What social networks can learn from public spaces

Photo Illustration by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty ImagesIn the aftermath of the Great Deplatforming of the past week, we’ve seen a thoughtful debate over the power and limits of taking away a person’s ability to post online. It’s...

What social networks can learn from public spaces

In the aftermath of the Great Deplatforming of the past week, we’ve seen a thoughtful debate over the power and limits of taking away a person’s ability to post online. It’s a blunt but powerful tool for punishing people who would use your platform to incite violence or commit other crimes. But building healthy, happy communities requires much more than removing their worst users. You don’t have a healthy media ecosystem just because Donald Trump no longer dominates it.

With that in mind — and in an effort to turn our attention to some constructive ideas after a terrifying week — today I want to talk about an effort to design better digital spaces. For those of you who work on platforms, or hope to someday, I hope it will spark a sense of what else could be possible in your work. And for those of us who live and work on these platforms, I hope the ideas shared here give us a better sense of what we could and should demand from the digital world.

The ideas come from Civic Signals, a new nonprofit organization dedicated to building “flourishing, public-friendly digital spaces.” It’s led by Eli Pariser, author of the 2011 bestseller The Filter Bubble and the co-founder of Upworthy; and Talia Stroud, director of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. For the past two years, they led an inquiry into what makes for good digital spaces. And on Tuesday, the first day of their inaugural New Public Festival, they released the results of their research. (You can find it all here.)

The research began with the observation that in the offline world, healthy communities have traditionally been served by thriving public spaces: town squares, libraries, parks, and so on. Like digital social networks, these spaces are open to all. But unlike those networks, they are owned by the community rather than a corporation. As you would expect, that difference results in a very different experience for the user.

Public spaces display a number of features that build healthier communities, according to researchers. “Humans have designed spaces for public life for millennia,” they write, “and there are lessons here that can be helpful for digital life.”

Here’s a list (emphasis theirs). These spaces:

Develop programming — social activities — that draw different groups in, without over-optimizing for any one group Offer visual cues as to what kinds of behavior are invited in the space Are designed to be physically accessible and attractive to many different populations Engage stewards, leaders, and maintainers who can do the labor of community-building Are designed in partnership with the communities that use them

Save for the third bullet point on that list, these are not features that I would associate with any of our largest social platforms. And that begins to explain, I think, the rot we find throughout them. Giant, rudderless communities left to imagine for themselves what they ought to do on a platform, or how they ought to behave, often turn on one another.

Imagine if a Facebook, or a Reddit, or a YouTube offered actual programming to these communities — constructive, creative tasks that go beyond individual fundraisers or the creation of content. Would they not wind up with services that they were more proud of?

It’s relatively easy to imagine what this might look like. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been captivated by the story of the TikTok users who took it upon themselves to write a musical inspired by the Pixar film Ratatouille. It happened spontaneously — and raised $1.9 million for The Actors Fund — but there’s no reason other platforms couldn’t similarly goad their users into creativity, philanthropy, or other ends more compelling than the traditional like, comment, and share.

On Monday, I attended a virtual briefing with Pariser and Stroud to learn about their findings. While they began with drawing analogies to the physical world, their research ultimately explored the possibilities contained within digital-only spaces as well. Ultimately, the team identified 14 design principles for building better digital spaces. The principles are grouped into four categories:

Welcoming new users to the space and to conversations within it. Helping people to understand the world. Connecting people across hierarchies and divides. Enabling people to act together.

What I love about these principles is that they take a point of view on human behavior. Facebook’s mission “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” reads somewhat similar to the bullet points above but is ultimately much less prescriptive about how the network ought to be used. The same could be said of Twitter’s mission to “serve the public conversation.”

The centerpiece of the Civic Signals research is a survey of more than 10,000 platform “super users” around the world about how well they believe existing social networks live up to the design principles identified in the research. The results are a mixed bag, as you would expect — Facebook ranked high for cultivating a sense of belonging and inviting everyone to participate, but low for showing people reliable information or ensuring people’s safety. Twitter ranked high on building bridges between groups, but low for showing reliable information.

For Pariser and Stroud, the lesson is that better digital spaces are both necessary and possible. The question is whether the principles they’ve identified can be incorporated into existing platforms, or if they will need to be baked into a new project from scratch. And should that new project be a traditional venture-backed startup or a digital public space managed by a government or nonprofit community?

When I asked them, they told me that they welcome experimentation. “We need private actors and more public platforms if we want all these needs to be met,” Pariser told me.

But perhaps because none has yet succeeded on a grand scale, it’s the prospect of a public digital space that intrigues me the most. It intrigues Pariser, too.

“If you look at physical communities, there’s a reason that libraries are libraries and not venture-backed bookstores,” Pariser said. “They do different things. And those functions are really important as well.”

Stroud noted that no existing platform had performed well across the board in its survey, suggesting that there could be significant demand for the sort of spaces envisioned by Civic Signals.

“And some of these are really base-level things that you would want in a space,” Stroud said — things like protecting users’ safety, or their data, or simply making them feel welcome when they join. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation.”

The New Public Festival continues online today and Thursday. You can attend virtually, and for free, at this link.


This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.