Emergence in the Social Web


Liat Berdugo



Complex systems sometimes exhibit what's known as emergence -- the phenomenon wherein the whole is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, ants acting individually are mindless, but collectively they self-organize to form intelligent colonies with intricate behavior patterns. I explore whether something similar can be said of the way that a collective consciousness seems to emerge from the nodes in a social web. I begin by showing why emergence is a compelling way to understand what happens on the social web, and examine meme generation and social movement formation, specifically, as resultant emergent phenomena. The emergence of social phenomena is nothing new -- it happens in offline communities like family units, corporations, and cities. Yet novel things do occur within the digital landscape. I continue by showing how the social web allows for two radically novel features that contribute to emergence: (I) explicit two way linking and explicit network formation, and (II) anonymity. Explicit network formation on sites like Facebook allows us to analyze these emergent systems more easily than in the tacit network formation in other social spaces. Anonymity on sites like 4chan.org creates a social space in which participants identify more readily with the collective identity of the 'whole,' thus foregrounding the emergent properties of that system. Finally, I ask what larger implications such emergence might have within social web, and how it impacts the identity of the individual.

Key Words:

Emergence, Social Web, Anonymity, Network Theory, Facebook, 4chan, Identity



In the fields of science and philosophy, the theory of emergence -- that is, the idea that, in a complex system, the whole is more than the sum of its parts -- has been around for quite some time, perhaps even since the time of Aristotle(1). Emergence operates at many scales: in ant colonies, in behaviors of fireflies, in city neighborhood formation, in economies and price stabilization, and, some would claim, in mental states and consciousness.(2) (3) Some philosophers see emergence almost everywhere -- for instance, even in the way that oxygen and hydrogen molecules bond to form H20(4)-- that it becomes not a special, rare phenomenon but a ubiquitous one. Yet emergence is magical: how do all those ants come together to harvest, farm, and defend their colonies without any one ant telling them what to do? How do neighborhoods within cities form in such a way that hipsters end up living in one neighborhood, and the wealthy in another, without a planning authority dictating such segregation? Emergence, as an answer, has, well, emerged.


Ant movement simulation(5)


There is another space in which individuals come together like ants, making something larger than any one individual acting alone: the space of the social web. Online, a sort of collective consciousness arises, materializing in the form of memes, springing up in the shape of Arab Springs, arising in Anonymous, occurring as Occupies. Can we explain what's happening on the social web in terms of emergence? It's compelling to think so, and I'll argue that we can.

On a basic level, an emergent phenomenon relies on the parts that make it up, yet is irreducible to these parts. One way to think about this is that these component parts are, in a sense, interchangeable. Remove a harvester ant in a colony and put another one in its place, and the colony would continue with business as normal. The colony is dependent on its component parts -- the ants -- but its "colony-ness" doesn't reside in any one ant in particular. The same is true of our thoughts: the thought I'm having as I compose this sentence is completely and wholly dependent on the neurons in my brain, but it doesn't reside in any one neuron in particular. And so much is true for the social web: the collective consciousness of Facebook would continue even if I, as a node within that network, were replaced by another person. I shared the Double Rainbow(6) video with my network, but my singular sharing of it wasn't what made it have the emergent, memetic quality that did. This is why, on a very basic level, I began thinking that social phenomena are emergent from the nodes -- the people -- that make them up on the social web.

A clarification is in order before continuing: it can be easy to think that this quality of emergent phenomena -- the interchangeability or removability of their component parts without disruption to the overall whole -- simply means that the phenomenon contains redundancies or irrelevancies. This would mean that the ant colony has redundant or irrelevant harvesters, the brain has redundant neurons, and the social network has redundant or irrelevant nodes. But the harvester ants are not irrelevant, because, if they were, what would prevent us from removing one, and then another (claiming, by the same logic, that this one is also irrelevant), and then another, ad infinitum? If a critical mass of harvester ants were taken away, the colony would cease to exist. Same with neurons: partial lobotomies may leave consciousness intact, but further and further brain matter removals leave nothing but an unconscious body, or even a corpse. And the same applies to individual profiles on Facebook: sure, we can take some profiles away, but that same logic would allow us to keep taking profiles away until the platform would be just a valueless shell -- a vessel without any collective consciousness or capacities to organize people. Therefore, emergence is not about irrelevance or redundancy. It is not that ants, neurons, or nodes in a social network are irrelevant, but that there seems to be some critical threshold above which the emergent phenomena comes into being. That's what makes it emergence.

