MICAH LOEWINGER This is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger sitting in this week for Brooke Gladstone. We just heard Natalie Wynn compare Twitter to Paddy's. The pub from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Now let's try Facebook. Imagine it's a crowded bar. Almost everyone you know is there, but you can't seem to shake your conspiracy minded Aunt. The sound of arguments is overpowering. It's everywhere. But patrons are only kicked out after they've incited deadly brawls. If Facebook were a physical place, would you want to go there? When you can go to a different bar down the street or meet a friend in the park instead? Our social media landscape presents us with far fewer options. Eli Pariser is a co-director of Civic Signals, an initiative that uses insights from urban planning to think about how to build digital spaces that don't exploit us or spy on us for profit. Before Brooke spoke to Pariser last January, she wasn't so convinced by some of his ideas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I did wonder if the platforms he sought to build were not only a bit pie in the sky, but maybe not that interesting.
ELI PARISER Well, I mean, it depends on if you think libraries are interesting and parks are interesting. I get these days they seem pretty banal, but when people were first inventing these public institutions, it was in these moments of acute public need. When cities were starting, they didn't have parks and there were real health consequences that were coming from that. When libraries became a part of many communities, it was when large groups of people were first becoming literate but couldn't afford books. And so now here we are with the Internet, finding that, no, you can't rely on a few big venture backed corporations to provide all of the services and serve all of the needs of public infrastructure. And, you know, in some ways that's so obvious. Companies aren't built to serve public needs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This wasn't altogether obvious, though, was it, Eli? You were also one of the co-founders of Upworthy, which was intended to provide users with uplifting content, hooking them with irresistible headlines. That didn't work out as you hoped. In fact, it sort of gave birth to the BuzzFeed model of you won't believe what this movie star looked like when he was seven or this new discovery will blow your mind. What went wrong and how does that inform your current endeavor?
ELI PARISER One of the lessons that I learned from Upworthy was the limits of what you can do in a for profit, venture backed startup. I've been in those meetings where you look at the important socially valuable project and go, you know, can we take this on this quarter? I don't know if it's going to work on the balance sheet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Because Upworthy was a venture capital startup.
ELI PARISER Yeah, and there are limits to what we can expect from for-profit entities. That's not to say that in a community, bookstores and cafes don't serve a vital purpose. But you don't want your library managed like a VC backed startup because it stops being a library.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How does it stop being a library?
ELI PARISER If you talk to librarians about what they do, a lot of it is taking half an hour to walk someone through their unemployment registration form. You have someone who's experiencing homelessness over here and you have a young family over there and you have, you know, the small business meet up in the meeting room. A lot of the most important work that public institutions do is the most laborious, it's the most time consuming. It's the first thing that you would optimize away if you were trying to increase the profitability of your VC library, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
ELI PARISER And I think that's basically what we've done on the Internet. You know, that's what Facebook is. That's what Twitter is. We've taken this concept of community and we've allowed ourselves to imagine that it can happen without the people whose jobs and whose focus it is to hold the community together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Scholar Joan Donovan has called for 10000 librarians for the Internet, which sounds like a great name for a band.
ELI PARISER It's like a folk ensemble. But what Joan is calling for is this notion that the more you get close to how human beings are relating and how human beings are understanding, the harder it is to replace all of that with a fancy algorithm. And one thing about librarians is they know their local context and they understand the different constituencies that are involved. All of that knowledge is really important in figuring out how to make a space welcoming and thought provoking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your research, you tease out this idea by imagining what Twitter specifically might look like if it were a physical place, it would be something like a crowded parking lot on a busy shopping day.
ELI PARISER Yeah, as opposed to, a site, even like Reddit. Twitter is sort of uniquely normless. It's very hard to figure out who's here, what are we doing here? What are the rules of engagement? And so, it's not a surprise that the loudest and often most entitled voices get heard the most, because there are no rules. You know, communities have to have norms in order to function. One of our advisors is Nathan Matteus, who has this fascinating research about Reddit, where he looks at a Reddit channel where some folks saw a list of rules about how to engage and some folks didn't. And you might think, oh, this is going to put people off to show them all of the rules. Actually, the opposite was true. That especially for women and folks of color, they were more likely to engage when they saw the rules because there was some sense that, number one: there are rules. And that gives a sense of organization and safety. And number two, I have equal access to them, they're not hidden to me. And therefore I feel comfortable participating because it's an equal playing field. A more equal playing field. And so how we design these spaces has a lot to do with how people participate in them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's an example that you cite from the Memphis River Parks Partnership, which made an effort to bring black and white citizens of Memphis living near the same riverfront park together, people who were essentially living very segregated lives. It was amazing.
