We need better online spaces than Twitter
Day four of our Rethink the Future Summit.
Welcome to the fourth day of Rethink the Future, a virtual launch summit we’re hosting March 6th-10th, 2023.
Today we’re speaking with, co-director of , about the future of the internet. In this conversation we discuss Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Mastadon, and the digital spaces the benefit (and fail to benefit) our lives. She outlines how digital spaces can be designed the same way we design public spaces, and how online communities could be healthier for our democracy.
Click the video above to watch or read the complete transcript below.
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Elle: You started as a research project called Civic Signals, now it's just Signals. Can you talk more about that?
Deepti: New_Public’s roots are there. We started with this question: What would it look like if you had if you could redesign the news feed so that it would be healthier and better for our democracy?
As we pursued that question, we thought it was a question grounded in information. But in fact, the problem that we're seeing within social media and within social networks are less about information, and more about people and what happens when large groups of diverse people gather and find themselves in the same space. That's what led us to look at space as a metaphor. What if we looked at the social networks as a space? Where would that take us in terms of what design affordances we would really be supporting?
That's the question we began to pursue. And we talked to a whole bunch of philosophers, political scientists, designers, and artists, about what a healthy digital space could look like. And I think there are a lot of things that we realized about space. For example, you act differently in a bar than you do in a library, which is different than how you act in your home. And when you're at a really large rally or a concert, the design of a space does really influence behavior. And so Civic Signals has been pursuing the question of “what does that space need to look like that would lead into pro-social behavior?”
That research, which is available on our website, really led to us thinking about space in four really important dimensions: It needs to be welcoming, it needs to support people, it needs to help us connect and understand one another, and then it needs to enable action. And so we're now in a process of really beginning to think about “what are the design features that would line up with each one of those pillars in a social digital space so that it actually leads to really healthy relationships and more cohesion and more plurality in a way that's really good for our democracy?”
Elle: I think you're speaking about some of the social media platforms we have now, and maybe Twitter in particular, when you speak about the digital spaces that exist right now. We were just talking earlier in the week withwho writes , and she was saying that designing better digital spaces often depends on some tech CEO to enact them. Is that how you're seeing this change happening?
Deepti: I think that our current options, whether it's Twitter or Facebook, are not the options that are going to support us in building the foundation of a healthy democracy, and it's for two main reasons. One is the advertising incentive model that governs these spaces, as we all know, led these spaces from initially being social networks—those places that would help us find our long-lost friends and deepen our connections with some of the people that is that we knew—to revenue generating machines. They moved from being social networks, to more of being social media—less community-building platforms and more audience-building platforms. That’s one really large issue.
The second we see is exactly what Jasmine talked about: centralized decision-making and centralized control over one space that is meant to be serving everybody is not going to work. And in fact, whenever I hear people call Twitter a “global town square,” my reaction is that that's an oxymoron. Like you don't have a global town square you purposefully have multiple town squares. And so the public's division is an ecosystem of lots of different small spaces, where one shows up based on their own multiple identities. You and I both have many different identities. You can show up in a community in a much more contextualized way. And ideally, these spaces can overlap with one another. But that one large space controlled by, frankly white men, is not going to be conducive to supporting kind of a pluralistic society.
Elle: You wrote in September of last year about this concept of the community entrepreneur that I think fits perfectly into what you're saying right now about creating these more communal town squares. What is your vision for that?
Deepti: Going back to our metaphor on public spaces and thinking about what makes parks and libraries spaces that support our society in really healthy ways, there are three things that we find: There's the built environment (the slides and the playgrounds and where we should sit or where the bookshelves should be), there is the programming that happens in the spaces (this is the librarian leading storytelling or leading a job fair), and the leadership (the person who decides what the design of that space should be, as well as what that programming should look like). As we envision this pluriverse we think of that built environment as the code that needs to be written. And then we think of the programmatic stuff as the programmatic things that need to happen in the digital spaces. And then we are referring to Reddit moderators or Facebook group admins as the leaders. In fact, we believe that the terminology “moderator” is a little bit nonrepresentative of the role they play in really leading these spaces.
