A Walk in the Park: What’s a Digital Public Space?

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Public parks serve several important roles for inhabitants of urban spaces. While granting city dwellers a respite from their private, work and home settings, they provide a rare opportunity for the paths of peoples’ otherwise highly partitioned lives to intersect and mix in a pleasant, complementary, rather than competitive, manner.  In effect, public commons like parks provide a preciously rare setting for spawning spontaneous serendipitous exchanges of information, sociality, and mutual awareness.

Indeed, for centuries, city and town planners have used parks as a “not-so-secret weapon” in making cities livable and pleasant, to galvanize culture and community where previously was none.  James Howard Kunstler described successful public spaces as “inspired centers of civic life and the physical manifestation of the common good”.  Simply put, parks and other pleasant public spaces make life better for everyone in a multitude of different ways.

While digital space and physical space have many dissimilarites, the affordance of letting people share and meet serendipitously and spontaneously has been shown to be core to fostering community and social awareness in both.  Although “Web 2.0” has ushered a great many examples of online spaces where people who may otherwise not know each other may meet and interact directly or indirectly, these “public spaces” of the Web today are not public at all, but only somehwat curated by their participants, under the centralized control of their providers, be them Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter or countless others.  These services transparently (or in some cases, overtly) modulate the interactions that take place in these spaces often to benefit the service provider’s own purposes.

For example, instead of seeing all of the information created by an individual’s friends on Facebook, the Facebook platform carefully selects the timing and visibility of such posts on an individual’s aggregated News Feed, interspersing relevant adverts and sponsored links in its re-curation.  Thus each individual’s experience on the site is decoupled from the actions of its constituent community.   If this happened in the real world, it would be as if an external agency could control and filter which people one might see walking in a public space, and selectively filtering what you could hear them saying.  This would undoubtedly be seen as a violation of the “communal” aspects of a true public space, which is maintained and governed democratically by the community it serves. Nonetheless, the power of serendipity afforded by shared space drives community to continue participating; people continue to “Facebook” each other, “Tweet” addictively and “Tumble”  regardless of the limitations these systems impose.

The development and vision of Personal Data Stores (PDSes), however, may represent a pivotal turning point for interactions on the Web.  The simple idea of PDSes is that, like the physical goods and possessions people keep in their private spaces, individuals are able to fully control the data that is theirs, including the ways it is stored, used, and shared with others.  In such a setting, people can control the ways that their data can be disclosed, shared and mixed with others’; therefore, PDSes can be seen as a building block for a new type of democratised digital public space governed by its participants.

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One thought on “A Walk in the Park: What’s a Digital Public Space?”

  1. I would interpret public on the Internet to be anything which does not require any login to access. That means some parts of facebook, most of twitter and reddit, etc.

    There are roles in place to moderate the public spaces (cleaning, enforcing public regulations, etc) just as the tech companies moderate the spaces they are responsible for.

    A homeless person begging in Boston’s Copley Square will be shooed away by the policeperson overseeing that area, or Berkeley’s Police will roll by in their cruiser lazily asking people to get off the median.

    The difference is driven by the scalability of the spaces.

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