Our digital public squares aren't so healthy. Can we fix that?

Online spaces have a tendency to attract toxicity. Yet some pioneers are showing we can have a kinder internet


January 28, 2023
By Leslie Stebbins

Despite living in a hyper-connected world, rates of loneliness and depression are higher than ever. We know a great deal about how to design our physical spaces to encourage community connections – libraries, town parks, and adult education centers – but we are just scratching the surface in figuring out how to strengthen social connections and build civic engagement in our online spaces. Can we translate these real world designs into our online platforms to bolster our communities and our democracy?

Digital pioneers are demonstrating the value that online spaces can provide in fostering community and social cohesion. Some of these groups are not new, like Black Twitter, but are finding ways to survive, and even thrive, within larger toxic social media platforms. Others, like gift sharing communities, are working out exit strategies from traditional social media sites because they have found these structures are overly focused on profit over public interest. Still other pioneers are growing their own platforms to ensure a design that emphasizes local community values.

Ethan Zuckerman, from the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, points out that in addressing issues of misinformation and vitriol online we may be too focused on trying to fix our old social media platforms. Instead, we should focus on creating new spaces that have explicit civic goals and are designed for equity and social cohesion. Real-world communities need to be involved in intentionally designing their own local digital public spaces rather than leaving this work to global tech companies.

Black Twitter — a subset of Twitter — has managed to take a platform that has serious design flaws and provide an online gathering space for Black people to engage in discussions about Black culture, strengthen social ties, share jokes, and live tweet news events to raise awareness about issues that impact the community. Black Twitter is not a separate space but rather an "open secret" that provides a shared Black experience that users find through shared connections on Twitter.

While Twitter has many identity-based communities, Black Twitter remains one of the most successful. Black Twitter has been a force in community building and social justice work. It is responsible for promoting effective national campaigns for racial justice including being the first to promote #BlackLivesMatter as well as #OscarsSoWhite that called attention to issues of race and representation in Hollywood. The premiere of the first Black Panther film became one of many shared cultural moments for Black Twitter users. The release of the film created a slew of fans posting movie-inspired outfits, masks and dashikis under #WakandaForever.

People have found ways to thrive on Black Twitter, but being on Twitter is not without its challenges. Platformed racism is the result of a design ethos in Silicon Valley that applauds a hands-off philosophy to support innovation and growth. Outsiders sometimes jump on Black Twitter hashtags and post racist comments and there are reports of police gathering information from Black Twitter. Trolls, cancel culture, and harassment can make Twitter a traumatizing place for many people. Algorithms designed to drive engagement end up promoting offensive content. Community guidelines addressing negative behavior are under-enforced and with Elon Musk's tenure the hands-off philosophy has shot through the roof and further escalated vitriol and misinformation on the platform.

Twitter's design encourages simplicity, impulsivity and incivility. It cues emotional thinking rather than encouraging us to analyze content or re-consider making a post. But, despite its design flaws, small private groups have also emerged on Twitter and have been able to thrive by blocking trolls and curating feeds to minimize the toxicity that is built into the platform. Private student groups on Twitter, such as those that started among friends who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), continue after graduation to provide community and networking. Both the larger Black Twitter public space and the small private groups provide members with valuable support and shared experiences, despite the design of Twitter, not because of it.

The Buy Nothing Project is another early pioneer in the design of healthier online spaces. A local gift economy that started on Facebook in 2013, it is designed to give away goods and services within neighborhoods with the goal of enriching local connections. Gifts on the platform —leftover paint, an unused bicycle — are given away with no expectation of any reward. The guidelines specify no buying, selling, trading, or fundraising. People express interest in a gift and then the giver is encouraged to take their time in choosing the recipient in order to gauge interest, need, and the creativity of the asker. Encouraging givers to wait promotes slower engagement and avoids rewarding people who constantly monitor the app. Gratitude is intentionally baked into the design to establish a norm of good will toward others.

The Buy Nothing Project is an early model of how to build a value-based platform with a hyper-local focus. Their biggest challenge has been trying to promote values from within a system that runs counter to those values. The design of Facebook actively encourages people to stay online and join more groups. Many Facebook private groups are wonderful — groups that support cancer patients, new Moms, church youth groups — but the platform's focus on growth and keeping people online, rather than fostering better social cohesion and improving our offline lives, sets the wrong tone.

Buy Nothing has now created its own app to better foster community as it transitions off of Facebook. They have found that size matters and small is better in order to limit posting and emphasize real world connections. Size also impacted feelings of safety as real-life local connections became more difficult when local groups got too big. The infrastructure of Facebook made it difficult to limit group size and to draw flexible boundaries around neighborhoods to connect diverse groups while keeping it local.

Front Porch Forum, like the Buy Nothing Project, also focuses on real world community building. It is the antithesis of Facebook, TikTok, and Twitter. Rather than try to keep users online, it strives to get people offline and more connected to their local Vermont neighbors. Most people spend five or ten minutes a day online to get news that their neighbors have posted: lost dogs, bake sales and announcements of upcoming school board meetings. It is funded by donations and local ads based on where someone lives, but it does not track user behavior and advertising does not drive platform design.

Independent research on Front Porch shows that it builds social cohesion and is improving the resilience of local Vermont communities. Building stronger community cohesion produces many intangible benefits such as high civic engagement, more instances of neighbors helping neighbors, and lower crime rates. Connecting trusted local news outlets to Front Porch may be the next step toward enhancing social capital throughout Vermont.

