#1: Is Twitter Real Life?

+ Can you rearrange the chairs on social media?

Welcome to the first newsletter edition of Civic Signals, a project dedicated to how digital environments can be better public spaces. If you’re receiving this email, you’re one of the lucky first people to see the newsletter, so sign up here to become a subscriber.

Eyes on the Tweets

How much stock should you put into what people say on Twitter? It’s a gnatty question, especially in an election year that’s promising to be Very Online. The platform known for tweetstorms, shouting matches, and mobs of tweeters, both real and bots, can exaggerate what is actually happening at any given moment. For example, the networks that form online, such as the political sources that journalists follow on Twitter, do not map neatly on to what may be happening in opinion polls, voting booths, or on-the-ground activism.

But the little bluebird’s influence on politics cannot be ignored. As Charlie Warzel recently argued in the New York Times, the mantra that ‘Twitter is not real life’ has “become a filter bubble” of its own, where unwieldy qualities of the daily discourse become an all-too-easy excuse for elites in politics and journalism to tune out new influential voices. Warzel writes:

Twitter’s aspirations as the global town square are utopian, while the day-to-day experience of politics on the platform veer quickly toward corrosion. What’s impossible to ignore, though, is the entrance and elevation of millions of new voices into the daily political conversation. It’s not perfect. But the end product of those new voices — coalescing communities and sustained enthusiasm — is very real.

Maybe it helps to ask this instead: What kind of public space is Twitter? Is it a park where cranks shout through megaphones? Is it a public meeting where people voice concerns about decisions? Is it a newsstand where tabloids and newspapers put rumors next to facts?

As the tech platform weighs a new policy flagging misinformation on the platform with “community reports,” perhaps thinking about the site as a place can help us better figure out what designing a better platform could look like.

Tweak of the Week

(Photo Credit: Joe Mabel / Creative Commons)

One book we plan on talking about a lot in this space is The Social Life of Small Spaces by William H. Whyte. From 1970 to 1980, Whyte observed how people behaved in public parks in New York City, drawing out lessons about why some space cities work and other don’t.

Whyte’s research is considered to be an essential study of how park design influences people’s behavior. It’s these principles of public space that we want to find analogues to online. So this week, let’s consider the movable chair. As Whyte writes:

Now, a wonderful invention—the movable chair. Having a back, it is comfortable; more so if it has an armrest as well. But the big asset is movability. Chairs enlarge choice: to move into the sun, out of it, to make room for groups, move away from them. The possibility of choice is as important as the exercise of it. If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put. 

… Small moves say things to other people. If a newcomer chooses a chair next to a couple or a larger group, he may make some intricate moves. Again, he may not take the chair very far but he conveys a message. Sorry about the closeness, but there’s no room elsewhere, and I am going to respect your privacy, as you will mine. A reciprocal move by one of the others may follow. Watching these exercises in civility is itself one of the pleasures of a good place.

Essentially, movable chairs offer people agency and dignity in public space. In the digital sphere, could developers offer some sort of way to customize online spaces to give users more of this sense of freedom? Maybe Facebook’s new privacy settings could be seen as a new way of repositioning your online posture. Or maybe you’re like me and you opted to install a browser adapter to block Twitter’s redesign from last year? Given how much time we spend sitting at our laptops, maybe it’s about time we get to rearrange the chairs.

What We’re Reading

Metaphors Be With You

Cyberspace has long drawn on real life places for explaining the abstract idea of the internet. In the Atlantic, Ian Bogost explains how a site that generates fake human profiles shows us how the internet resembles modern life in a city because of how it lets us encounter (and tune out) strangers. (Look to future editions of Civic Signals for more on the how we might “make strangers less strange.”)

Bogost details how the early commercials days of the internet deployed metaphors like the “global village” and “information superhighway” shaped our thinking about the web and have fallen out of favor as online became more prevalent in real life.

Yet the internet is a place where people go, and it has never ceased to be useful to think of it as one. As a place, it feels a lot like a crowded, modernist city. As it happens, that’s how some films, such as The Emoji Movie and Ralph Breaks the Internet choose to depict it: big, dense, urban expanses, which subdivide into towers and hovels representing apps, websites, and services. The global village has become a global metropolis.

Readers, we want to hear from you. What real life analogies do you see in online spaces? Do any of the platforms we post on resemble city streets, neighborhoods, or other public places? Send us a message with your thoughts to civic.signals@gmail.com for us to share in a later edition.

Over and out,
Andrew Small

Share Civic Signals

Civic Signals is a partnership between the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin and the National Conference on Citizenship, and was incubated by New America. Share this newsletter with your friends!