The Pyramid against the Cloud: Institutions’ perplexity regarding the Net

“Beyond Washington DC, Donald Trump, and impeachment, there lies a great big world – and that world, at the moment, is being convulsed by a remarkable number of revolts against political authority”, writes Martin Gurri. Indeed, who would have thought. Something is going on around the globe, and it is not Trump. Moreover, Trump is not the cause of global turmoil; he is rather its effect and a very local effect.

Gurri counted “at least 25 major street insurgencies this year”. He quotes Tyler Cowen from Bloomberg: “As 2019 enters its final quarter, there have been large and often violent demonstrations in Lebanon, Chile, Spain, Haiti, Iraq, Sudan, Russia, Egypt, Uganda, Indonesia, Ukraine, Peru, Hong Kong, Zimbabwe, Colombia, France, Turkey, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Ethiopia, Brazil, Malawi, Algeria and Ecuador, among other places.” For Gurri, it is the same continuing “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium”, which is the title of his remarkable book. He traces this rebellion of the masses as it has spread around the world since the Arab Spring of 2010. (In his book, Gurri analyses the facilitating role of new media in the protests, which is very close to the theme of my book, “Human as Media. The Emancipation of Authorship.” Read my review of the first edition of Gurri’s book (2014).)

“What appears to be new about the present cycle, writes Gurri, is the scope and pace of change.” He offers two hypotheses:

1) Revolt as a viral message. Turmoil can be transmitted, like a contagion: “If a message possesses qualities desired or needed by a network, that message has the potential to flood the entire network… The message of revolt of 2019, mediated by random factors, evidently has met a profound need of the network. In more concrete terms: when the whole world is watching, a local demand for political change can start to go global in an instant.”

2) Revolt as a failure cascade of modern government that can be thought of as negative virality. “A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium… In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict. I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally…”

I have an additional explanation for this new cycle of protests, which, indeed, seem to be growing in scope and scale.

At the end of the 2000s, social media emancipated authorship of the most progressive part of society – the young, educated, urban, and digitized. Social media enabled them to access agenda-setting. Alternative agendas appeared. When you participate in agenda-setting, you contribute your views and, which is valued the most, your efforts, even efforts as small as posting something on a feed. Therefore, the agenda produced in such a way is the most adequate, verified and valuable for you. Its value grows even more when you see that many others express the same feelings or opinions. This coincidence serves as verification that turns personally contributed evidences/opinions into publicly established facts, the weight of which is commensurate with that of professionally produced news.

When network-ascended “personal” facts too highly contradict the descended official facts, the crisis of authority becomes imminent. The inadequacy of the mainstream agenda propelled by the traditional elites and the old media becomes blatantly evident to those involved into alternative agenda-setting. Outcry is unavoidable.

This is not occurring solely on social media. It is an outcome of social media’s invasion into the world controlled by the old media. It takes two to tango. For the revolts of alternative agendas to happen, the old media with their annoying monopoly are needed, too.

Most of the protests of the recent decade have represented this clash between old media’s and new media’s modes of agenda-setting. In its nature it is not a political clash. It is a morphological clash; the clash between the Pyramid and the Cloud.

That is why many researchers (including Gurri and Cowen) point out that all the recent protests have arisen outside of traditional political paradigms and structures. Such were the protests of the first and “progressive” wave – the Arab Spring (2009–2011), Occupy Wall Street (2011), the ‘social justice’ protests in Israel (2011), the Indignados protests in Spain (2011), the student protests in Greece (2010–2011), the anti-Putin protests in Moscow (2011–2012), the Taksim Square Protests in Turkey (2013), and others.

Lyon’s silk weavers, whose uprisings in 1831-1834 inspired Karl Marx, struggled for their livelihood. After the intellectual movements in Europe of the 1960s, the revolutionary demands come from the area of symbolic, not materials needs. Capitalism brought enough prosperity to move the revolutionary outrage from the realm of material to the realm of symbolic. This is even more so for the digital world that deals with symbolic and not material.

