Consumers have sensed this and are already moving toward a digital social environment of smaller and more governable spaces. You can see this in the rise of Discord, Slack, group chats, and Web3 DAOs—spaces that feel more ownable, governable, and safe than the legacy commercial platforms. However, these spaces tend to be either high-quality, well-moderated, and homogenous, with a subscription business model, or a low-quality, heterogeneous free-for-all. The critical project that the new wave of startups have little incentive to solve for is building free, heterogeneous, well-moderated communities—and that’s where public-service digital spaces have a critical role to play.
Private and public funders should invest in smaller and more public governable spaces—the digital equivalents of parks and libraries—built toward specific community goals (for example, slower but respectful local conversation) rather than advertiser engagement.
As for what will draw people to participate in them, the dynamics of these new spaces can be informed by the ones in offline life. People don’t go to libraries to participate in civic democracy, they go to libraries to get books, access the internet, engage librarians, and use free community space—in other words, to meet disparate individual needs that commercial and market-based solutions will not. The fact that libraries build community strength and cohesion is a beneficial byproduct. There are plenty of these unmet needs in digital life as well—especially where building deep relationships and community is concerned. Meeting needs around social support and connection in a simple, enjoyable way can drive adoption of these spaces.
Some of these social spaces can also grow around existing public institutions. For example, New_ Public has been investigating how public-service digital conversations might be built around one of America’s largest and most public institutions: school communities. These communities contain many of the ingredients for building a healthy, pluralistic, cross-cutting public conversation: a shared identity and investment, a relatively high degree of diversity, and a need to communicate digitally. But, as researcher danah boyd has pointed out, schools are overburdened already, and weaving this “social network for democracy” isn’t anyone in particular’s job. The school community members in Oakland, California, we worked with saw an enormous unmet opportunity to help each other solve problems as caretakers, be more informed about their schools, and celebrate their kids accomplishments digitally (think the digital equivalent of a school talent show)—none of which are met by most of the existing tools around schools.
There’s still plenty of space in this vision for private businesses online, just as coffee shops don’t obviate the need for parks and bookstores don’t remove the need for libraries. In fact, as they do in the physical world, investments in digital social infrastructure could increase the value and health of businesses: They could take on some of the thorny functions and conversations that advertisers aren’t eager to support anyway and would be better managed by public servants.
Bringing online a digital environment conducive to healthy conversation and democracy will require a mix of space-size ambition and human-scale curiosity and care. We’ll need an explosion of experimentation to discover how to build different kinds of social spaces, and we’ll need to develop new methods to quickly assess what works and what doesn’t. We’ll need a significant amount of new philanthropic and public funding for this work. And we’ll need community entrepreneurs, digital urban planners, and public-interest technologists who are adept at building with the public in mind.
Getting our communications infrastructure right is an existentially important task. The fate of democracy—and our ability to solve big problems, from runaway AI to climate change to the next pandemic—depends on our ability to see each other, influence each other, and make meaning with each other. All of that will happen to a large degree in digital spaces.
We can build the kind of digital public spaces that actually help us come together effectively. Or we can continue to put our faith in Xi Jinping, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon, and hope for the best.
We know how that experiment plays out. It’s time to try a different one.
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