Listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, “On the Media“, I was introduced to the New Public Project, “which describes itself as “New_ Public is a place for thinkers, builders, designers and technologists like you to meet, share inspiration, and make better digital public spaces.” Much of the work builds on what planners have observed in offline urban settings to support community. Their work has included a framework for evaluating platforms for their “public friendliness”. They identify key “signals” described as “elements… that recur in flourishing public spaces.” I encourage you to check out the slideshow of their research overview or their interactive experience for a good introduction.
I am intrigued, and I’m just starting to read and learn more. If you want a quick submersion into work that is trying to build upon these ideas, they’ve just held an online New Public Festival, which you can explore either through the tweets posted during the festival, or through this issue of their newsletter that describes “Five Rousing Calls to Action” highlighted during the festival.
Of course, I have a favorite idea that Eli Pariser brought up on the aforementioned podcast during a segment on imagining our social media future where he discusses social programming, run by real people. He advocates learning lessons from parks and libraries as institutions who have focused on public life that is not about making money (or spying on us), but on educating and enriching citizen’s lives. Public libraries were, of course, established with the idea that a democracy required an informed population.
“When cities were starting, they didn’t have parks and there were real health consequences that were coming from that. When libraries became a part of many communities, it was when large groups of people were first becoming literate but couldn’t afford books. And so now here we are with the Internet, finding that, no, you can’t rely on a few big venture backed corporations to provide all of the services and serve all of the needs of public infrastructure. And, you know, in some ways that’s so obvious. Companies aren’t built to serve public needs.“
He further continues, “We’ve taken this concept of community and we’ve allowed ourselves to imagine that it can happen without the people whose jobs and whose focus it is to hold the community together.”
So in others, community support functions simply aren’t the kinds of activities that make sense in any profit-driven environment. They are simply “inefficient” from an economic sense. However, this doesn’t mean that work is not valuable.
The host, Brooke Gladstone, brings up, “Scholar Joan Donovan has called for 10,000 librarians for the Internet“. This is where my ears perked up. 🙂
Eli continues, “what Joan is calling for is this notion that the more you get close to how human beings are relating and how human beings are understanding, the harder it is to replace all of that with a fancy algorithm. And one thing about librarians is they know their local context and they understand the different constituencies that are involved. All of that knowledge is really important in figuring out how to make a space welcoming and thought provoking.“
I haven’t heard librarians discussing this research, although we’ve certainly discussed around these ideas. But it makes me think there’s definitely an opportunity for collaboration with some very smart, motivated people to help develop better public spaces (and to improve library presence, both online and off).
One thing I think librarians have led the way on based on our experience and knowledge has been the importance of establishing safety as opposed to unfettered “free speech”– this has also been borne out by research that Eli describes, “The loudest and often most entitled voices get heard the most because there are no rules. Communities have to have norms in order to function. One of our advisors is Nathan Matteus, who has this fascinating research about Reddit, where he looks at Reddit Channel, where some folks saw a list of rules about how to engage and some folks didn’t. And you might think this is going to put people off to show them all of the rules. Actually, the opposite was true, that especially for women and folks of color, they were more likely to engage when they saw the rules because there was some sense of organization and safety and therefore I feel comfortable participating.”
I would argue that when people are too intimidated to participant, you’ve already damaged free speech– which is why I can’t support positions like Seattle Public Library hosting The Women’s Liberation Front, or the idea that we shouldn’t ban white supremacists from our meeting rooms (yes, some people have actually suggested this).
So I have floated this idea before, to tepid reception among library folks (and I understand why, it’s difficult and expensive, and highly likely to fail miserably given the lack of interest the public has shown before in being social on library websites), but I wonder if some national or international cooperative could be created to develop a true alternative social platform to Facebook or Twitter (or Parler)– a virtual library meeting room, if you will– that could combine the professional ethics of librarianship and our reputation as trusted institutions to build out an alternative that both discourages (we probably can’t ever eliminate) misinformation, while also providing safe opportunities for online community building.
It seems that some folks outside of libraries are actually asking us to do this.
What do you think?
To Thrive, Our Democracy Needs Digital Public Infrastructure
These disinformation researchers saw the coronavirus ‘infodemic’ coming
Social-media companies must flatten the curve of misinformation
You Missed a Spot, January 15 episode of On the Media podcast
Five Rousing Calls to Action
New Public Festival