Facebook is opaque about how it addresses harmful content and how its algorithms are designed. Content is posted immediately. With 4.75 billion posts shared daily it is impossible to track and remove users who are engaged in selling drugs, child pornography, and spreading misinformation. On Front Porch, posts are first reviewed by paid human moderators and then posted. If someone behaves badly, such as writing insults about a neighbor, that person is contacted and the guidelines are explained: Neighbors can disagree with something someone has posted and voice their opinion, but personal attacks are not allowed. The design of Front Porch prevents illegal activities from being posted. It may be that what works for many towns across Vermont may not be the best design for those in Nevada or New York City, but this type of locally based platform could be modified to accommodate different community values.

Rates of loneliness, anxiety and depression are rising in our hyper-connected world. We need to find ways to improve our online spaces to strengthen our connections in the physical world. Robert Putnum, the author of Bowling Alone, called attention to our declining social capital long before the rise of social media. Social capital consists of the networks of relationships among people who live and work together and are essential for the effective functioning of society. These networks provide us with a shared understanding and shared values. They foster trust, cooperation and reciprocity and help feed our strong need for connection and belonging.

We are influenced by where we spend our time, online and offline. If you take someone and put them into a new culture, they change their behavior. If you move someone to the Netherlands, they are likely to be happier. The Netherlands ranks as one of the top countries in the UN World Happiness Report and is famous for its strong social welfare policies, support for equity and equality, and its promotion of mutual trust. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous in the ways we behave and interact with others, but the structures that surround us greatly influence how we feel and how we behave toward others. This is true in digital as well as physical spaces.

The great migration to online worlds — accelerated during the pandemic — is impacting how we treat each other. We spend too much time living in digital spaces that are designed like shopping malls and roller derbies. In his work on social connection, Nicholas Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, has found that the fundamental principle of human social networks is that they magnify whatever they are seeded with. They don't give rise to things on their own, but once something is put into the network the network will amplify it. As Christakis says: "If you put Nazism into the network you get more Nazis; if you put love into the network you get more love."

The challenge of figuring out how to gather groups of strangers together and facilitate social cohesion are not new. We have been wrestling with these challenges for centuries in the physical world. We've created zoning laws, public education, and community centers to improve social capital. The school picnic and the Zumba class at the adult education center are informal places — sometimes called "third places" — that can help people bond and get to know each other without focusing on political differences.

Third places are places outside of our homes and workplaces that provide essential neutral places where we can relax, interact with friends and strangers and enjoy ourselves. Ray Oldenburg first described third places decades ago, at a time when people were moving to the suburbs and third places were disappearing. These informal community gathering places provide a sense of belonging and connection that can strengthen community ties. Libraries, gyms, and cafes can be accessible to everyone and conversation and community building, rather than solely pursuing commerce, are top priorities.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg's book Palaces for the People, traces the importance of public squares throughout history. These "palaces" can offer neutral spaces where everyone is welcome. Klinenberg argues that the future of democratic society rests on developing shared values and shared spaces. These spaces provide connections where people can linger and make friends across group lines and are intentionally designed to promote socialization and connection.

Danah boyd writes about how we can create healthier spaces even in larger ecosystems through intentional design. She points to Grateful Dead concerts whose average audience size was 80,000. A shared love of the Dead certainly promoted positive interactions at these concerts, but there were design choices made to promote pro-social behavior. One nudge used the concept of "familiar strangers." If you bought a ticket for a concert in Denver, the ticket sellers kept a record of who was seated near you. If you later bought a ticket for a show in Austin, they would seat you with the same people. By the time you went to your third concert -- typical among Deadheads -- you would start recognizing and interacting with this same collection of familiar strangers and this could facilitate positive interactions.

When online platforms were first developed decades ago, bulletin board systems focused on connecting people, sharing information and being social. But platforms that promised to connect us soon evolved into capitalizing on our desire for connection. TikTok, YouTube and other platforms are not set up to be third places. They foster consumerism, passivity, hyper-personalization, high engagement, and misinformation.

Tech companies maintain that they cannot moderate online communities because that would jeopardize our right to free speech and because there is simply too much content flying across these networks to track. Both these issues are false flags. We now know that the core infrastructure of these platforms is intentionally designed to amplify vitriol and misinformation because this increases engagement, keeps us online longer, and provides tech companies with billions of dollars from ad revenue. It doesn't have to be this way.

We now have the capability to prioritize humane design practices that can shift the stream of data from firehose to faucet and minimize misinformation and toxic behavior. An Aspen Institute report stated that possibly the biggest lie being told about our online information crisis is that it is uncontainable. It is not.

We now have a slew of exciting new tools and design practices to help us, but we will also need to demand change. The Aspen Institute has proposed two amendments to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that could mitigate misinformation and toxic behavior without jeopardizing free speech. They call for platforms to have the same liability for ad content as TV networks or newspapers and would remove platform immunity with respect to the ways in which they design their algorithms.

These are heavy lifts, to be sure. While we need to push on tech companies to change their ways, we also need to bravely jump off and join healthier online communities that encourage us to spend more time offline. Our online spaces may never serve as true third places, but they can serve to enhance our physical worlds and focus on the public good rather than on our wallets.

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