How Social Media Broke the Public Sphere

The culmination of several months of discussions with my friend Simon Frankel Pratt, a lecturer in the School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies at the University of Bristol, was this piece at Foreign Policy:

Instead of creating a new public sphere, a small number of monopolistic social media companies colonized the existing one, and then shattered it into jagged pieces. They have accelerated and exacerbated the erosion and fracturing of the American public, while facilitating mass right-wing violence.

So, that’s… unambiguous. But I don’t want to oversell what we are arguing. For several years I have been observing that America society is fraying in a lot of ways. In 2017, I wrote for Quartz about how community knowledge, and thus community solidarity, had almost completely broken (an observation that is decades old, so I don’t claim any new ground). Not to rehash some old Robert Putnam, but there are undeniable trends that Americans are more isolated, and less trusting of their neighbors over time, and nothing in the 21 years since he noted this has changed the direction of the trends.

However, I was arguing against this somewhat. Online communities do not operate the same as in-person ones, but they do offer the promise of forming a community of sorts, if you go looking for one. It’s how queer people form solidarity networks online, it’s how movements like #YourSlipIsShowing or #MeToo not only rally people to discuss social injustices, but to form new bonds and community in the process. And there is some very interesting research about how these sorts of movements engage in community-building through self-organizing networks… but that isn’t what I’m talking about here.

Instead, what I was focused on was how people are still trying to build communities online, even as the internet was increasingly engineered in a way to deny us personal agency over our viewing and to sell us garbage. I’ve written about the failed promises of cyberutopia for a long time, and I know that others have done it for even longer (I remain intensely proud of this long-form essay I wrote about this during the Edward Snowden mania in 2013). And I have catalogued the many ways in which modern internet companies have enabled a social system that can only be called a cyberpunk dystopia. And, to drive that point home, I’ve written about how social media companies refusing to take their market dominance seriously was leading them toward inevitably painful regulation – something only staved off through craven, outrageously hypocritical subservience to the Republican Party. And despite all of that, people still try to build communities on these systems. It’s remarkable, really!

Anyway, so the long-term breakdown of trust in America is accelerating, in no small part because of our accelerating economic inequality (inequality and trust are inversely correlated – when one rises the other drops). And this breakdown in trust has been further accelerated by the incentive systems baked into the social media we’ve all come to rely on during the pandemic – which, to loop it back around, is highly lopsided because of the social media companies caving to right wing demands to be allowed to misbehave. It’s a rich tapestry!

So this is what Simon and I wanted to explore in our piece. Surveillance capitalism is more terrifying than anything Ayn Rand could have imagined, but the various libertarian ideologies that animate Silicon Valley start up culture are incapable of acknowledging the destructive power of unaccountable corporations (for reasons). Which means we are left wondering how to force the companies that control what we see and hear and who we talk to into behaving more responsibly.

Our argument is, in effect, that the public sphere was colonized by social media, but social media has no guard rails on it, so they broke the public sphere in an effort to monetize it. And now we are left with a broken society, and need to figure out what to do next. It’s a very hard challenge. I hope you click through and give the piece a read.

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