Internet toxicity takes many forms. Violent provocations, misinformation, stalking, doxxing and dogpiling make online social forums feel icky and, frankly, unsafe for many people.
That’s one of the reasons behind a new Civic Signals research project co-directed by Eli Pariser and Talia Stroud. Pariser is the former executive director of MoveOn and co-founder of Upworthy. He coined the phrase “filter bubble” to describe the polarization of siloed online communities in his book The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. Stroud is the director of the Center for Media Engagement and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas–Austin.
Speaking online at the New Public Festival earlier this year, they shared the results of a two-year study of digital public spaces that identified 14 measurable qualities of healthy online communities. After talking with hundreds of experts in fields from political science to software design to develop these signals, the research team surveyed 20,000 high-frequency “superusers” across 15 platforms (including Google, Reddit, Facebook, Pinterest and WhatsApp) to determine how well people thought the sites were performing.
The 14 Signals of Healthy Digital Public Spaces, According to Civic Signals
- Invite everyone to participate.
- Encourage the humanization of others.
- Ensure people’s safety.
- Keep people’s information secure.
- Cultivate belonging.
- Build bridges between groups.
- Strengthen local ties.
- Make power accessible.
- Elevate shared concerns.
- Show reliable information.
- Build civic competence.
- Promote thoughtful conversation.
- Boost community resilience.
- Support civic action.
Grounding the research is the notion that digital communities should be understood much like physical public spaces — like libraries, parks and town squares — with agreed-upon social goals and relational rules, accessibility requirements and rules for governance, Stroud told me.
“The language that we use for digital platforms — ‘information superhighway’ or ‘data revolution’ — makes [online forums] sound very technical, whereas if you think about space, you think about norms and people talking to each other and nonverbal cues: how relationships happen,” she said.
Three overarching findings emerged from the study, which used survey data to assess each company’s performance in each of the signal categories on a zero-to-two scale.
First, no platform performed particularly well.
“When we aggregated across all 20 countries, the best result we found was for cultivating belonging on Reddit, and it got a score of 1.5,” Stroud said. “That’s the best across all 15 platforms, across all 14 signals.”
Second, all platforms showed significant room for improvement in two categories: “encouraging the humanization of others” and “ensuring people’s safety.”
Finally, the study revealed the platforms vary widely in which signals they demonstrate most strongly.
“It speaks to the idea that people get different things from different platforms. We think it is pretty unlikely that any one [platform] is going to be 100 percent great across all these [signals], even though it’s worth trying,” Stroud said.
“The language that we use for digital platforms — ‘information superhighway’ or ‘data revolution’ — makes [online forums] sound very technical, whereas if you think about space, you think about norms and people talking to each other and nonverbal cues: how relationships happen.”
Beyond the results themselves, the study illustrates how design principles commonly applied to physical public venues can be used as a guide to structure digital communities. Do programming options reach diverse audiences? Do visual cues establish behavioral norms? Are there clear accessibility requirements? Are rules for governance and enforcement developed in partnership with community leaders and stewards?
Stroud told me a key purpose of the study — and Civic Signals’ work, more generally — is to provide a common framework to assess existing platforms. Beyond that, the 14 signals can serve as a roadmap for founders, designers and developers of new platforms to think about how they might build friendlier, more equitable digital spaces.
At the New Public Festival, leaders of nine emerging platforms presented models of what those better online spaces might look like. Here’s a glimpse of each.
Internet-art-bot maker and programmer Darius Kazemi is the creator of Friend Camp, a small social-network site made up of about 60 of his friends. When Twitter became less amenable to bots after the 2016 election, Kazemi turned to Mastodon, an open-source protocol for self-hosted social networking services, to share his quirky artistic creations. He later built Friend Camp as a decentralized node of Mastodon. That project soon morphed into Hometown, a software package that helps other people run their own Friend Camp-style spaces.
“Keeping the nodes of self-managed communities smaller, like 50 people, means there’s less danger of context collapse.”
In the hope the federated model can scale even further, Kazemi developed a guide called “Run Your Own Social” as part of a one-year open-web fellowship with Mozilla. The document outlines a set of principles for people who wish to run small social-networking sites.
“Keeping the nodes of self-managed communities smaller, like 50 people, means there’s less danger of context collapse,” Kazemi said during the panel discussion. “There’s more room for nuance; there’s more room for, ‘Oh, OK, this person said this, but here’s where they’re coming from.’ So we can take a better approach to ‘calling them in’ on what they said.”
