What digital spaces can do for democracy
To mend a broken internet, create online parks
Hi, Civic Signals community. We’re doing something a little different this week: from now through the November election, we’ll be running Holding It Together, a pop-up miniseries about digital spaces and democracy. As platforms like Twitter and Facebook announce that they’ll be temporarily suspending various features of their platforms in the name of protecting democracy, we want to think about some specific changes our digital spaces could make to build a stronger, more engaged public.
To start, I wanted to share an op-ed I published in Wired today. It’s about the ways our digital spaces can bring people together instead of tearing us apart, and it maps out concrete, actionable steps we can take to repair our public sphere.
In the piece, I argue:
Our digital public sphere has been failing for some time. Technologies designed to connect us have instead inflamed our arguments and torn our social fabric.
It doesn’t have to be this way. History offers a proven template for how to build healthier public spaces. As wild as it sounds, part of the solution is no further than your nearest public park.
As it happens, the park down the block from where I live is Fort Greene Park, which was argued into existence by Walt Whitman to help build a stronger social fabric in Brooklyn:
Whitman saw public spaces as critical elements of the new American democracy. They were spaces to celebrate individuality and build collective identity. Public parks, he argued, could help weave a greater, more egalitarian “we.”
I also pull out three primary reasons why our current digital spaces don’t accomplish what parks do. Part of the reason for this is the lack of “digital essential work” in our current platforms:
Any librarian can tell you that running a space that is truly welcoming to everyone is difficult and messy under the best of circumstances. Libraries would fail without librarians who are experts at diffusing tensions while serving a clientele that can range from young families to people with serious mental health vulnerabilities. And what librarians are to libraries, moderators and editors are to the realm of public ideas and discourse: balancers of freedom, inclusion, and safety.
Finally, I talk about the challenges we’ll need to overcome in order to make digital public spaces a reality and suggest some practical steps we can take to get us there.
I hope you’ll read the whole piece and share your reactions by email or Twitter @civic_signals. Or just drop us a comment below—we’d love to hear from you.
Civic Signals is a project I created with Talia Stroud to help make the ideas in today’s essay a reality. If our mission speaks to you—and you’re here, aren’t you?—please share it with a friend.
We have a lot of exciting announcements coming very soon that we can’t wait to tell you about. In the meantime, they may be walled gardens, but our Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn accounts will keep you updated on all things digital public space.
Co-director, Civic Signals
Illustration by Josh Kramer
Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America.