Just like countless summer evenings before, you’re on your way to the city centre. You turn around the last corner, and come to a halt next to a bench. The centre looks the same as always. “Where are they?” you think to yourself, scanning the small groups that drift across the cobblestones. Ah, fortunately that new guy – what’s his name, the tall one – is easy to spot among the throng of people. You walk over to join your friends, and they seem to be talking about some rather controversial issues – good then that the conversation gets lost in the drone of all the people. Sometimes a stranger approaches, interested in joining your conversation. You usually don’t mind, but if they look like trouble you send them away or change the topic.
You may consider the scenario described above a little mundane and somewhat boring. You might also recognise that this is not exactly how many conversations are held these days. Of course, people still meet in the city centre, but when is the last time you actually talked to a stranger in public, much less engaged with them about abortion, their stance on Indian-Pakistani relations, or the future of humanity? How many of your conversations with friends happen on WhatsApp or Telegram rather than during a lazy evening out and about? Given this reality, let’s examine the scenario above once again, but this time honing in on where conversations in today’s world often play out: the online sphere.
As you do so many times each day, you open your favourite social networking app – if no-one’s deactivated your account, that is. Just as the last time, what you see is what’s on your friends’ and contacts’ minds – if the owners of the network haven’t decided to change their algorithm. You decide to share some of your thoughts – if no one’s decided that such thoughts are not “appropriate” for posting on this platform. You’re also a member in a couple of groups visible only to your friends or fellow activists – if that network doesn’t share information with advertisers or governments, that is.
As you can see, there are many ifs that apply to online social networks, and we’re often not aware of them. Town squares and city centres were quickly replaced by their digital counterparts, but they are far from the same thing. We often forget that these private online spaces are structured in fundamentally different ways and governed by fundamentally different principles than offline spaces.
Democratic principles govern our public spaces – admittedly, often only in theory depending on the city. At least in democracies, we insist on deciding together how we would like our society to function. If the government wants to put cameras and microphones all over our city, we protest it or vote out the politicians behind the policy. In deciding on the rules that regulate our public spaces – and our lives more generally – what should matter is how we all use them. For example, you might feel it’s important for you to freely talk about personal and controversial topics when you meet your friends. Quite reasonably, however, you might feel afraid to do so if the city centre was covered with surveillance equipment. Thus, it’s natural to think that this should influence how we structure life in the city centre. In short, city centres are public spaces, and we all should be involved in their design.
Economic principles govern our most popular digital spaces, but profitability is a poor guide for democratic values. Facebook, Google, and Amazon’s first order of business is – unsurprisingly enough – business. This business largely involves showing you ads, tempting you to buy stuff you didn’t know you needed. To do this effectively, these companies have to know as much about you as possible. And so, they design their systems such that, first, you spend as much time on their platforms as possible, second, share copious amounts of useful personal information, and third, they can easily collect this information. Facebook is therefore much more likely to design a system that makes you declare, “I love jelly beans!” than, “I hate what they’ve done to our city centre!” The first allows them to sell you jelly beans, whereas the second does not. But from a democratic perspective, the second is far more valuable. Economically governed spaces don’t encourage democratically valuable engagement.
Moreover, it’s far easier to monitor what millions of people do online than to hire a hundred spies to cover a single city centre. And what is true at the level of the town square is even more so when we speak about countries or the whole world. It’s also, generally, easier to see what is going on in a city centre or town square. We can estimate who may be listening to us, who wants to join in, and who is standing suspiciously close by. The workings of the online sphere are, in contrast, hidden from us and thus, difficult for us to assess. We have little idea who might be able to see what post on Facebook or who might be listening in on our Skype call.
It’s dangerous to privatise our offline public sphere, yet this is exactly what we have done online. And the risks that come with this aren’t “just personal,” they are highly political and concern us all. It’s time we design and use our own community-oriented public spaces online. To this end, we need to understand that the only way we can ensure that these spaces are designed for our needs is to make sure that we are in control of their design.
This means, first of all, that we should increase regulation and oversight of today’s social networking behemoths. But this is not sufficient; true community-driven platforms are needed. And it’s important that there are a wide variety of them: we live in diverse societies, and that diversity should be reflected in our online spaces. But this very diversity of our societies makes it also important that we talk to each other – not just with our friends and family, but also the equivalent of that random stranger you meet in the city centre. For that reason, and also to break the current networks’ near monopolies, it is important that online platforms are interoperable so that information can flow from one platform to the next.
A wide variety of networks linked up to foster valuable interactions might just be what we need to counter the current trend of polarisation and populism online. Let’s care about our online spaces like we care about our city centres!