Evan Henshaw-Plath, known in internet circles as Rabble, was a member of Twitter’s founding team. What he viewed as the platform’s high-minded, libertine ecosystem largely collapsed when the company adopted an advertising-reliant business model, he said, but it inspired the thinking behind Planetary, a decentralized social-media platform built on an open protocol called Secure Scuttlebutt.
Planetary lets users communicate in a social application — and build a variety of social applications on top of it. In essence, the platform gives users a portable online identity. As they move from one social site to the next, their profile and social relationships move with them. The site is built around principles of a public commons, an idea derived from traditional English land-use practices, in which resources were shared and accessible to all — not privately owned or regulated by the state. American political economist Elinor Ostrom translated this ethos of self-governance into a set of principles Rabble believes can be applied equally well to digital spaces.
“The idea is that we should be managing our social spaces not as a sort of shopping-mall metaphor, nor relying on the state, but we should think of our public spaces as commons,” Roy explained to attendees.
A little more than a year ago, Twitter announced it would fund a project to build an open, decentralized standard for social media. While this might sound oxymoronic, the idea was that Twitter would be a client for the standard, but seek outside contributors to build it.
One of those contributors was Golda Velez, a senior software engineer at Postmates, who came to the project to address issues of misinformation and reputational damage, which she said are tied up in engineering protocols for discovery and search.
“[Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey told us the biggest long-term goal is to build a durable and open protocol for public conversation; that it not be owned by any one organization, but contributed to by as many as possible; and that it is born and evolved on the internet with the same principles,” Velez said.
“Jack Dorsey told us the biggest long-term goal is to build a durable and open protocol for public conversation.”
Twitter Bluesky has many facets, she explained, “the identity layer, the networking layer, the data storage layer,” but a key premise is that the size of Twitter’s user base can help the approach scale quickly.
“One thing it solves, hopefully, is the ability to escape the silo,” Velez added. “Because if you manage to have a decentralized protocol, and people have adopted it, then you can talk to your friends, even if they don’t use your same app.”
Majal.org is a network of digital platforms designed primarily for users from marginalized groups in North Africa and the Middle East, some of whom live under oppressive regimes. Founder Esra’a Al Shafei, who lives in Bahrain and appears as a physically anonymous avatar online to protect her identity, said she launched the project because she wanted to harness creativity to bypass censorship and surveillance.
Bahrain, according to Al Shafei, is a tightly regulated country where fingerprints and government-issued documents are required to be issued an internet connection and where a retweet can land an individual behind bars.
The multiple platforms on the site provide forums for marginalized groups to meet and express themselves, with the unstated motive of driving social change. Mideast Tunes is a web and mobile app for underground musicians. Migrant Rights is an advocacy tool in support of migrant workers in the Gulf region. Ahwaa.org is a platform for the Arabic queer community that uses game mechanics to encourage conversation and relationship building.
“Our daily reality is what led me to amplify marginalized voices, including my own, because the internet has always been and, for many of us, continues to be the gateway to freedom of expression,” Al Shafei told presentation attendees.
Block Party is a consumer-facing anti-harassment service that lets people manage their Twitter experiences with configurable filters that auto-mute problematic users. Spearheaded by software engineer and diversity activist Tracy Chou — who worked at companies like Google, Facebook, Quora and Pinterest — the recently launched beta product runs continuously in the background of the social-media app to monitor mentions and replies.
“One thing we think is super problematic about the approach of current platforms is that so much of the burden of dealing with abuse is falling on the users targeted by it,” Chou said. “So with the design of our product, which puts potentially problematic accounts into a folder on Block Party, we make it possible to delegate access to this folder to friends and helpers who can review and take action on your behalf.”
“One thing we think is super problematic about the approach of current platforms is that so much of the burden of dealing with abuse is falling on the users targeted by it.”
Chou said the project also aims to give voice to people disproportionately targeted for harassment and abuse — activists, public servants, journalists, healthcare experts (especially those with marginalized genders and races) and other marginalized groups.
“When governance or public infrastructure fails, we simultaneously need to work on fixing the systemic issues, while also giving people some private-sector solutions,” Chou said. “So maybe an analogy is when women might opt to take taxis or Ubers to get home at night. If public transit doesn’t feel safe, there is a broader safety issue that needs to be solved. But at least there is an alternative that people can access for their private security. Block Party is trying to do that for the internet.”