The protestors of the social media era might advance economic demands, but they are angry not because they are hungry. They are “Indignados” – the Indignant – in the first place; and only then different economic or purely random triggers might come. As Cowen reminds us, “one of the original demands of the “gilets jaunes” protests in France was for free parking in Disneyland Paris”. In a sense, social media revolutions are revolutions of dignity, not revolutions of needs. With a very broad understanding of dignity, of course.

Do today’s global protests have anything in common with that first wave of the social media related protests – the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and others?

Since the 2010s, social media have proliferated deeper and wider into the social-demographic tissue of societies. No longer is it just the educated, urban and progressive youth that have been emancipated and empowered by social media. The less educated, less urban, less progressive and older have also obtained access to alternative mechanisms of agenda-setting and fact-verification.

In the early stage of social media proliferation, the protests represented a progressive backlash against the elites. Now, the protests represent a conservative backlash against the elites. It is still an anti-establishment rebellion, but now it is conservative, not progressive, due to the demography of social media use and, hence, the demography of the views and values unleashed.

In the countries with more or less established electoral democracy, this conservative (often labelled right-wing) backlash has manifested in unexpected (by the mainstream media) electoral outcomes. Such were the recent results in

  • Germany – 2017: the right-wing AfD took third place, having jumped out of nowhere;
  • Brazil – 2018: the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ Jair Bolsonaro won the presidential election;
  • Australia – 2019: the center-right Scott Morrison was unexpectedly reelected;
  • India – 2019: the right-leaning nationalist Narendra Modi unexpectedly increased its tally in the parliament; and
  • UK – 2019: Boris Johnson demolished opponents; thus Brexit, however shocking it was in 2016, struck again.

Nevertheless, these unexpected electoral outcomes were, in fact, proof that democracy works. When democracy does not work and electoral institutions are not well established, the protests hit the streets, not the ballot-box. But these are the same anti-establishment protests. Not only are they facilitated, they are also predefined by the proliferation of social media with their engaging mode of agenda-setting. What has changed since the early 2010s is the demography of social media use. In a sense, Trump’s victory is a reiteration of the Occupy Wall Street movement but on a completely different social-demographic base and with a more profound political outcome.

Different societies are at different stages in this process, but with a common direction of movement and many shared regularities. While reading Gurri’s idea of “a failure cascade” of institutions and Cowen’s idea of consumerism as a trigger of protest activity and the lack of political programs among those protesting, I recalled the Russian anti-Putin protests of 2011–2012. That turmoil, the strongest that Putin has ever experienced, belonged to the first wave of protests, when social media emancipated authorship and enabled alternative agenda-setting among the young, urban, educated and progressive; those who get digitized first in any society. In February 2012, published my column “On the Institutions’ perplexity regarding the Net,” which described many phenomena, now observed in many anti-establishment rebellions of the Cloud against the Pyramid. I decided to translate that text, with some minor adjustments. It is worth noting that the protests were peaceful and also very unexpected and puzzling for Putin’s elites, as the economic and political conditions at the time seemed quite positive. Election rigging served as a trigger. And even this was unusual, as rigging by the ruling elites had never been a big deal in Russia. Having faced an unusual type of protest, the elites were confused. They literally did not know whom to suppress or negotiate with; and this is in a country with the rich authoritarian traditions.

(The following is a translation of that 2012 piece that was focused on how much the Kremlin establishment was surprised by the odd and out-of-paradigm nature of those protests. AM – 2019.)


On the Institutions’ perplexity regarding the Net

The conflict of the authorities with the Net-driven protest resembles the standoff between the old media and the blogosphere. As is the case as those in authority, the media’s bosses claim that there can be no replacement to their institutions. According to the media, who else but the media can tell society what it wants to know about itself? The bloggers provide no real alternative. How valid can news brought to the public by a mob of self-appointees be? They don’t even have newsrooms.

The establishment demands a dispersed entity to be a centralized structure. The establishment then finds that the Net does not possess such a quality (you bet!) and pronounces this as a proof of the establishment’s indispensability.

