Urban Friction: Public Parks for a Digital World

Original Photo by Emily Kessler on Unsplash

Why do we behave like noisy neighbours online? The solution is a radical one: that we make the digital world more like the physical one. That we slow it down and introduce friction.

Why do we behave like noisy neighbours online? The activist, social entrepreneur and author Eli Pariser, recently published a thought-provoking essay titled To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks in which he dissects some of the problems we face with social spaces online and suggests some of the steps we could take to fix them. Pariser, a Board President of progressive public policy group MoveOn.org, and co-founder of Upworthy, a positive social sharing site, and Avaaz, the online activist network, has form in this area: his 2011 bestseller, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, coined the ‘filter bubble’ term that is now the cypher for our online relationships and interactions. 

The premise of the essay is straightforward: to take all the things we love about public parks; their space, their diversity, and, above all, their tolerance and apply them to our digital environments. Pariser makes the point that a lot of online behaviours simply wouldn’t be tolerated in a public setting. That our habit of screaming and cursing at strangers over minor transgressions or differences of opinion in the digital arena, would, in the public setting of a park, likely wash over us as we settle back into the book, game of football or conversation with friends that we came to enjoy.  

Daily life is full of interactions with strangers that have to be negotiated. From ordering a coffee in the morning, to walking along a crowded street to a meeting with that person in the office, our needs and desires are often at loggerheads with those of people with their own agendas to follow. A quick smile and a polite greeting are simple ways to ease tensions and lubricate those social transactions, whether heartfelt or otherwise. 

Online, the quest to grow rapidly and define a dominant position has led us to champion companies and services that disrupt behavioural norms and deliver seamless and frictionless experiences to their users. Algorithmically-tweaked content feeds deliver a never-ending stream of stories and comments similar to the ones we’ve consumed in the past, feeding our desire to discover something new, but without ever truly challenging our tastes or preferences. 

Those echo chambers – or filter bubbles as Pariser termed them – were probably not designed or deliberate at the outset. They are certainly useful to profit-seeking companies whose goals are to gather data to sell advertising and consumer insights. And our essential misunderstanding of what they are. When social sharing companies like Facebook and Twitter affirm their commitment to freedom of speech, it’s understandable that we confuse them with public spaces. After all, there’s no charge for entry beyond an Internet connection and a compatible device. 

But they’re not public. Pariser likens them to the urban pleasure gardens of the 18th and 19th centuries that charged a couple of coins to enter. It was, in part, their example and exclusionary nature that fuelled the first wave of the public park movement in the 19th Century that led to the creation of melting pots like New York’s Central Park where cities ensured that everyone had access to green space.Still, we forget that social media is a commodity, in the same way that food, clothing and services are. According to 2016 data, a Facebook user in the US or Canadian user was worth $13.54 per quarter to the company (versus a third of that in Europe and only $1.59 for a user in the Asia-Pacific region).

In this pandemic-stricken year, we’ve increasingly turned to the Internet as a lifeline. 2020 may have felt like an under-cooked episode of Black Mirror at times, but the digital threads of the World Wide Web have connected us to friends and family, enabled us to work remotely and educate our kids. Delivered entertainment and allowed us to buy food and other necessities. It hasn’t been seamless. It hasn’t been easy. But, in large part, it has worked.

With the movement of hundreds of millions of people restricted, and many physical public spaces closed or controlled, private digital social spaces have become our cafe, our park, our high school reunion, rolled into one. Beyond Covid-19, 2020 has also been defined by its digital polarisation: the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories and the inability of the owners of the platforms to curb them adequately. 

Pariser’s solution is a radical one: that we make the digital world more like the physical one. That we slow it down and introduce friction. We introduce aspects of the bureaucracy, consultation, discussion and collective decision-making processes we experience in our analogue life. It’s strange to envisage a sort of residents committee for Twitter but no stranger than the idea that of the CEO of a public-listed company having dominion over the activities of billions of its customers. 

Many might worry about large parts of the Internet being transferred to the ownership of national governments, and rightly so. That Internet-users across the globe largely have access to – if not the same utility in – many of the same services on its platforms is a testament to its continued global independence. Yet these aren’t binary choices: state and private control aren’t the only options we can explore. Global public ownership is one. Or devolved, community-level initiatives, where social media is more local than regional is another.

Just as not every municipal park is for everyone, nor are they all as well resourced or maintained; our digital parks could be similarly diverse, allowing folks the space to do their own thing but with enough community interaction that they rub virtual shoulders with people outside their bubbles. 

There’s a more contentious option; one that Pariser doesn’t make. That we take control of our online spaces by paying for them. That’s a difficult ask at any time; it’s especially so in a year that has seen millions of livelihoods interrupted or destroyed by the coronavirus. By becoming customers of the tech giants, rather than being users, we immediately gain a power over them, their actions and their direction as customers and sources of revenue that we lack in our role as data sources. Our current ability to influence is indirect, dictated by the reaction of the companies that buy access to the data we generate, as evidenced by the Stop Hate for Profit movement.

With so many other, more apparently concrete, things to worry about, discussions about digital rights can seem remote and arcane. Yet we can’t afford to push these decisions to some other time. As companies like Google place bets that augmented reality layers will improve the real world if only we view it through a screen, and artificial intelligence-assisted voice computing serves to further reduce the friction between us and the cloud, the decisions we do or don’t make now will determine the direction of our digital parks for generations to come.

Listen to Matt & Maya discuss the need for real world friction on The Reflexive City podcast.