ELI PARISER The Memphis River Parks Partnership was looking at how do we create spaces where there might be some cross connection across these two very segregated communities. You know, it was easy if you had two playgrounds, even for the playgrounds themselves, to become kind of owned by one community or another. And so the final feature that they landed on was these fire pits with benches around them. People would come with their families and hang out. And there was something else to look at what urban planner William White calls triangulation. You don't have to directly engage with other people who are here. You can both be looking at the fire. You're having a nice time. You're warm, you're feeling good. And over the course of sitting for a while, there's opportunity to strike up a conversation or the kids start playing together. That's how community connections get made. It was just a striking example to me because it seems so different from how we're put into proximity in digital life, where the first thing that I see about you is probably like one of your most engaging and therefore likely incendiary beliefs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What I love about that Memphis example is that it's so elemental. Everybody, as you said, is looking in the same direction. They're sharing the same warmth. There is nothing better than sitting by a fire. And I don't have a clue how you could approach replicating a space that welcoming…online. I mean, what would it look like?
ELI PARISER You know, I think it's easy, especially when we're talking about technology, to imagine that the solutions are all technical. Most of running your own social networking is social. It's like, how do you get people together in a way where they're feeling something? So to the firepit question, to me, it points to play, it points to art, it points to other things that bring people together. Because the reality is in our physical, civic space, we reserve very little of that space for walking up to strangers and arguing with them about politics. And that's probably good.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You have established basically four principles that have to go into designing a digital public space welcome, connect, understand and to act. If you break that down, you're talking about programming, social activities like you mentioned. Offering visual cues as to what kind of behavior is invited in the space – that's like the norms you are talking about that make the space less threatening. You want to make it easy to get there and attractive to a lot of different people and to engage leaders and maintainers and to design in partnership with the communities that use them. Do you have any real-life examples of this kind of platform?
ELI PARISER I mean, I don't think we have examples of any one platform that's doing all the things perfectly. But I'm inspired by examples like Front Porch Forum in Vermont, which is kind of like a slow social network.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Like slow food?
ELI PARISER Like slow food. Yeah, of course it's in Vermont, right? So Front Porch Forum is basically very heavily moderated local email list that you can post to once a day. And if you post something and it's against the rules and norms, it gets sent back to you with a nice little note saying like, 'Hey, can you try saying this a different way?' And the once-a-dayness is really important because, you know, you have to have a lot of stamina and energy to sustain an argument across 14 days of back and forth. What's interesting about Front Porch Forum is it's used by a huge portion of households in Vermont. Front Porch Forum is like the email driven version of a local letters to the editor page in a local newspaper. Local representatives in Vermont are on Front Porch Forum because they know that's where the issues of the day are being discussed and addressed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've warned against defensive design, which since it's so bent on guarding against bad actors, doesn't offer users enough that's positive. So instead of asking you, ‘How do you beat the lies of Trumpism and QAnon?,’ I'll ask: how do we promote truth in online spaces?
ELI PARISER There's a tendency to want to go immediately to like what kind of content is allowed and how are we evaluating it. And I think that's important. But I also think ultimately what we believe is true has to do with who we trust. If you want a better truth architecture, you need a better trust architecture. I mean, when you think about it, I mean, we know firsthand so little of what we think we know and most of it comes from. You know, I listen to On the Media and I trust you, and so that helps me figure out what I think is true. It's why fixing the relational problems to me is as or more important as fixing the content problems. Because ultimately, if we don't change who people are in relationship with who people trust, then you can have the best content in the world and it's not going to have the effect that you want.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what do you think? Do you see an increased willingness to make these plans for public online spaces a reality... from anyone?
ELI PARISER It's inspiring. There's a coalition in the Netherlands, for example, the Public Spaces Coalition, which is a group of public broadcasters and museums and other public institutions that thought to themselves, Well, each one of us only sees a small portion of the Dutch public, but together we actually see a huge chunk of it. And we could build some kind of cross layers of community engagement together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So do you see this fundamentally then, as local enterprises? Community meaning small because you can't scale up Vermont or even the Netherlands to the U.S.
ELI PARISER The framers in the United States were onto something when they were thinking about federalism. You know, you have to have workable local communities before you can start to talk about bigger ones. And so I do think starting at the human scale is going to be an important piece of the puzzle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've been fighting this fight for a long time. Do you think as as some suggest that maybe we're at an inflection point?
ELI PARISER I do think we're at an inflection point. You know, for a long time, what everybody has been trying to do is figure out, like, how do we fix these existing structures, the Facebooks and the Twitters? We're finally starting to zoom out and say, it can't just be these few companies that are determining our digital future and we need to be thinking finally beyond that frame.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eli, thank you so much.
ELI PARISER Thank you. Always a pleasure.
MICAH LOEWINGER Eli Pariser is co-director of Civic Signals, an initiative that uses insights from urban planning to think about how to create public friendly digital spaces. We first aired this interview in January 2021. Coming up, we ask: are the tech bros okay? This is On the Media.