Let's take stock of what we know of emergence: a property is emergent if it is irreducible to its component parts, and displays radically novel features.(7) Emergent phenomena are dependent on their component parts or base conditions -- the colony is dependent on the ants that make it up -- in such a way that the emergent property cannot exist independently of these base conditions. Yet emergent phenomena have a sort of wholeness and cohesion about them such that it even makes sense to talk about them. Emergent phenomena are not predictable from their component parts -- that is, if we studied each ant in isolation, we would not know that, when we put many many ants together in one place, that they would exhibit the group behavior that manifest in colonies. And finally, emergent properties have the ability to cause things at their base level: the fact that ants live in a colony has causal implications over their behaviors, like whether and where they choose to harvest.

Many a philosopher has many a definition of emergence, but we'll stop with the philosophy right here, as a good working definition is all we need to begin examining emergence in the social web.


Pheromones and 'Like's

When people want to learn about emergence, they tend to track down Deborah Gordon, the Stanford-based behavioral entomologist who spends her career studying ants. Ants engage in incredibly nuanced behavior, without any leader, group of leaders, or planners telling them what to do. They map shortest paths towards food sources.(8) They build turrets around their nests to protect them from monsoons.(9) They farm. They make gardens. They organize wars, take slaves, nurse young, engineer tunnels, create climate control systems.(10) While ant colonies have queens, these queens do not give orders, and are not in charge of anything. The ant queens are simply the "ovaries" of the colony: they're the "big ants that lay the eggs."(11) This is what fascinates Gordon about colonies: that individually, ants are stupid, but collectively, they act with intelligence.

This is the big mystery: how do so many creatures with minimal cognitive abilities collectively act intelligently? In 1956, entomologist Edward O. Wilson Ants proved that ants communicate with each other via pheromone trails: by leaving chemical traces encoded with information that other ants can decode.(12) These traces point other ants towards food sources that other ants have already discovered. Initially, though, ants discover these food sources by error.

Princeton computational biologist Iain Couzin maps this process, tracking the pheromone markers placed by hundreds of ants as they traverse a sample area that he maps out in his lab. The maps are filled with squiggling, aimless lines -- described as Jackson-Pollock-esque -- until Couzin then inserts a food source into the equation, in the form of sugar water squirted carefully into a corner of the sample area.(13) The pattern always occurs in the same manner: one ant, walking randomly about, will discover the food source by chance, leaving a pheromone trail. Then another ant will stumble upon this trail and follow it, leaving its own trail on top, thus making the pheromone trail doubly "hot". The hotter the trail, the more ants are attracted to it -- sniffing with their antennae -- and as these further ants follow it, they compound the strength of the trail until the Pollock-esque squiggles of the ants are transformed into veins that lead right to the sugar -- "blazing pheromone highways" directing the ants to the food source. (14)(15)


Ant motion towards food source (outer ring), tracked by Iain Couzin's Collective Animal Behavior Lab at Princeton University. (16)

I am not an ant enthusiast, and we'll leave the myrmecology behind soon. But there is something to this insectival swarm logic that compels: it happens on the social web as well. On Facebook, we can imagine that each time someone 'likes' something or shares something, it's as if that person is laying down a pheromone trail to that article, video, or piece of cultural currency that occurs on the web. It's as if we all are ants, roaming the Internet to find our food source: the things that are interesting to us -- the things worth sharing and talking about. These 'likes' that we attach to such things attract others within our network -- our "colony" -- while the 'likes' are still hot -- that is, still time-relevant -- just as pheromone trails attract other ants while they're still fresh. When more people within a person's social network 'like' or share the same thing, its force compounds, making it more likely that the thing will appear in the News Feed, until Charlie Bit My Finger is so hot that you just have to watch it. (17)

To summarize, with the circulation of memes, lots of local actions on part of individuals make the more global phenomenon of the meme emerge. In social networks and ant colonies alike, individuals act on local information, but to global effect. The use of local information is the key, here, and Steven Johnson sums up this point well: "We see emergent behavior in systems like ant colonies when the individual agents in the system pay attention to their immediate neighbors rather than wait for orders from above. They think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior".(18) The local action of many accumulated 'like's and shares on Facebook adds up to the collective global phenomenon of memefication.


