Better Living Through Community

Casey Newton, writing about new research from Civil Signals:

The research began with the observation that in the offline world, healthy communities have traditionally been served by thriving public spaces: town squares, libraries, parks, and so on. Like digital social networks, these spaces are open to all. But unlike those networks, they are owned by the community rather than a corporation. As you would expect, that difference results in a very different experience for the user.

Public spaces display a number of features that build healthier communities, according to researchers. “Humans have designed spaces for public life for millennia,” they write, “and there are lessons here that can be helpful for digital life.”

Even if the specifics of this research may need ironing out, the gist of it is inspiring. I looked through Civil Signals’ slide deck; I thought this was an eye-opening observation about the language often used for the ways social networks ought to be improved:

  • Encourage Civility. What counts as civil is often defined by dominant groups.

  • Reduce Polarization. Polarization isn’t the problem — dehumanization and lack of cross-connection are.

  • Increase Diversity. Mere contact with other groups or their ideas does not increase tolerance.

  • Inform People. Not all information is equally valuable to citizens.

  • Increase Trust. Not all institutions or individuals deserve trust.

  • Allow Participatory Governance. We think this is an important idea, but outside the scope of this research.

Last point notwithstanding, these are excellent arguments against which apparent improvements should be tested.