If so, why worry? But they do. Because there is clearly something going on.

Two modes of human organizations have clashed: the Institutions as established structures and the Net as an environment. The rigid formation and fluid uncertainty. The Pyramid and the Cloud. Whom will history prefer?


Italy is shaped like a boot, and the Institutions can be conceived of as a pyramid. In contrast to hierarchy, the Net has no form, though it is often visualized as a cloud. The puffy swirling clots of sporadic gravitas in the bouillon of anarchy.

Within the Cloud, authority is situational. It rests not upon regalia and ranks but upon competence (or confidence) in a concrete matter at a concrete moment. The centers of agenda production are numerous and given to nobody to control, neither for a four-year term, nor a month. This does not mean there are no leaders; it means everyone can dare to be one.

With this, leadership is reachable for the rank and file. Any leader is within click’s reach from any assessment by any blogger. A leader is susceptible to homage to the same extent as to mockery. This level of unceremoniousness is unthinkable for the Institutions.


The fluidity of the Net’s environment leaves no one to be authorized for a parley with the Institution. This is not to speak of its inability to authorize anyone or anything at all. As soon as delegates appear or self-authorize, they get immediately challenged by the rest of the Cloud. Any Net’s delegates are always illegitimate because the opinion of the environment is not delegated.

If the self-appointed delegates of the Net will take too much upon themselves, they will get the same “You do not represent us!” as officials of the Institutions. (In Russian, the phrase “You do not represent us!” – «Вы нас даже не представляете!» –  simultaneously means “You do not even ideate who we are!”, which makes it a perfect slogan for the cause. AM – 2019.) The Net lives under the law of direct democracy. It is a permanent plebiscite on each and any matter.

Direct democracy does not need representatives. Each individual stands for themselves. Even mechanisms of opinion production by the majority do not work. On the Net, if a consensus is achievable, this consensus is of the size of public opinion, because it is public opinion.

This is why the Institutions cannot meet the Net at the bargaining table. Their mechanisms of representation do not have common touchpoints: the Net simply does not have representation.


Regalia are irrelevant inside the continuing plebiscite. The hierarchy does not tolerate the discussion, and the discussion does not tolerate the hierarchy. But the nature of their mutual intolerance is different. The hierarchy forbids discussion, while the discussion is indifferent to hierarchy. For the Pyramid, the rejection of discussion is a survival need, while for the Cloud the rejection of hierarchy is a product of, well, indifference. Within the Net, the hierarchy gets cast out in the discussion. Not by ban but by competition. The Cloud dissolves the hierarchy.

In the clash with the Cloud, the Pyramid wants a comfortable opponent that would play by institutional rules. For a splendid little war, the Institutions need something similar: structure-shaped, sanctioned, delegated and dosed, but without the regalia and without the backup of bureaucracy. That what the Institutions would like to face under the label of the Net at the bargaining table. But to their surprise, they never get it.

This is why the Institutions require that the Net reduce itself to a form digestible for them. But the environment of peers is not able to put forward someone or something authorized. It has no bosses, no appointees, except those who are self-appointed, which are the same as others in their rights, but just more active in their actions or, rather, posts.


On the Net, one’s gravitas is shaped by content. Those who create better content are powerful. For the Net opinion to be gathered and expressed, publicism fits better than politics. The Net leaders are spokespersons; they do not represent, they express.

Old political parties, if they smart enough, try to maintain technical support for the Net activity and cannot ask for more. They are strangers to the Net because they are institutional entities.

By the same token, those counting on the Net as a political trampoline should produce content. The leader of the Net-driven protests is the media in the first place and only then and through it – a politician.

The Institutions, if they want to negotiate with the Net for real, should talk to publicists, not delegates. There are no mandates on the Net, only content.


In the institutional world, humans compete for resources or something to obtain. The main purpose of the Institutions is to distribute resources.

Everything is contrariwise on the Net. People compete by giving: by contributing time, competence and passion. Such is the nature of posts, likes, and shares, the main Net activities.

