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”?