Nov 18, 2019
Metaphors for public discourse
Epistemic Status Currently just a reference document for metaphors I've encountered. I am not making any assertions about the validity or coherence of each metaphor.

In all aspects of life, … we define our reality in terms of metaphors and then proceed to act on the basis of the metaphors. We draw inferences, set goals, make commitments, and execute plans, all on the basis of how we in part structure our experience, consciously and unconsciously, by means of metaphor. — George Lakoff + Mark Johnson

This post is a catalogue of alternate metaphors I’ve encountered for public discourse, for related concepts such as the media, collective attention or academia, and for their respective failure modes such as clickbait, disinformation and censorship.

Taxonomies are useful conceptual tools, because sparsely populated sections of a well-constructed taxonomy can prompt us to perceive and articulate phenomena that would otherwise be subject to hypocognition. In a similar way, exploration of the unused parts of existing metaphors can guide us towards new conceptual frameworks on which to base future action. Throughout, I’ve included (in blue) suggestions for new ways in which the metaphors might be plausibly extended.

This post is a working document, and will be updated and revised as I encounter new metaphors and my thinking evolves. For now, I’ve tried to refrain from making value claims about the relative coherence and usefulness of each metaphor.


public discourse is marketplace of ideas Those who have new ideas, or advocate for existing ones, are ‘producers’. Those who agree with an idea are ‘consumers’. idea is product
advocating for an idea is production
agreeing with an idea is consumption
Extensions of the metaphor include: attention is money eg. “paying attention"
mainstream media is monopoly
academia is monopoly
slower social media is stock exchange circuit breaker See: Robin Sloan on social media.
clickbait is false advertising
any purveyer of falsehood is racket
fait divers is negative externality of consumption
censorship is product ban
samizdat is contraband

public discourse is marketplace of attention Those with attention to give are ‘producers’ of attention, and those who want other people’s attention are ‘consumers’ of attention. attention is product See: Craig Mod on attention accounting.
giving attention is production
attracting attention is consumption (of people’s attention)
The ‘money’ is the benefit people think they will get from paying attention to something. truth is money
entertainment is money
sense of belonging is money
Extensions of the metaphor include: clickbait is counterfeit money
misleading thumbnail is counterfeit money
sleep is rival business See: statements to this effect by Netflix CEO.
time people spend on the internet is commons
information overload is tragedy of the commons

public discourse is marketplace of influence Those who manipulate public opinion are ‘producers’ of influence, those who want to manipulate public opinion are ‘consumers’ of influence. public opinion is product
changing public opinion is production soliciting change in public opinion is consumption Extensions of the metaphor include: political technology is manufacturing eg. “manufacturing dissent"
declining trust is negative externality of production


public discourse is ecosystem Ideas exist as ‘lifeforms’ in some environment and are subject to evolutionary pressures. Nadia Eghbal puts forward a darker version of the metaphor, in which parasitic ideas are the primary agents in competition, using humans as host organisms. misinformation is pollution
misinformation is wildfire See: here.
disinformation is parasite See: here.
meme is gene
meme development is natural selection See: Eleizer Yudkowsky on overzealous selectionary pressures.
James Curcio mapped out a more detailed metaphor on Modern Mythology, which entails the following. cultural information is pollen
advertising is flower nectar
branding is flower nectar
person is bee
myth is genetic code


public discourse is war "If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory.” See: this and this by Renee DiResta. public opinion is battlefield
persuasion is military occupation
agreeing with an idea is being occupied territory
Extensions of the metaphor include: coordinated disinformation is military operation domestic politics is civil war
current disinformation defense is maginot line
information overload is ddos attack
waldenponding is desertion See: Venkatesh Rao on waldenponding.
waldenponding is conscientious objection

World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation. — Marshall McLuhan

Urban Planning

public discourse is town improving public discourse is urban planning

Public Health

public discourse is public health Twitter have started to talk a lot about trying to optimise for ‘healthy public discourse’. See, eg. here. information exposure is diet See: Future Crunch.
social media is fast food See: Clay Routledge.
information literacy education is innoculation See: paper on ‘innoculation’ against climate change misinformation.
polarisation is mental health issue “Polarisation is a mental health issue that results from collective trauma and threat perception.” See: the Collective Psychology Project, introduced by Alex Evans here. Also, more on psychological perspective of polarisation.


politics is religion tv news is sermon
group outrage is lapidation See: Cass Sunstein on group outrage.
being banned is martyrdom “[Media manipulators] believe that being digitally crucified is to their cause’s long-term advantage, especially if media outlets will cover their digital execution.” See Danah Boyd on responsible journalism.
across party lines is interfaith


space of possible worldviews is high-dimensional euclidean space All individuals occupy a point in the space, the coordinatees of which describe their opinions, worldview, and information consumption habits. (I originally saw this on Twitter but I can’t find the tweet.) The claim was that certain geometric properties of high-dimensional space fit with our intuition for how the space of public opinion operates. In particular, it is possible for two points in high-dimensional space to be ‘close’ along any one dimension, but that these small differences will accumulate and mean that the Euclidean distrance between the two points is very large. Likewise, in the space of possible worldviews, two individuals may have very similar opinions on the vast majority of topics, and very similar information consumption habits, but that any small differences accumulate and the two worldviews overall are incompatible.

Thank you to Peter Pomerantsev for a conversation on this topic.