Cities, Emergence, and Human Self-Awareness

There are many differences between ants in a colony and individuals in a social network, but one difference is especially striking: individual ants cannot assess their role in the global situations that they are working towards, whereas individuals are more cognizant of them. Individuals have an ability to act consciously and causally. Gordon says:

In a human society, every person always thinks they know what they're doing, even if they're wrong.... It's very hard to imagine any human society in which people would go around responding to what happened at the moment without any conception of why they're doing what they're doing. That's why I'm always hesitant to make analogies from ants to people, because ants are so unlike people.(19)


Gordon's point is worth addressing, and I bring it up in order to refute it. It's certainly the case that ants are unlike people, and that as humans we possess unique capacities to be self aware of our actions, but the dissimilarities do not invalidate analogizing. Before we can get on board with emergence in the social web, we need to clear up this issue of human self-awareness in decision-making, as it seems like an impediment to believing that emergence can occur in the human social realm at all. After all, emergence is remarkable precisely because there is no one boss directing behavior -- no one neuron holding a thought in a brain. It's a bottom-up phenomenon in which parts are interchangeable.

I think the way to understand this is in terms of scale. Ant colonies have life cycles -- they last for about 15 years and have "clearly defined infancy, adolescence, and mature phase[s]" over the course of their existence. Young colonies, for instance, are more active and respond to encountering ants from a neighboring colony more aggressively and persistently. Yet individual ants live no longer than 12 months. The colony persists and ages even though the individuals cease to persist.(20)

The same is true for emergence that occurs on a human scale: that of neighborhood formation within cities. Johnson, again:

Neighborhoods are patterns in time. No one wills them into existence single-handedly; they emerge by a kind of tacit consensus: the artist go here, the investment bankers go here.... It is the sidewalk -- the public space where interactions between neighbors are the most expressive and the most frequent -- that helps us create those laws.(21)


On the scale of the city, it's easier to see that human decisions -- even if such decisions are conscious -- can accumulate and aggregate into emergent phenomena. For instance, silk weavers have been selling their fabrics on the same street in Florence since 1100 -- long outliving the lifespan of any individual person.(22) Similarly, the flower district in New York has been around for a century, outliving the career lifespan of any individual florist.(23) We need to view emergent phenomena on the scale of the emergent entity itself -- on the scale of the colony-like super organism that is the city. When we look from this scale, each individual human decision -- whether made with self-awareness by the individual agent as to its effect on the larger whole -- is simply a component in a part that outlives it, just as the ant colony outlives any individual ant.

Emergence Online

When we examine cities, we see that emergence can occur at the scale of the human and the social, not just at the scale of the lowly ant. The idea that social phenomena can be emergent is nothing radically new, and philosophers have been discussing it, although not in these terms, since the 60's, when debates over Methodological Individualism questioned whether social phenomena could be explained solely in terms of the actions of individuals rather than in terms of the group as a whole.(24) We see emergence occurring in offline communities like family units, corporations, and cities.

Yet what is novel -- and what hasn't been studied before -- is how the online environment of the social web allows for two radically new features that contribute to emergence: (I) explicit two-way linking and explicit network formation, and (II) anonymity. Explicit network formation on sites like Facebook allows us to analyze these emergent systems more easily than in the tacit network formation in other social spaces. Anonymity on sites like 4chan.org creates a social space in which participants identify more readily with the collective identity of the 'whole,' thus foregrounding the emergent properties of that system.

We'll look at each of these two features in turn, beginning with explicit network formation and two-way linking.


Explicit Networking and Two-Way Linking

Before delving into the social web, it would be instructive to look at emergence online more generally, because the contrast between the web more generally and the social web in particular will serve us. The Internet is populated by over 50 billion webpages(25), all linked through an even greater number of connections: HTML links pointing from one page to another. It's tempting to ask: if the colony-level intelligence is made up of countless individual actions by ants, is the emergent intelligence of the web made up of these countless HTML links that point between pages?