On the Net, a person not only gives away his or her time, competence and passion, they also contend with others doing the same. The aim is response, a nonmaterial resource and not a resource at all – from the point of view of the Institutions. The currency of response is already distributed evenly among all. Everyone possesses his or her share of response by default. Such is the presetting of the Net. Everyone is entitled to pay with response to others for content out of his or her own free will.

The power of the Cloud is based on the mechanisms of response extraction. The Institutions out of the game within such a value system. They have nothing to distribute on the Net that would have been in their exclusive possession.


The Institutions arose in the era of scarcity. They have been useful under conditions of deficit of something. The distribution of scarce resources has given the Institutions meaning, hierarchy and power.

Human cooperation in the form of the Net is possible on the condition of sufficiency or, best of all, abundance. This is why the Net protests against the Institutions are fueled mainly by those whose basic needs are satisfied, whereas those in need remain the clients of the Institutions.

Moreover, in the Net environment, an abundance of a new type has been reached. This is an abundance of information. (No wonder that the media institutions suffer from the digital technologies foremost. When abundant, information loses its value, and the establishment that used to distribute it loses ground and power.)


Consumerism is playing a significant role in the evolutionary leap from the Pyramid to the Cloud.

Consumer culture fulfils an important psychological and even political function: it habituates people to consumer standards. According to these standards, individual consumers matter. This is something completely new and unusual for an authoritarian society. The consumer starts seeing themselves as a subject in a legal relationship, not as an object (or even a victim) as was the case in the Soviet Union.

For the rise of individual social consciousness (or, rather, feeling), the consumer has become what taxpayer/bourgeois was in the era of bourgeois revolutions of the 16-18 Centuries. It atomizes the source of the political and undermines the indisputability of Leviathan.

When, for some historical reason, a free market is allowed in an authoritarian society, consumerism starts teaching people that they have individual demands and, therefore, individual rights. It works much better than propaganda because it naturally becomes a part of everyone’s everyday life. Consumerism is a capitalist agent of democracy.


Having learned to value their consumer rights, people gradually carry over similar demands from commercial services to the state. The state starts to be seen as another service. It must be executed with due service standards and with due respect to the consumer/citizen. This is unthinkable for an authoritarian state, as it desacralizes the Institution of the State.

A growing consumer culture fosters in people recognition of their individual value and voice. When people are shown respect in a restaurant but not in an authorities office and when state services seriously lag behind commercial services in terms of quality, consumer demands unavoidably turn into political ones. Well-educated consumers very quickly discover that the formula “the customer is always right” is also formally built into the constitution, under the guise of the rhetoric of something like “people are the source of power.”

When the rise of consumer culture coincides with the proliferation of social media, the two overlap and reinforce each other. This is what has happened to many developing societies. Emancipated authorship along with recognition of one’s own individual rights release personal activity into the area of social interests. Consumer rights turn to civil rights. This shatters the rigid norms of a closed society that always imposes duties rather than rights on citizens.


The highest form of consumerism – conspicuous, or unnecessary, consumption – has particular significance. Conspicuous consumption is a transitional form from the competition for material resources to the competition for social statuses. The latter precisely fits what people do on social media.

Conspicuous consumption signifies the escape from essential needs. Triggered by abundance, it starts undermining institutional principles based on deficit.

In its turn, conspicuous consumption quickly loses its drive, as the quantitative increase in saturation decreases the quality of pleasure. Buying the fifth car when already owning four is not as pleasurable as buying the first car when you are a pedestrian.

In the environment of accelerated information sharing, conspicuous consumption moves even faster and further from the pleasure of use toward the pleasure of possessing and exposing for the sake of maintaining social status. But abundance kills joy. As bankers know, accelerated monetary emissions decrease the value of the currency. On Instagram, everyone can make or fake pictures from fashionable resorts or with luxury cars. In a highly shared environment of abundance, “conspicuous” matters more and more, while “consumption” is devalued.

