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Article Idea: When the Public Square is Privately Owned Online

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marshall Kirkpatrick @

Something I’ve been thinking about for awhile is the idea that the primary places of public discourse are now privately owned online social networks. Facebook, Twitter, video games, etc. This is where we meet and discuss everything from matters of personal to social importance. This lawsuit about a game player suing over being kicked out of a multi-player game got me thinking about it most recently.

In addition to government laws, those conversations are now subject to company Terms of Service, profit motives and technical requirements. That strikes me as a negative turn for free speech and political discussion. On the other hand, the platforms are so much more powerful now than a physical town square or other older models. I’d like to find some good people to interview about this and see if there really is a story here. What do you think? Who would you suggest I interview? Let me know.

Another example: US Energy Secretary Steven Chu just joined Facebook in order to discuss energy policy there.

  • There are also public forums for discourse: email, some peer to peer networks (I’m not sure how Skype’s AUP fits in), newsgroups etc. But it certainly seems to be true that it’s dominated by private companies – for now.

    Marc Canter is an important person to talk to, because he’s actually looking at using these technologies in a city context (marrying the public square with the digital public square). As well as the big names, it might be worth hitting up someone from MySociety and Livejournal (which, although long in the tooth, has been a very extensive forum for debate for a decade and counting).

  • Marshall

    Good stuff, thanks Ben.

  • Privatizing the public square is not a new thing. The construct of a “3rd place” is based on people gathering in privately owned coffee shops. Even public spaces like Central Park and Bryant Park are managed by private non-profit organizations.

    The Project for Public Spaces ( is a great source for exploring the history of privatizing public spaces.

    The primary distinction between face-to-face vs. online spaces is content. Unless people are loud or rowdy, what people say in a public space is ethereal. Online, content is a contractual issue.

  • do it — the issue of how media create the public sphere has new status in the age of social media. If anything, social media ought to subvert mainstream publics by permitting open and free discourse. But as you’ve observed, corporate publics are a real byproduct when legal issues arise, as when speech or behavior threatens to disrupt or endanger a “private” public space.

    Also interesting would be the impact of aggregators and interconnectedness of networks as now possible with FB connect, and exemplified by Friendfeed. Reaggregated comments and messages create new contexts (eg FF) while contributing to disaggregation of conversation at the same time. Are these contexts transient? What happens to conversation when it can be so widely distributed and recontextualized? Are these contexts owned? The arrington/scoble FF fiasco being an example of how messy the matter of context can become!

  • Rex

    You could write a book on the topic.

    There are some legal issues: The platforms want to hide behind “common carrier” laws when it protects the. At the same time, they want to lock us into their walled gardens.

    However, over the long term, people realize something is happening: we wake up and realize that we’ve abdicated so much of what and who we are to a for-profit company. We yearn for freedom.

    AOL was the first to see the fleeing of those who one day yearn for freedom.

    Over time, Google, Twitter, Facebook, will all face the day when they will realize they must compete on having the best tools and features that allow people to *manage* data that is easily transported from service to service.

    In other words, they won’t be able to “own” us or to host the public square — but they will have learn how to serve us and allow us to create those squares wherever we desire — that or become whatever AOL has become.

  • Sure this is a big issue and mess these days. All our favorite services do all they can to blur the discrepancues of privacy, ownership etc. to makes us feel comfy and to produce content that they own.
    I think the question of ownership and control of people over their content is temporary and will be answered in a couple of years: as I described in my article about the Web of Identities at RWW [1], the Social Web will move on to answer this question by people having their stuff at Identity Providers. These ID Providers will grant their (paying) users ownership and control over exposure of their stuff and personae. The platforms will then focus on features.
    This much for now, what’s your thoughts about this?



  • Natalie

    I think one reason for the online nature of public forums now is people don’t have time to “go” places to discuss – so online is easier.
    Whenever I’m in London, i love spending an afternoon at “Speakers Corner” and listening to the public debate. Online is similiar. You know you can say what you want and engage with others and practice your rhetoric – a dieing art form.

  • There are plenty of “public spaces” that are privately owned – newspapers, college campuses, corporate intranets and community bulletin boards at the local grocers. All of these have terms of service, implicit in the case of the grocers – you can’t post an ad for escort services and expect it to stay up, or explicit, such as starting a riot in the quad will probably get you expelled from school. If anything really changes by having the mode be online and managed by a service provider, it’s the arbitrariness of what those terms might be. If we could standardize online service terms regardless of the network or provider, or have the terms managed or overseen in a way similar to power utilities, with guarantees appropriate to the medium, such as freedom of speech and other constitutional entitlements, we could get past this wild west period and begin maturing a sophisticated digital, democratic infrastructure.

  • I’m sure you know this, but danah boyd has done some really fascinating work in this area, especially relating to how adolescents use these new public spaces as physical;space becomes privatized and off limits.

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