species, we face multiple exponential curves of existential crisis, the exponential propagation of viral incivility in our collective thinking space prevents us from leveraging the geometric capacity of our cognitive network to evolve exponentially scalable solutions.

In the face of viral incivility online, more and more of us opt out of the conversation, leaving the field to the most uncivil players to extract the most attention with bile, banality and abuse.  And thus our quintessential cultural product becomes, as Antoci and his colleagues defined it, a ‘social poverty trap’.

In their conclusions, Antoci et al. stated that ‘the government should probably enforce policies to prevent defensive self-isolating behaviours….’  Perversely, we see, in the Coronavirus crisis, governments actually enforcing policies of defensive self-isolation which lead to precisely the social poverty trap Antoci and his colleagues warned against.

Given that we cannot go out of our houses—possibly for months—due to the viral externalities in our physical environment, I hazard that we will see the viral externalities in our online social environment increase as people are thrown back upon the cognitive commons for social interaction, and that many more people will ‘opt out’ of the conversation around finding solutions to our common crises.

With social poverty traps without and social poverty traps within, the personal cost to individuals of ‘thinking publicly’ in a poisonous environment might be too great.


  1. I opted out of the social media conversation nearly five years ago, facebook that is,,,but really i havent had any profile at all save the blog for most of last 5 years (tried guardian newspaper comments section but that was worse than fb for incivility).
    so yeah dean we push away so many who have something of value to contribute to the cultural conversation.
    but i do think there’s a lesson here – something like what you mention about having the old paradigm still ruling the roost in the new. perhaps social media and the internet itself are ultimately about switching on to that other internet – the psyhco-ecological matrix. for all media is still mediated experience, ie essentially spectacular. indeed we could see it as the last act of recuperation of the spectacle: appropriating and misdirecting the growing awareness of the network-centric basis of life.
    for that is what it felt like when i quit fb especially – there was something wrong with it all – it was inauthentic at its core, that is its essential nature, the medium is the message. i knew it was a…temptation, egoic…a caricature of real writing, thought, dialogue and publication.
    all the best – thankyou for such stimulating posts x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Gav.

      I’m not sure I understand your argument, so let me try and say what I’m hearing from you, and you can tell me if I’m in the ballpark.

      It sounds like what you’re saying is that the fraudulent paradigm of artificiality which is expressed in Debord’s ‘spectacle’ finds its manifestation in excelsis as ‘the Internet’, more particularly, ‘Web 2.0’. And the viral logic of artificiality having ‘grown’ (for neither viruses nor artificiality are, by definition, really ‘alive’) to its crescendo, it exhausts itself and collapses under the weight of its own inauthenticity and parasitism.

      But there’s kind of a ‘life raft’ contained even in the ultimate expression of Faustian man’s ego-based divorce from material reality: if you don’t look too closely at it, if you adjust your eyes to one side of it, the imaginational matrix of the Internet hints at a bridge that may be crossed from our current point of peril to a safe shore whereby the networked life of the mind is more presently embedded in the networked life of nature, and the Internet is this ‘bridging tool’, an intermediate technology between this state and that.

      Is that something like what you’re saying?


      1. hey dean. what i am saying is that a true network is multiple one-one interactions. the internet initially amplified my connections to actual individuals whose work/discussion was of value to me. it was an exponential leap in learning potential – both from access to digitised resources and individuals who shared similar intellectual passions. because the early internet was a true network it had concrete results, as i mentioned in my email:g a book was published from one of my mailing lists, i was invited to conferences and made a film…all based on the connections made with like-minded individuals thru the net.
        then social media came in and co-opted the discourse. from now on the one-one connection was replaced by the one-many: each an ego appealing to a mob – demagoguery, sophistry, incivility all enter the picture here. what becomes the main driver now is not the shared dialectical adventure, but the bombast of millions saying ‘look at me’ ‘like me’…it becomes infantile.
        the spectacle recuperates, that is every time it faces a real challenge to its hegemony it finds a way to neutralise and assimilate. social media transforms the revolutionary structure and potential of the true network into a mediated ‘glass house’ where the lowest common denominator rules. facebook and all other social media are essentially passive – newsfeeds, videos, images. the spectacle is passivity.
        so the paper you referenced about getting off social media…this is in my opinion totally correct. it is a diversion from the real potential of the internet – from the establishment of valuable one-one connections with anyone from around the world.
        in this way the internet is a faithful analogue of that larger ‘net’ we are embedded in always – there is a homology there – ie we are accessing the deeper gaian matrix everytime we access the net in such a way – making valuable connections, engaging in open ended authentic dialogue.
        there is no need to invent a better social media therefore – the internet is already in its basic structure fit to the natural phenomenon of ecological interconnectedness. it is only with the advent of social media that the potential is sacrificed to the instant gratification model of the spectacle. media, whether social or traditional is mind-control. that is its raison d’etre.
        we don’t need to get ‘angry as hell’, we just need to turn off the box, and facebook and all the other spectacular diversions….then we can work with the real network, whether online or in the world at large.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks for clarifying, Gav. I understand what you’re saying now. It seems you’re making more or less the same argument I am making above, though we’re each adducing different evidence and employing different terms of art to express it, so I’m obviously very much in sympathy with what you’re saying.

          Thanks for adding another way to express this argument. I worried that my theory would be too abstruse for a blog post.

          Liked by 1 person

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