Virtual Public Spaces are not Public Spaces: Or, studying the social life of shopping malls

Protest in public spaceShopping Malls are not Public Spaces

I spend a lot of my time studying social media and the networks that form in them.  But I have growing doubts about the time I spend on commercial services.  Despite seeming like public spaces, these services are really not public.

Social media is increasingly the space in which public life takes place.  News, debates and discussions are more likely to take place now in Facebook, Twitter, and other social media services than in public squares, civic buildings, or community centers.  Virtual public spaces fill the void created by the lack of public spaces and places in our cities and towns that allow for public mixing and interaction.  But virtual public spaces are just that: virtual.  They are not real public spaces, and the “virtual” public space they provide is not “as if” or even better than the real thing.  Virtual public space lacks many of the features of real public space and is not an upgrade over the real thing.

Virtual public spaces try to seem like public spaces, but they are like shopping malls: commercial spaces that encourage only a subset of public behaviors.  Raised in commercial spaces that have replaced public spaces, many people no longer even imagine behaviors that are not welcome in a mall.  Protest, petitions, organizing, and protected speech have no place in a shopping mall.  Some property owners allow some forms of speech, but no one but the owners have a “right” to speech in a mall.  Shoppers, consumers, guests, customers, and visitors are not citizens while they are in a commercial space.

Virtual public spaces are not public spaces, but as we spend our public time in them, we drain the life from alternative public spaces.  Our collective chatter in social media becomes the intellectual property of a company not a commonly owned public asset.  Our history is not our history.

Social media services vary in terms of how open or restrictive they provide data generated by their users.

Some services, like Wikipedia, are very open, offering many methods to access large and small amounts of data from recent or historical times.

Some services, like LinkedIn, are very closed, offering almost no access to any data from their service.

Twitter is becoming more restrictive while Facebook is relatively open.

For many services, the lack of access to data is not an ideological choice, rather it is a practical issue related to the costs associated with storing and serving large volumes of data.  These companies are well within their rights to do as they like with their data and business plans.

However, their data is actually my data (and your data).  We may soon realize that we prefer to commit our bits to repositories that hold and redistribute our content on terms that support civic goals of open access.  What we need are credible alternatives to these services, with alternative funding models: perhaps a “Public Bit Service” or “National Public Retweet”?

Over the edge: Twitter API 1.1 makes “Follows” edges hard to get

The long awaited (and delayed) change to the Twitter API is now here: API 1.1 is now the only service available, the long used API 1.0 is gone.

20130611 - End of TWitter API tweet

This has an impact on people who have been collecting and analyzing data from Twitter.  Twitter has given and taken away with the new 1.1 API.  Mostly taken away.  More Tweets are sometimes available from the new API, up to 18,000 rather than the old 1,500 tweet limit.  This is a big change, but normal users often do not get much benefit from the limit increase if the topic they are interested in has fewer tweets.  The length of time tweets are retained and served is not much longer than it was.

The big change is the effective loss of the “Follows” edge.  Some users of the 1.0 API used to be able to get a significant number of queries that asked about who each user followed.  These queries generated data that allowed a network to be created based on which users followed which other users.  The “Follows” network in Twitter has been very informative, pointing to the key people and groups in social media discussions.  But now the “Follows” edge will be effectively impossible to use.

Twitter API 1.1 changes the limit on the number of queries about who follow who in Twitter to 60 per hour.  In practice, a network may have several hundred or thousand people in it, making a query for each person’s network of followers impractical. With the follows edge effectively gone, the remaining edges, “reply” and “mention” become more important.  These edges are far less common than the “Follows’ edge.  Many people follow lots of other people but mention the name or directly reply to very few. With the loss of the Followers edge, Twitter networks can become very sparse, with few connections remaining.  Dense structures give way to confetti.

Here is a map of the topic #scaladays with the Followers edges compared to the same map with no Follower edges:

#Scaladays with Follows Edges#Scaladays with no Follows Edges

With the “Follows” edges gone, the loss of insight into the nature of the network is profound, but not fatal. The reply and mention network does have some density in many discussions, allowing many kinds of network positions and structures to be observed. Edges can also be synthesized from other evidence, for example a link could be created when two people use words in common that are not commonly used by others.

The NodeXL project has released a version that connects to the new Twitter API 1.1 and we will be releasing additional edge types that will link people when they share content like hashtags, URLs, words and word pairs with other people.  These shared content edges are based on a presumption that when people use similar content that is rarely used by others they are likely to have an underlying connection.  The assumption that shared content use is a surrogate for the “follows” relationship requires additional testing (which will be difficult with out access to the data that Twitter just removed). For now, these connections do return density to networks that have been shattered by the loss of the visibility of the Follows connection and can indicate common interests among Twitter users.