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How to Build Thriving Digital Public Spaces

Much of communal life now takes place virtually in digital spaces that feel public but are not. The internet needs to be more like our public parks, libraries, and public squares.
November 3, 2020, 9am PST | clementkhlau | @clemusc
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With public health orders to physically distance and not gather in groups, many of us have turned to digital spaces to communicate, gather, and share. This thoughtful piece by Eli Pariser makes the case that the internet is broken and that we need to remake our digital spaces to be more like the public parks, libraries, and public squares that we cherish.

As strange as it may sound, Pariser explains how lessons from parks can be applied to the creation of virtual public spaces. Pariser draws inspiration from a local park and the poet Walt Whitman, saying "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.'"

While Facebook and Twitter may seem public, they are privately owned and are actually more like "walled gardens" where the corporate owner has complete control. Also, these platforms seem to have served to divide rather than connect us or engage us in fruitful discourse, especially during these trying times.

The article goes on to identify three challenges that need to be addressed to build thriving digital public spaces:

  1. Money: Philanthropy is one source; another idea is to tax targeted advertising and use those funds to shore up democratic functions that the big tech platforms have eroded, such as local journalism.
  2. Talent and Research Problem: A diverse and representative generation of builders, including both people inside and outside of technology-related fields, is needed to build something seamless, intuitive, and irresistible that allows millions of people to interact
  3. Public Imagination: Building digital public spaces that mirror the physical public spaces that we love is a big job and requires more than just a technological solution. 

Creativity is needed to tackle a problem of this urgency and consequence. Pariser concludes by reminding us that we have tackled problems of this magnitude before. The public park is only one of many ideas implemented to enact America’s egalitarian values. Another example is public libraries which opened at the turn of the 20th century to help foster literacy nationwide.

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Published on Tuesday, October 13, 2020 in Wired
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