As we head into the most consequential, contentious election in our history, it’s time to fix some of the structural problems that led us to this moment.
Let’s face it: Our digital public sphere has been failing for some time. Technologies designed to connect us have instead inflamed our arguments and torn our social fabric.
It doesn’t have to be this way. History offers a proven template for how to build healthier public spaces. As wild as it sounds, part of the solution is no further than your nearest public park.
For my family, that’s Fort Greene Park, a 30-acre square of elm trees, winding paths, playgrounds, and monuments in Brooklyn. The park serves as an early-morning romper room, midday meeting point, festival ground, and farm stand. There are house-music dance parties, soccer games during which you can hear cursing in at least five languages, and, of course, the world-famous Great Pupkin Halloween Dog Costume Contest. In short, the park allows very different people to gather, see each other, and coexist in the same space. When it’s all working, Fort Greene Park can feel like an ode to pluralistic democracy itself.
That’s not a coincidence—it’s by design. In 1846, Walt Whitman envisioned Fort Greene Park to serve this precise purpose. New York City had no public parks at the time—only walled commercial pleasure gardens for those who could afford to enter. Whitman, then an up-and-coming newspaper editor, used the Brooklyn Eagle’s front page to advocate for a space that would accommodate everyone, especially the working-class immigrants crowded into shanty towns along nearby Myrtle Avenue.
Whitman saw public spaces as critical elements of the new American democracy. They were spaces to celebrate individuality and build collective identity. Public parks, he argued, could help weave a greater, more egalitarian “we.”
In Fort Greene Park, this project—the building of a collective identity, the weaving of a social fabric—is ongoing. That the park was the rallying point for one of New York’s first major Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder is not incidental. Conflict and contestation are important parts of how healthy democracies progress, as long as there are structures that facilitate it. Functional public spaces are central to this work. They allow us to assemble, to share common experiences, and to demonstrate that what might have seemed like individual struggles are actually the result of unjust systems that demand correction.
Now, accelerated by the pandemic, we spend much of our time living and conversing with others in a different location: digital space. But social media and messaging platforms weren’t designed to serve as public spaces. They were designed to monetize attention.
Much of our communal life now unfolds in digital spaces that feel public but are not. When technologists refer to platforms like Facebook and Twitter as “walled gardens”—environments where the corporate owner has total control—they’re literally referring to those same private pleasure gardens that Whitman was reacting to. And while Facebook and Twitter may be open to all, as in those gardens, their owners determine the rules.
Venture-backed platforms make poor quasi-public spaces for three reasons.
First, as the legendary venture capitalist Paul Graham put it, “startups = growth.” The focus on growth—of users, of time spent, and then of revenue—is the defining trait that has made Facebook a $750 billion company. And the key to rapid growth is optimization to create a “frictionless” experience: The more relevant the content you see, the likelier you are to click, return to Facebook, and bring your friends.
But friction is essential to public space. Public spaces are so generative precisely because we run into people we’d normally avoid, encounter events we’d never expect, and have to negotiate with other groups that have their own needs. The social connections that run-ins create, social scientists tell us, are critical in binding communities together across lines of difference. Building a healthy community requires the careful generation of this thick web of social ties. Rapid growth can quickly overwhelm and destroy it—as anyone who has lived in a gentrifying neighborhood knows.