New research on how to build better digital spaces

I'm a big fan of the work being done by Civic Signals, a new organization co-founded by Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble and co-founder of Upworthy (and, full disclosure, my former boss there), and Talia Stroud, author of Niche News: The Politics of News Choice and the director of the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin. Their goal is to explore new ways to leverage the democratic power of the Internet for good and for positive change. To coincide with their recent New_Public Festival examining the future of digital public spaces, Civic Signals has just released a trove of data into how, exactly, we can create better spaces online. It's the culmination of two years of research, plus interviews with over 100 experts in social psychology and urban planning, and framework trials featuring thousands of digital citizens from 20 countries.

Our goal with this research is to support engineers, designers and builders who want to create more flourishing, inclusive digital public spaces — and to create the start of a measurement framework for externally evaluating how platforms are doing. This framework should evolve as a growing community engages with it, tests it, and improves it.

We believe that:

• Thinking about digital communication through the lens of "spaces" is important because it encourages us to consider how spaces shape relationships — rather than just information exchange.

• Thinking in terms of what to aspire to, not just what harms to stop, is critical — because the absence of illness doesn't necessarily mean health.

• Many of these problems are not new. Humans have been experimenting with how to design public spaces that help strangers get along for millennia. Although technology brings some qualitative differences, drawing on wisdom from other disciplines is critical.

They add:

Humans have designed spaces for public life for millennia – and there are lessons here that can be helpful for digital life.

Spaces affect how people interact with one another. We act differently in a football stadium than a library. The same is true in digital space, where we act differently on LinkedIn than WhatsApp.

When we examine flourishing and equitable physical public spaces, they often…

• Develop programming – social activities – that draw different groups in, without over-optimizing for any one group

• Offer visual cues as to what kinds of behavior are invited in the space

• Are designed to be physically accessible and attractive to many different populations

• Engage stewards, leaders, and maintainers who can do the labor of community-building 

• Are designed in partnership with the communities that use them.

Sadly, none of these features are particularly common in modern social media.

Civic Signals' research is broken down into 4 building blocks: welcoming, understanding, connecting, and acting. You can view a research overview via GoogleDocs or dig into the bulk research at your discretion.

Building better digital public spaces [New_Public by Civic Signals]

What social networks can learn from public spaces [Casey Newton / Platformer]