Online, there are lots of connections, but much less self-organization. Because feedback mechanisms are lacking, the web tends towards this connectedness over organized, emergent intelligence. It's as if links between pages are pheromone trails, but the web pages are lacking antennae to sniff these trails out. The pheromone trails are the HTML links, but these links are, by design, unidirectional. Without special software or data analytics embedded into a page, the general user cannot tell who is linking to a page; he can only discern to where a page is pointing. Each page lays down a trail of links without the ability to detect the links other pages make to it.

This is precisely why Google is so important: it provides a feedback mechanism. It ranks each web page's importance within the web. PageRank operates with two basic principles, and acts as a sort of voting system: each time a page links to another, this counts as a vote for that linked page. Additionally, when a highly-valued web page points to another web page, its "vote" for that page carries more weight than the "vote" of a lower ranked page. PageRank allows the most relevant and important pages to emerge to the top of search results. I use the word emerge deliberately here: no single person or entity determines the top search results. Rather, the top results are determined by the sum of lots of individual, unidirectional HTML links, each acting in isolation, that together create the emergence of information relevancy on the World Wide Web.

More and more systems online have feedback mechanisms built in. One of the earliest examples of this is Slashdot, an online forum created in 1997 in which users are given the ability to act as moderators and rate the quality of posts on the forum.(26) Since the time of Slashdot, feedback mechanisms have become commonplace online: Amazon.com includes ratings on reviews, Reddit allows users to vote news stories up and down, and YouTube recommends videos based on view patterns of its users, to name a few. Ted Nelson's Project Xanadu, although it has never taken off, was built under the premise that two-way linking is necessary between documents and entities online.(27)

In this context, the social web stands out: it has two-way linking built into its design. On Facebook, relations between individuals are bi-directional: if you are friends with John Smith, then he is friends with you. Your relationship as entities -- as nodes within the network -- is explicit.(28) The network itself is explicit as well, which is different from offline social networks, in which connections are often implicit, unspoken, or not known to all people within the network. As a friend of John Smith, you can see all his other friends, and who you know in common. The same is not immediately the case when you become friends with a person offline.

This two-way linking and explicit network formation is a catalyst of emergence. Specifically, the bottom-up intelligence of emergence within online social networks has facilitated the emergence of social movements: the Arab Spring and Occupy.


A network of nodes (29)


In 2001, Johnson wrote that Al Gore "can talk for hours about what the bottom-up paradigm could mean for reinventing the government".(30) Ten years later, this very bottom-up paradigm has affected the governments in eighteen Arab nations and territories, overthrowing governments in three of them, and is also the founding tenet of the Occupy movement in the United States.(31)

Certainly, Facebook has been a tool to organize and mobilize individuals acting within the Arab Spring protests. It has been used to quickly spread information, events, and instructions in a way that governments have had a hard time controlling.(32) Movements have organized using online tools like web pages before; but the the two-way linking within Facebook has created an environment in which individual actions of people compound each other -- like ants leaving pheromone trails upon the trails of other ants -- resulting in the emergence of large, physical meetings and demonstrations. Theology Lecturer and Islamic Scholar Natana J. DeLong-Bas sums this up well:


In one case [in Egypt], ninety thousand people responded via Facebook and Twitter that they planned to attend particular demonstrations.... When so many respond to a social networking site that they intend to physically participate in an event, others are inspired to join, knowing that they will not be alone. By contrast, in cases where only a few respond to the calls for demonstrations — such as occurred for Saudi Arabia's not very impressive "Day of Rage," in March 2011 — those debating whether to attend may have been at least partially discouraged from doing so because of the lack of numbers in the face of an intimidating police presence.(33)


Because of two-way linking, the Facebook event spread: an individual person says they're attending, meaning that they are linking to the event -- or pointing to the event, if we are to frame it in HTML linking, for the sake of comparison. But this individual is also linked to other individuals -- that is, the individual simultaneously points to other nodes in the network -- thus disseminating the event more widely. The resultant effect is that a mass demonstration emerges from the individual electronic traces left by people acting within the social web.

Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the uprisings in the Arab world.(34) Appropriately, the movement's name got hold after it was shared on the social web: it was tweeted by the Canadian activist group Adbusters, who posted it as a hashtag in July of 2011.(35) The first place that I heard about Occupy wasn't a commercial news channel, it was Facebook: I kept seeing posts about it from people within my network. Like the Arab Spring, the movement spread through the two-way linking capacities of Facebook, and with great velocity. The one-millionth post on an Occupy-related Facebook page happening only twenty days after the start of the protest.(36)

Certainly it's worth noting that the social web both facilitates the emergence of phenomena, and also accelerates these phenomena. Fox news reporter Jennifer Booten highlighted this in a rare, anomalous moment of mainstream media coverage of the movement. She noted:

Before the new digital age, protests were generally initiated in a top-down fashion, eventually reaching the ground level through recruiters and leaders at college campuses.... The process took much longer to gain momentum. (37)

With the explicit networking on Facebook, and the real-time abilities provided by this network, information, updates, and involvements spread more quickly.

The emergent phenomena caused by the Occupy movement's use of the social web is in line with the movement's goals. Occupy has no leader, and has staunchly refused to have one. Even the social media presence of the movement has no leader. Justin Wednes, a Brooklyn-based Occupier who helps manage @OccupyWallStrNYC, says "We are not coordinating anything...It is all grass roots. We are just trying to use it to disseminate information, tell stories, ask for donations and to give people a voice."(38) The New York General Assemblies -- the heart of the movement -- describes themselves as "open, participatory, and horizontally organized process to constitute ourselves in public as autonomous collective forces within and against the constant crisis of our times."(39) For a movement that grounds its very beliefs in a bottom-up, emergent structure, the capacities provided by the social web mirror and advance the goals and foundations of the protest in an important and remarkable way.

Of course, any discussion of the Occupy movement and the social web would be lacking without a mention of the memes it has spawned, the most popular of which is the UC Davis policeman Lt. Pike who pepper-sprayed protesters on Nov 18, 2011.(40) Lt. Pike is officially known as the 'Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop'(41), and has been Photoshopped into important works such as the 1819 painting, Declaration of Independence(42) by John Trumbull, and, comically, Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.(43) Like any popular meme, Lt. Pike also has a entire tumblr dedicated to him.(44) I bring this up because the Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop has become an important symbol for Occupy -- a sort of call to resistance and unification -- and it spread through the compounding of 'likes' and shares that allow memes to emerge and circulate on the social web.

"Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop"

Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop in John Trumbull's Declaration of Independence


Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop in Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop Tumblr


Ultimately, it's not surprising that these social movements have been facilitated by the emergence that can occur within the social web. After all, as Steven Johnson notes:

...the needs of most progressive movements are uniquely suited to adaptive, self-organizing systems: both have a keen ear for collective wisdom; both are naturally hostile to excessive concentrations of power; and both are friendly to change. For any movement that aims to be truly global in scope, making it almost impossible to rely on centralized power, adaptive self-organization may well be the only road.(45)


The social web, with its bidirectional linking between people and its overt network display of social realms, results in emergent phenomena. These phenomena occur both online, as memes, and offline, as physical gatherings and protests. It is therefore fitting that the movements which employed the emergent capacities of the social web most recently -- the Arab Spring protests and the Occupy movement -- have emergent-esque philosophies at their core.


Anonymity and 4chan

The social web is remarkable in that it gives bidirectional and explicit linking between people. In this way, it highlights and solidifies connections between social beings in the offline world, and it translates these connections into the digital landscape, adding the capacity for emergent phenomena along the way. But the social web can also create connections between people who don't know each other, and never reveal their identities whatsoever.

Online, people can be anonymous -- or at least relatively anonymous -- in a way that offline social spaces cannot afford. Nowhere is this anonymity more extreme than on 4chan.org, the archive-less imageboard that boasts 7 million users, over 90% of which post anonymously.(46) Originally started in 2004 as a place for "random" posts on the site otherwise dedicated to anime, 4chan's /b/ board -- its most popular and most notorious -- is without rules and functions both as the gutter of the Internet, providing a home for pornography and racist rants, as well as a meme factory, producing such cultural gems as LOLcats and Rickrolling.(47) 4chan is one of the largest online spaces dominated by per-post anonymity, which is remarkable in a digital landscape filled with identity monikers and endless archiving.