At some point, the competition of conspicuous consumption turns to the competition of conspicuous contribution. Not statistically (not in each and every case) but evolutionarily (meaning historically). Celebrities and trendsetters of the developed world compete not in fur and gold but in charity. Competition in “receiving” turns to competition in “giving”. Symbolic capital grows from return on sharing.

Conspicuous consumption historically precedes this shift, transferring the concept of value from materiality to sociality – from areas of need to areas of status. Conspicuous consumption makes our vanity ready to be digitized.


Stature-appropriate consumption turns to stature-appropriate sharing. In the Cloud, the better socialized are those who give away more time, competencies and passion. Getting people off this course is possible only through the reduction of the leading values onto the preceding level, the level of material needs’ deficit. In other words, by decreasing people’s well-being. The only way to reverse the move from Pyramid to the Cloud is throwing people from the top of Maslow’s Pyramid down to their basic needs. And contrariwise: the higher the level of well-being, the more hipsters, activists and others, who deny the authority of the established Institutions, appear.

The Internet creates the best technical and social opportunity to contribute, share and distribute. Abundance arises on the Internet much faster and easier than in the material world. This is the abundance of information. Unlike material goods, information does not disappear when consumed. Moreover, being consumed, information is reproduced. While consumption leads to scarcity in the Institutional world, in the Net environment consumption enables reproduction and leads to abundance. Information abundance is a necessary byproduct of information consumption.

This is why the switch from consumption to contribution in the role of a social regulator, which may take centuries and is not guaranteed in the material world, occurred on the Internet almost immediately.

Will the concept of deficit be completely removed in the Cloud? No; it will change. As the Pyramid operates on the deficit of goods, the Cloud operates on the deficit of time. The spatial value dimension of the Pyramid turns into the temporal value dimension in the Cloud (where space and the spatial are irrelevant). This is another morphological mismatch between the Pyramid and the Cloud; the mismatch between the spatial and the temporal. The consequences of this will be fully unveiled when humans resettle into the Net completely in the next 20–30 years.


The Institutions envy the Net’s involvement and passion. The Institutions cannot count on such involvement, so they try to buy it. The strategy of corrupting activists is long-familiar in the Institutional world as a method to fight protests. This strategy can be used on the Net, but, surprisingly, it does not bring the expected result.

Real involvement consists of time, competence and passion. You can always buy time and sometimes buy minds, but never passion. The incomplete character of paid involvement makes the bought product of the Institutions beforehand weaker than the altruistic product of the Net.

(In 2019, seven years later and amid the new Russian and particularly Chinese achievements in controlling the Net, I would reconsider this statement. Passion is still an advantage of the Cloud over the Pyramid, but it can be suppressed (temporarily?). More importantly, time and competence, when bought in a huge amount and sufficient quality, are able to corrupt the Net environment in accordance with the Institutions’ interests, particularly when supported by smart repressions. – AM, 2019.)

Buying no more than time but being unable to mobilize free mind and passion, the Institutions promote those ready to contribute the hours and days of their life; these are the diligent, meaning the loyal.

At the end of the day, loyalty becomes the main, and then the only, virtue. Negative selection becomes the flip side of Institutional stability and eventually undermines stability itself. The talented and passionate are left to lead the Institutions or to rebel against them. The history of Institutions is the history of the revolutions against them.


The institutional person holds the view that the Net will create solid structures that will become new institutional forms. How could we go without them? We have been in captivity to a thousand-year-old myth that the structure with a rigid hierarchy is the best means of efficient, sustainable collective action.

Meanwhile, the efficiency of the spontaneous actions of the Net has already been proven. However, their regularity, sustainability and consistency are still questionable.

Perhaps the solutions will be found in new networked organizational forms such as Wiki or Ushahidi; in economic forms such as fundraising, pay-what-you-want and others (to which blockchain can be added, for example – AM, 2019). In a society of abundance, the economy of donations replaces the economy of investment. Investment is replaced by contribution. You need to place your contribution for the reward of acknowledgement and status growth. In the Cloud, capital return turns into social capital return. Gradually, this becomes not an opportunity but a requirement. Something akin to a socialist society arises: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their engagement.”