Since I wrote that piece in September, my own thinking about community entrepreneurs has evolved. I think there are two really important kinds of leaders that we need to invest in for this healthy version of a social internet in the future. What are these community stewards? The librarians who ensure that the library is a really healthy place? These are the people who maintain the norms of a space, encourage good behavior, and also stop bad behavior. There's a really good example actually: Front Porch Forum is an organization in Vermont. Almost 70% of Vermont residents are in Front Porch and I think it's alive in every single town in Vermont. One of the reasons why it is a really successful, healthy space is because the moderators play such an important role in setting the norms and in governing what is and isn't allowed in the space.
I think a lot it is that we need to learn from community stewards, online and offline, to really think about what the governance, the care, and the maintenance of these spaces need to look like. And then we need to invest in them. Not as just admins or moderators, but truly as the leaders and caretakers of the spaces that we're all spending so much of our time in.
And then I think there's another group of community entrepreneurs, who are the ones imagining what these spaces can look like. I think of them as digital architects, digital urban planners, essentially the people who are really thinking “what should the built environment look like? What should the code be? What should the design affordances in these spaces be such that they are leading to healthier relationships, more cross-cutting relationships and more cohesion and more plurality?” I think that there's both this entrepreneurial piece around tech and design and code, but then also this piece around the stewardship of the spaces.
Elle: Are there other examples you can give about community entrepreneurs who are doing things right? Or digital spaces you've seen that you feel are doing things right? Or better?
Deepti: I shared Front Porch Forum. It's an example that we really love because I think we need to balance an investment in product and an investment in people because we think about what the future of the internet needs to look like. And I think Front Porch Forum is a great example of a very low code product and space, but one that has a high investment in people and in moderation to ensure that it is healthy.
Another example is Naj Austin—somebody who I look up to as a community entrepreneur who has been creating something called Somewhere Good. It’s a platform to help people develop shared interests in their local area and then continue that conversation in audio first, and then continue that conversation offline. New_Public is really interested in creating a movement to be able to support these spaces to actually get to scale so that more of us can be in more of them.
Elle: Are there healthy subreddits, healthy Discord servers, healthy Facebook groups? What kind of community models exist currently that you feel are a good model that we can use?
Deepti: I appreciate you coming back to the Facebook groups and the subreddits. As somebody who was working on Facebook groups for a big chunk of time in the last decade, I feel there are real limitations to what the architecture of Facebook groups can do, given what the North Star of Facebook is. We really believe there needs to be an investment in alternative spaces. We are really excited about what we're seeing happen with Mastodon and the fediverse. It is decentralized and not perfectly run from a governance perspective yet, but certainly puts more control and more agency into the hands of us as the community members versus in the hands of one or two people at the helm of a company.
Elle: You wrote an awesome post about the social network taxonomies where you talk about Mastodon and some of these alternative methods. Can you give us a walkthrough of the taxonomies as they exist now and where they're going?
Deepti:wrote this post. We were wondering what is the healthy ecosystem that we all want to be a part of? That is an ecosystem that, you know, has space for the Facebook and the Twitters of the world. These are really large platforms, we call them the big rooms that have been really helpful to galvanize and support social movements to be created. There are some use cases where we really do need to be able to get behind a microphone in order to galvanize lots of people together.
Then we have small room spaces like the subreddits or the Facebook groups, which have a really defined boundary around them and have some sort of shared interest or purpose that brings them together. One of the challenges of these spaces is that you can't actually see what's happening in the group unless you're part of the group. That's what made us really excited about what we're seeing happening on a fediverse like Mastodon where you could have all of these small groups existing. But yet, any one server can choose to make their content available to the rest of the community. There is a porousness between the communities, which we think is really important because if everybody is in their own Facebook group in their own boundary that's not porous. And that's just putting us deeper into our filter bubbles, as opposed to creating a world where we're able to interconnect and be exposed to new ideas and new kinds of people.
Then we have Front Porch Forum—it is not necessarily connected to anything else but doesn't need to be because the context of why you're joining that community in Vermont is about Vermont, it doesn't need to be connected with what's happening here in Berkeley. We call those very small online platforms, a play on the fact that a lot of the European regulators are calling the Facebooks of the world VLOPS, very large online platforms. This is where we're not advocating for a world where Facebook necessarily disappears. We wish it could govern itself according to a better set of principles. But we're advocating for a world where depending on different use cases of what our relational needs are, we have different sort of infrastructure that meets that need and is it conducive to the sort of community building that's required?
Elle: So you have this “me to you” Twitter context, then you have this like “we” Facebook group context, and then you have this “we but also us,” Subreddit context where you can see other groups.
Do algorithms get involved?