A typical 4chan thread(48)


Why is anonymity relevant to emergence on the social web? Recall that one of the main features of emergent phenomena is the interchangeability of the component parts that make up a whole: remove a harvester ant in a colony and put another one in its place, and the colony would continue with business as normal. The colony is dependent on its component parts -- the ants -- but its "colony-ness" doesn't reside in any ant in particular.

Yet we must work hard -- we must leave our egos far behind -- to think that people are interchangeable within a social network. On sites like Facebook, we like to think that our identities are important to ourselves and our network. The site is set up based on the tenet of individual importance and sharing. Anonymity makes seeing the macro-scale interchangeability of nodes on a network much easier.(49) On 4chan, anonymity is on a per-message basis: there is no way to identify a user from one post to the next.(50) This means that, even if a user identifies himself by posting a message under a pseudonym, there is nothing stopping a replier from also using that very same pseudonym as the original poster, making it impossible to verify who is whom. Identities are literally interchangeable.

Additionally, the anonymity on 4chan creates a social space in which participants identify more readily with the collective identity of the 'whole,' thus foregrounding the emergent properties of that system. In their academic paper on 4chan, Bernstein et al. noted that "...anonymity may foster stronger communal identity, as opposed to bond-based attachment with individuals".(51) David Auerbach, in a recent article about anonymous culture (or A-culture, as he dubs it), explains the reasoning behind this well:

Because participants are shielded from having their real-life qualities associated with their personae and words, frequently the only defining characteristics of participants are their memberships in these forums. (52)


Without individual identities on 4chan, the only thing left with which a user can associate is the collective identity of 4chan users as a whole. In a way, the anonymity makes it easier to see the whole instead of the parts, even from within the system.

Users on 4Chan are collectively anonymous(53)


We have seen that memes emerge from the social web, and also that 4chan manages to spawn a disproportionate number of memes. I speculate that the anonymity on 4chan is intimately tied to this spawning. Bernstein et al. point out that anonymity masks failure, and that, while failure is common on 4chan, with almost half of all threads receiving no replies, anonymity "softens the blow of being ignored or explicitly chastised for trying to start uninteresting threads".(54) This freedom to fail allows users to try out new concepts, post new mashups, and see what sticks. Also, anonymity means that both one's presence and one's posts are ephemeral. Bernstein et al. note that such ephemerality creates

...a powerful selection mechanic by requiring content the community wants to see be repeatedly reposted, and potentially remixed. We believe this is critical to the site's influence on Internet culture and memes.(55)


Anonymity, and its resultant foregrounding of the collective identity over the singular one, means that the cultural currency is precisely membership to the group. Membership to the collective "anonymous" on 4chan is, in part, measured by one's knowledge of the memes generated on and used by 4chan users. Sites like Encyclopædia Dramatica were even created by 4chan users to record and institutionalize the memes they spawned.(56)

Finally, just as Facebook's role in the Arab Spring was to facilitate the emergence of large gatherings, the anonymous culture on 4chan has also spawned important off-site activity, the most notable of which is the formation of the hacker collective Anonymous. The collective is well known for its actions against the Church of Scientology, against anti-piracy campaigns, and for "Operation Payback," in which they took down the sites of Visa, MasterCard, and Paypal in support of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.(57) The collective also exhibits emergent properties in and of itself: its many members, acting in isolation of each other, collectively create a powerful group that is capable of compromising the online presence of even the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.(58)


Members of Anonymous wearing the token Guy Fawkes Mask at a protest in Los Angeles(59)



It is fitting to end with a discussion of Anonymous because emergence is, in a way, an issue of control. When Anonymous successfully attacks the U.S. government, they reveal its vulnerabilities, thus making it seem less in control. This is precisely the value and power in such an attack.

Emergent entities are self-organizing, bottom-up systems. We naturally want to believe that there is something that exerts control -- some organizing force that tells the ants what to do, that orchestrates the neurons in our brains, that plans out city neighborhoods, and that dictates virality, memefication, and social movement formation. But much of the time, there are no such top-down forces.