The regularity, sustainability and consistency of the Net activity can be supported by the heavy authors who create themes, treads and trends. The Net activity rests on discourses, and discourses are maintained by the heavy authors. If the discourse is important, the lazy authors, who contribute just liking, sharing and reactive commenting, enter the all-out rush for the response. The lazy authors, through their minimal to medium personal activity, create the clouds around the heavy authors, whose gravitas forms the multiple centers of gravitation in the Cloud. Potentially, the massive involvement is as big as the size of the active part of society. Therefore, all the experts and witnesses on any case and matter are in.

As time, competence and passion are currency in the economy of likes, people eventually figure out what contributions will bring them more likes, better response and higher status. The Internet made users; the “likes” made them equal. Within the equality of opportunities, the most competent, and/or the most passionate, and/or the most time-devoted – they transform the Brownian motion of the Net into more or less coherent movements.

Positive selection is at work. Better responses encourage better contributions; those able to contribute better inevitably get engaged for the sake of better responses, as it is the easiest way to grow social capital. Therefore, the heavy authors, who are able to maintain important discourses, are always already on the scene.

After the interfaces of mass interaction become developed enough, the Cloud will obtain the required regularity of spontaneous reactions and will be able to compete with the Pyramid in sustainability and consistency, similar to how a flow can compete with a chunk when strong enough.


The demographic base is the strongest argument of the Institutions. The number of those willing to receive is always larger than the number of those willing to give.

No wonder the guardians of regime point out how insignificant are the demographic proportion of those who rebel against the regime. The characteristics of this stratum, such as age, education, ambitions, mode of consumption, digitalization, progressiveness, and others are satirized.

The demographic motif in ridiculing the Net progressiveness is one of degradation in its essence because it valorizes backwardness. The same arguments are used by the old media establishment: the old media are in high demand and are the only source of information because most of the population has not been digitized yet. The proponents of this “backwardness argument” do not even recognize that the argument itself is pointed backward and explain the past that has been fading every new day.

(Since then, the demographic base of the Net has changed drastically, but its characteristics are still disdained or ridiculed by the guardians of the establishment; though this confrontation between the Pyramid and the Cloud has enabled completely different political forces on the global scene since 2016. – AM, 2019.)

In politics, the emphasis on backwardness leads to the negative filter of selection and the inciting of strata and generations. Polarization is one of the major effects of the clash between the Pyramid and the Cloud. The strategy of the Institutions now is the strategy of delay based on confrontation.


One could imagine that the Cloud could respond with a strategy of compromise. But this is not what the Net is able to do. This is not to speak of the deafness of the Net to any calls and its inability to maintain any managed actions. The selection mechanism of the Net, the Viral Editor, is able to elaborate and refine the most adequate agenda for the end-user, but this personal agenda of everyone will never be the joint standpoint of the Net.

As strange as it may sound, compromise and collaboration between the Institutions and the Net depends on the Institutions and not on the Net. The Institutions are the only part of this duet that is able to make a volitional decision. We are at a transitional stage from the Pyramid to the Cloud. That is why most actions, in which the collective result is a product of intended efforts, have been done by the Institutions.

Until the Net reaches demographic, moral and social dominance, it will be capable of challenges, demands and rebellions only. The Net is extremely creative within itself, but it is exceptionally disruptive outside, in the dialogue with the Institutions.

The answers to questions, the supplies to demands and the appeasement of rebellions are the burden and responsibility of the Institutions. The question is whether they are willing to delay or to adjust. Delays are possible, too. In this case, decisive changes happen later, louder and in a more polarized environment.

Andrey Mir

Excerpts from “Postjournalism and the death of newspapers. The media after Trump: manufacturing anger and polarization”


Categories: Emancipation of Authorship, Human as media book, Media ecology

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1 reply


  1. Polarization studies are media studies – Human as Media

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