Local Voices Network
Launched in Madison, Wisconsin, by Deb Roy, founder of Cortico and the executive director of the MIT Media Lab, Local Voices Network is an online space for identifying and surfacing underrepresented perspectives.
Modeled after the community-organizing model of a local library, the project, now active in 28 states, makes it easier for people to host and record small-group conversations. Once conversations are archived, human curators and machine-learning algorithms annotate and extract substantive snippets, which are shared with a wider conversational network.
When the project started, former Madison Police Chief Mike Koval had just resigned amid allegations of racist abuse among the department’s officers. Seeking community involvement in the selection of Koval’s replacement, the Madison Police and Fire Commission hosted a series of public conversations using Local Voices Network as a venue. These conversations, combined with an archive of hundreds of previously recorded small-group dialogues concerning community safety and policing, became the basis for several of the questions used in the final round of interviews.
“We see this as an example of civic infrastructure that we think is scalable, both the human dimension and the tech dimension, as a new way to bring under-heard voices into this really crucial decision-making process,” Roy said.
Front Porch Forum
Now in its third software iteration, Front Porch Forum is a community-based forum where neighbors can share information and local concerns. Active in Vermont and parts of New York, the 20-year-old platform launched by Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis trades in short posts about locally relevant topics — lost pets, cars for sale, plumber recommendations, school budget issues and political protests. The service hosts online neighborhood and small-town forums for registered users.
“Once a day they’ll get an issue that arrives via email or website or mobile app,” Wood-Lewis said of users. “The average issue might have about 10 postings. It’s not emoticons. It’s not LOL-type stuff. It’s more substantive. The most compelling content tends to gravitate toward the top.”
“There’s no anonymity. It’s like wearing a name tag and showing up at a block party with your neighbors.”
Open only to local citizens, officials, nonprofits and businesses, the platform is distinct from several of its larger social-networking competitors.
“There’s no anonymity. It’s like wearing a name tag and showing up at a block party with your neighbors,” Wood-Lewis said during the panel discussion.
In addition, every posting is reviewed by a staff of online community managers before publication.
For community groups without legal status or a bank account, money can be hard to manage. To address this, Open Collective enables these groups to collect and disburse money transparently, with a network of global organizations acting as financial custodians. Last year, the open finance platform hosted $15 million, a sizable portion of which came from mutual-aid groups funding COVID-19 relief efforts.
Pia Mancini, co-founder of Open Collective and the former deputy secretary of political affairs for the city of Buenos Aires, is a longtime advocate of restructuring the ownership model of the scarcity-driven market economy.
“What we were seeing was that we are circles, and we are trying to fit in a world that is made for triangles.”
Earlier in her career, she organized the Partido de la Red (The Net Party), a political party in Buenos Aires that proposed opening new online spaces for civic engagement. Though the effort ultimately failed to take hold, it led to Open Collective, which gives community groups, or “collectives,” access to financial services once only available to individuals or formalized corporations.
“Essentially, in order to have money you need to become something that you’re not,” Mancini said at the presentation. “You need to incorporate somewhere in the world. You need to establish a hierarchical structure. You need to have some sort of ownership or some sort of hierarchical leadership. And what we were seeing was that we are circles, and we are trying to fit in a world that is made for triangles.”
Created by Geert-Jan Bogaerts, the head of innovation at the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO, PublicSpaces is a coalition of 35 Dutch organizations that collectively represent 75 percent of the Dutch population. Made up of a federation of museums, public libraries and media groups, the organization aims to build a more ethically responsible internet through the adoption and promotion of open-source, decentralized platforms.
PublicSpaces is currently auditing the tool sets it uses across its aggregated websites and apps, with the hope of escaping the grip of large, multinational tech companies. In practice, this means evaluating the potential impact of replacing authentication services provided by Google and Facebook with the Privacy by Design Foundation’s system Irma; using the Coal Project’s database to archive websites and cultural artifacts; moving from Facebook to Friend Camp and switching from YouTube to the French peer-to-peer video platform PeerTube.
The expansive reach of PublicSpaces could help propel it into other European countries, including Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Bogaerts said. It is now officially recognized by the Dutch government, and its leaders are planning a national conference on open-web values and solutions.
“I work as a public broadcaster myself, and we make a lot of documentary shows that are very critical of our current digital ecosystem,” Bogaerts said. “It feels very hypocritical to produce journalism that’s critical of data and privacy [policies] at the same time we are dependent on Google and Facebook. So, I think the main motivation for most of our coalition partners is to help ourselves by becoming less dependent on these commercial platforms.”