Online, within communities on the social web, bi-directional linking, explicit network formation, and anonymity afford new avenues for the emergence of social phenomena. I have looked at how these elements of the social web have contributed to emergence within the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, 4chan.org and the hacker collective Anonymous, and to the spawning and circulation of memes more generally. I hope that this initial examination will open doors to both more robust work on the philosophy of emergence within the digital and social landscapes, as well as Internet-theoretic and cultural examinations of these trends more generally.



(1) ^ Aristotle, Metaphysics, Book H 1045a 8-10: "... the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts ...", i.e., the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

(2) ^ DeLanda, Manuel, 2011. Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason. New York: Continuum Press.

(3) ^ Kim, Jaegwon, 2006. Philosophy of Mind, Second Edition. Boulder: Westview Press.

(4) ^ DeLanda, Manuel, 2011. Philosophy and Simulation: The Emergence of Synthetic Reason. New York: Continuum Press.

(5) ^ Source: http://www.not-equal.eu/myrmedrome/main_en.html

(6) ^ Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow 1-8-10, 2010, online video, accessed 10 Feb 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OQSNhk5ICTI>

(7) ^ Why does an emergent property need to be 'radically novel'? Think of a pile of pick-up sticks. The quality of "pile-ness" results from there being a lots of sticks all together in one place. We could take one stick away, and it would still be a pile.You might be tempted to call the pile-ness an emergent property, but I wouldn't, because we could predict the piles properties from an individual stick: the pile's mass, shape, and so on. That is, the pile does not have any radically novel features that could not be predicted from its component parts. This is why radical novelty is important to emergence. Otherwise, almost everything could be considered emergent.

(8) ^ Johnson, Steven, 2001. Emergence. New York: Scribner.

(9) ^ Emergence: RadioLab, 2007, Radio program, distributed by WNYC, New York, NY.

(10) ^ Ibid.

(11) ^ Ibid.

(12) ^ Johnson, Steven, 2001. Emergence. New York: Scribner.

(13) ^ Emergence: RadioLab, 2007, Radio program, distributed by WNYC, New York, NY.

(14) ^ Collective Animal Behavior, 2009. Pheromone Trail Networks in Ants. [online] Available at: <http://icouzin.princeton.edu/pheromone-trail-networks-in-ants> [Accessed 10 Feb 2012]

(15) ^ Emergence: RadioLab, 2007, Radio program, distributed by WNYC, New York, NY.

(16) ^ Collective Animal Behavior, 2009. Pheromone Trail Networks in Ants. [online] Available at: <http://icouzin.princeton.edu/pheromone-trail-networks-in-ants> [Accessed 10 Feb 2012].

(17) ^ Charlie Bit My Finger - Again !, 2007, online video, accessed 10 Feb 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OBlgSz8sSM>

(18) ^ Johnson, Steven, 2001. Emergence. New York: Scribner.

(19) ^ Ibid. 97-98.

(20) ^ Ibid. 80.

(21) ^ Ibid. 91.

(22) ^ Ibid. 102.

(23) ^ Buckley, C 2009, 'Midtown's Lush Passage', New York Times, 25 June 2009, accessed 10 Feb 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/28/nyregion/28stop.html>

(24) ^ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2010, Methodological Individualism, accessed 10 Feb 2012, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/methodological-individualism>

(25) ^World Wide Web Size 2012, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://www.worldwidewebsize.com>

(26) ^ Johnson, Steven, 2001. Emergence. New York: Scribner.

(27) ^ Project Xanadu, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://www.xanadu.com>

(28) ^ Note that this explicitness is apparent to a lesser extent in social networks where links are unidirectional, such as Twitter and Google+, which both use following-folowee models of connection. Networks are still explicit (that is, a users followers and followees are still transparent and open within the context of the network), even thought the relationship of following is not required to be mutual.

(29) ^ Source: http://www.complexification.net/gallery/machines/nodeGarden

(30) ^ Johnson, Steven, 2001. Emergence. New York: Scribner.

(31) ^ Wikipedia, Arab Spring, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring>

(32) ^ DeLong-Bas, N 2011, 'The New Social Media and the Arab Sprin', Oxford Islamic Studies Online, accessed 12 Feb 2012 <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/Public/focus/essay0611_social_media.html>

(33) ^ Ibid.

