Constellaxy: The spontaneous order of social media

Twitter is a spontaneous order. More generally, ‘social media’ is a spontaneous order, and the various kinds of social orders that are cultivated on social media platforms—patterns of interaction, virtual communities, co-creation and exchange of user-generated content, and more—constitute their own spontaneous orders. This seems entirely obvious to economists trained in the Austrian tradition, but it is an observation that (to my knowledge) has not yet been made. The connection of spontaneous order theory and social media could prove very fertile ground for academic study. Perhaps more importantly, it promises to reintroduce one of the classic problems in political economy—the impossibility of socialist calculation—to the social media natives of the millennial generation. Both F.A. Hayek and Michael Polanyi would agree: social media is a spontaneous order!

In The Fatal Conceit, F.A. Hayek introduced the concept of ‘the extended order’ and argued “civilization depends, not only for its origin but also for its preservation, on what can be precisely described only as the extended order of human cooperation.” When a system embraces specialisation and trade, individuals are able to benefit from the actions, knowledge, and company of relative strangers. Correspondingly, for Hayek the extended order represents the complex, evolving, large-scale system (comprising political, economic and civil society networks) that supports impersonal, trustless coordination and exchange.

‘Spontaneous order’ is typically used to describe the emergence of various kinds of social orders from the confluence of self-interested individuals who are not intentionally trying to create such order through planning. The extended order is therefore a spontaneous order in its own right, while also encompassing many constituent spontaneous orders. The most notable of which include the catallaxy (the free market economy, which Hayek and other Austrians focus on), the legal order (the English common law, but also the Law Merchant), science, and money. Other examples include religious orders, the arts, institutions of innovation, cities and urban agglomerations, democracy and federalism, and perhaps even governments themselves. The list goes on: culture, morality, language!

The social media life of an open society—the social media cosmos—is also an example of such an order. Social media spontaneous orders emerge and evolve in an orderly yet unplanned way due to shared rules of procedure, simplified feedback mechanisms, freedom of entry and exit, and equality of status among participants. Like other cosmos, social media spontaneous orders are complex discovery procedures that coordinate the distributed knowledge of participants.

Consider Twitter: much of it is basically bottom-up organisation. The ‘hashtag’ generally is an example of mechanism that generates spontaneous order. In fact it is the ‘trends’ and the conversations and communities that agglomerate around the trends that are the order. Out of the (seeming) chaos of the evolving ecosystem of hashtags and tweets and retweets, is the spontaneous emergence of an order of trending topics, conversations, and networked individuals. No one plans this; no one says, “here we will talk about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in country x” or “here we will talk about the TV program Q&A.” There is no conscious design, no hierarchy of goals, and the groups of people in each trending topic are not pooled with the express purpose of achieving certain goals. Moreover, social media platforms like Twitter do use shared rules, simplified feedback, and participants are given status equality.

But the social media spontaneous order is distinct from others because it privileges a different systemic resource and relies on a unique feedback mechanism. Social media participants do not use profits (e.g. market) or priority of discovery (e.g. science) or votes (e.g. democracy) in assessing their performance; nor do they use price signal to coordinate their plans and activities. The systemic resource of the social media cosmos coincides with what Thomas H. Davenport and J.C. Beck call ‘attention,’ defined as “focused mental engagement on a particular item of information.” Attention can be examined from the individual perspective—e.g. how “items come into our awareness, we attend to a particular item, and then we decide whether to act”—or from the systemic or collective perspective—e.g. how “attention to novel items propagates and eventually fades among large populations.” Attention consists of factors such as connectivity and interactivity of social media networking, i.e., immediacy, accessibility, and ‘findability’, and credibility and impression of social media signaling, i.e., personalisation, interpretation, and authenticity. Accordingly, social media participants look to connectivity and interactivity ratios (cf. exchange ratios) and the many social media analytics (cf. prices) as coordinative feedback mechanisms.

Social media platforms are decentralised coordination and discovery systems, where feedback through various analytics (e.g. for Twitter: tweets, retweets, favourites, followers, hashtags, and trending topics; cf. prices) signal the different opportunity costs of various means for pursuing different social or economic plans (whether in terms of networking, communication, or co-production). They provide a common scale among divergent resources, and therefore serve as signals facilitating efficient use of time, effort, and ultimately attention. And while analytics signal how attention—systemically defined “wealth”—can be most efficiently used or acquired, it is up to individuals to determine how attention relates to their other values. It is up to each individual to use this information, in combination with their knowledge of local conditions and personal insight, to determine which trends to follow, or conversations to participate in, or people to network with.

Within a social media spontaneous order the systemic resource of attention is accumulated via two valuable sources: networking and signaling. For this reason—and channeling F.A. Hayek’s designation of the market order as a ‘catallaxy’—the social media order might be designated as a ‘constellaxy.’ Constellaxy is a neologism combining ‘catallaxy’ and ‘constellation.’ Catallaxy is derived from the Greek katalatto, with the several meanings: “to exchange” or “to become reconciled with” and “to admit into the community” or “to change from an enemy into a friend.” Constellation is derived from the Latin constellatio, with the meaning: “set with stars” (con- “with” and past participle of stellare “to shine”). Constellaxy therefore captures the character of the attention economy that is social media: attention is networking (“with”) and signaling (“to shine”) in a constellation, hence constell-; and economy is coordination (“exchange” and “reconciled”) and cooperation (“community” and “friend”) in a catallaxy, hence –axy.

F.A. Hayek defined the catallaxy as “the order brought about by the mutual adjustment of many individual economies in a market.” His point was that many economies (plural) constitute a market, and that the emergent properties of the market order—prices, division of labour, growth, etc.—are not the product of a singular community with common and congruent values and goals, but rather stem precisely from the opposite: free pursuit of the diverse and disparate goals of individuals and communities (again, plural). In similar fashion, the cognate constellaxy is an alternative expression for the term ‘social media.’ We might paraphrase Hayek and define the constellaxy as “the order brought about by the mutual adjustment of many individual participants in a social media network.” It refers to a pattern of mutually beneficial social media interactions—networking, signalling, coordination, and cooperation—that does not require that participants share the same goals. From this perspective, the emergent properties of social media—analytics, trending topics, clustering and filter bubbling, network scale and hierarchy, etc.—are the outcomes of free pursuit of diverse and disparate goals of social media participants and networks.

Social media constellactics, thusly explicated, aims to provide a more accurate and inclusive description of the social media phenomena of social network (group) formation and dynamics—given that participants are subject to shared rules of procedure, can parse simplified feedback mechanisms, and have status equality and freedom of entry and exit in pursuing their diverse ends. Notably, the constellactics program would require a theory of the way the ‘free social media system’ reaches connectivity and interactivity ratios (cf. exchange ratios) and establishes analytic signals (cf. price signals).

So each of the social media platforms, and likewise the many social orders that are cultivated on them, are spontaneous orders. We can therefore come to a clearer understanding of the origins and development of social media platforms and how participants network and co-create, if we understand social media as such an order. I call this research program social media constellactics and I believe it can shed new light on social media, but also benefit the field of spontaneous media theorising. In particular, it presents classic questions of political economy—namely the socialist calculation debate and the question of rational constructivism versus spontaneous ordering—to younger generations in a context that is very familiar and relevant to them. So in that spirit: like, share, and retweet!


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