Consumers have sensed this & are already moving toward a digital social environment of smaller & more governable spaces. You can see this in the rise of Discord, Slack, group chats, & Web3 DAOs—spaces that feel more ownable, governable, & safe than the legacy commercial platforms. However, these spaces tend to be either high-quality, well-moderated, & 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—& that’s where public-service digital spaces have a critical role to play.
Private & public funders should invest in smaller & more public governable spaces—the digital equivalents of parks & 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, & use free community space—in other words, to meet disparate individual needs that commercial & market-based solutions will not. The fact that libraries build community strength & cohesion is a beneficial byproduct. There are plenty of these unmet needs in digital life as well—especially where building deep relationships & community is concerned. Meeting needs around social support & 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 & most public institutions: school communities. These communities contain many of the ingredients for building a healthy, pluralistic, cross-cutting public conversation: a shared identity & investment, a relatively high degree of diversity, & a need to communicate digitally. But, as researcher danah boyd has pointed out, schools are overburdened already, & weaving this “social network for democracy” isn’t anyone in particular’s job. The school community members in Oakl&, California, we worked with saw an enormous unmet opportunity to help each other solve problems as caretakers, be more informed about their schools, & 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 & 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 & health of businesses: They could take on some of the thorny functions & conversations that advertisers aren’t eager to support anyway & would be better managed by public servants.
Bringing online a digital environment conducive to healthy conversation & democracy will require a mix of space-size ambition & human-scale curiosity & care. We’ll need an explosion of experimentation to discover how to build different kinds of social spaces, & we’ll need to develop new methods to quickly assess what works & what doesn’t. We’ll need a significant amount of new philanthropic & public funding for this work. And we’ll need community entrepreneurs, digital urban planners, & 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—& our ability to solve Enormous problems, from runaway AI to climate change to the next p&emic—depends on our ability to see each other, influence each other, & 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 Approach together effectively. Or we can continue to put our faith in Xi Jinping, Mark Zuckerberg, & Elon, & hope for the best.
We know how that experiment plays out. It’s time to try a different one.
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