(34) ^ Ackerman, Egypt’s Top 'Facebook Revolutionary' Now Advising Occupy Wall Street', Wired Magazine, 18 October 2011, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/egypt-occupy-wall-street>

(35) ^ Wikipedia, Occupy Wall Street, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupy_Wall_Street>

(36) ^ Caren, Neal and G. Saby, 'Occupy Online: Facebook and the Spread of Occupy Wall Street, Working Paper Series, 24 Oct 2011, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1943168 >

(37) ^ Booton, J 2011, 'Occupy Wall Street's Message? Try Checking Facebook', Fox Business, 11 Nov 2011, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/2011/11/10/social-media-inflaming-passions-spreading-message-occupy-protests/#ixzz1mIRdePRl>

(38) ^ Preston, J 2011, ' accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/nyregion/wall-street-protest-spurs-online- conversation.html>

(39) ^ The New York City General Assembly, accessed 12 Feb 2012 < http://www.nycga.net/about/ >

(40) ^ 'Police pepper spraying and arresting students at UC Davis', 2011, online video, accessed 10 Feb 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WmJmmnMkuEM> and UC Davis Protesters Pepper Sprayed. 2011, online video, accessed 10 Feb 2012, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6AdDLhPwpp4>

(41) ^ Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop 2011, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/casually-pepper-spray-everything-cop>

(42) ^ Declaration of Independence, accessed 12 Feb 2012 <http://i2.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/newsfeed/000/203/411/320665_309085722453433_100000560234460_1161317_489395404_n.jpg>

(43) ^ A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://i2.kym-

(44) ^ Pepper Spraying Cop, 2012. [online] Available at <http://peppersprayingcop.tumblr.com> [accessed
12 Feb 2012.]

(45) ^ Johnson, Steven, 2001. Emergence. New York: Scribner.

(46) ^ Bernstein, M. et al. 2011. 4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community. [online] Available at: <http://projects.csail.mit.edu/chanthropology/4chan.pdf>. [Accessed 12 Feb 2012].

(47) ^ Ibid.

(48) ^ Source: http://www.cracked.com/funny-1143-4chan

(49) ^ I do argue that this macro-scale interchangeability is present on social networking sites like Facebook - - it's just much harder to see. We have to zoom out to the macro-scale in order to see it.

(50) ^ In his previously cited article, Auerbach identifies 3 levels of anonymity: Persistent pseudonym anonymity, in which a user's posts are "linked across time to a single pseudonymous moniker registered on a particular site"; Per-session anonymity, in which a user's posts are "verifiably linked across time to a single pseudonymous moniker within a single thread or chat on a particular site, but can change across threads"; and per-message anonymity, which I use here.

(51) ^ Ibid.

(52) ^ Auerbach, D 2012, 'Anonymity as Culture: Treatise', Triple Canopy, 9 Feb 2012, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://canopycanopycanopy.com/15/anonymity_as_culture__treatise>.

(53) ^ Source: http://canopycanopycanopy.com/15/our_weirdness_is_free

(54) ^ Bernstein, M. et al. 4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community. [online] Available at: <http://projects.csail.mit.edu/chanthropology/4chan.pdf>. [Accessed 12 Feb 2012].

(55) ^ Ibid.

(56) ^ Encyclopædia Dramatica, accessed 13 Feb 2012,<http://encyclopediadramatica.ch/Main_Page>.

(57) ^ Cohen, N 2010. 'Web Attackers Find a Cause in WikiLeaks', The New York Times, 9 Dec 2010, accessed 12 Feb 2012, <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/10/world/10wiki.html>

(58) ^ Perlroth, N 2012. 'Anonymous Says it Knocked C.I.A. Site Offline', The New York Times, 12 Feb 2012, accessed 14 Feb 2012, <http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/anonymous-says-it-knocked-c-i-a-site- offline >

(59) ^ Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/70857039@N00/2255718951


Liat Berdugo is an American artist whose work focuses on the strange, delightful and increasingly ambiguous terrain that lies between the digital and the analog and between the online and the offline. Her work has been shown in galleries across the United States and at conferences internationally. Berdugo designed user experiences in Silicon Valley before returning to school to pursue her M.F.A. in Digital + Media at the Rhode Island School of Design. She currently lives and works in Providence, Rhode Island. More at http://digikits.ch.