Deepti: I think algorithms get into the code that generates the built environments that we're a part of. It’s worthwhile to think expansively and creatively about what algorithms could look like if they were not optimizing for engagement. But if they were optimizing for plurality and cohesion. Going back to our physical space analogies, when you sit on the park bench it allows you to observe lots of people that you otherwise would not necessarily come into contact with. I’m really interested in how algorithms could evolve in such a way that they foster relationality and expose us to ideas that we would otherwise not be exposed to. So I think they're an important part of the equation. And it's a really difficult problem
Elle: So far, my experience with algorithms has been largely negative just because of the way they're designed to prop up the most sensational thing. But I think Substack is a really interesting model because each newsletter you follow is a walled garden in the sense that you'll only see content that you subscribe to, and you wouldn't see content that somebody else on Substack is doing unless you were subscribed to them. There is that “we” element but also the “us” element because somebody who's commenting on my newsletter, suddenly I'm exposed to their newsletter, and maybe they have an adjacent walled garden that has similar ideals and you can follow that thread which I think is interesting. But they don't have any algorithms.
Deepti: They don't have any algorithms, but I do find Substack notifications do play an important role to help direct this journey. But then the same question around notifications comes up around algorithms, which is like, on what metric, on what criteria, are you going to be deciding what you notify us about?
Elle: And I could see some of that porousness coming out in interesting ways because, on the one hand, you're talking about how you can get stuck in a certain bubble and filter out the park bench experience, but at the same time the park bench experience has its own flaws because some minority voices that might have otherwise been entirely niche and limited to one in-person group that is, maybe a little bit extremist, suddenly feels a lot louder and has a bigger voice than they otherwise would. I'm curious how you see navigating that porousness and exposure to other voices without giving certain perspectives more or less of a view?
Deepti: This is where that community steward, the leaders come back to play a really, really important role. So, for example, in Mastodon, the leader of an instance can actually choose which other instances you would like the people in your instance to be exposed to. So the extremists could be in their instance. And you could expose your members to their content until they decide “actually that this is not content that I want to be exposed to anymore,” so it doesn't require banning the extremist views but the leader of this community which is set up for a specific purpose, can make the decision to say that this is not healthy for my community and so I don't want to expose my community to that extremist view. I think that what's really interesting is what interoperability looks like and how we create these mechanisms of porousness, but with agency and control at the level of the community members or community leaders, as opposed to any one centralized.
Elle: I think that I have context around what these digital spaces could look like. How can we create them? So much of our digital spaces right now are reactionary—we have Truth social spinning off from Twitter and Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky, and Mastodon. But what you're talking about is much more intentional. It's like “what does the ideal thing look like that we should create?” But then how do we create that? Is it happening within Facebook? Do we need to change how Facebook is done? Or do we need to build something new?
Deepti: Probably both. I'm appreciative of all of my former colleagues as well as people on the outside who are really trying to make organizations like Facebook and Twitter better from the public's point of view. We need a movement of healthy digital public spaces that are public spirited, and so we believe that there is actually a real limit for what we can expect of a Facebook or a Twitter as a corporation, that owes return to its shareholders.
And we're really excited about all of these different innovations that are out there. You mentioned Bluesky and Mastodon and I think those are examples of a few things people are investing in to say it can be different. I do think that all of us are looking for a silver bullet. That is the answer to this shitty space we're in and so we want a better space to be in. New_Public is asking us to acknowledge that there isn't necessarily a silver bullet. The fact that there are these large mega spaces is part of the problem and so we need to be willing to operate in lots of different spaces for different purposes.
We're really inspired by all of these entrepreneurs who are building different sorts of spaces. But one of the things that I think is really important is to ground the utility of the space in real problems that people are having. Creating a new social network for the sake of a new social network feels like it's not necessarily going to address the movement of parks and libraries that we want to see spur up on the internet. A park exists to serve our need to spend time outside, give kids a place to run around, have a place for dogs to get to know one another.
What New_Public believes and where we are really investing a lot of our time is identifying these problems that we all face in our lives, where community and relationships could help us address that. Whether it is “what's the best daycare I should send my kid to” or “I have this health issue and need to find this doctor” or “I'm grieving for this reason and would love some mental support.” We need to build contextualized communities and that means truly meeting people where they are in terms of the problems they have and where relationships can be a source of problem solving for them.
We need better online spaces than Twitter