Mainstream social media is just like the suburbs — inhabited by many people, with the aura of a town (even Zuckerberg falsely dubbed Facebook a “town square”), but without the civic institutions that actually make it a town.
I'm drawing these parallels reading “The Geography of Nowhere” by James Kunstler:
There was a reason that suburbs like Riverside didn't develop proper civic centers: they were not properly speaking civic places. That is, they were not towns. They were real estate ventures lent an aura of permanence by way of historical architecture and picturesque landscaping. They had not developed organically over time, and they lacked many civic institutions that can only develop over time.
Like the suburbs of today (and the late 1800s, as described here), social media sites like Facebook and Twitter only give the illusion of being “public” spaces. In reality, they're private, data collection and advertising ventures. The fact that we have civic / “town square” discussions on these platforms is more coincidental than by fundamental design — just as we still manage to support our favorite candidate for office with signs posted on our suburban lawns.
We need true civic spaces on the web, instead of these faux-“town squares” — spaces that grow and form organically, shaped by the people that inhabit it. (I touched on this in the article I wrote for Glitch last year.) But they'll never happen on today's globe-spanning social media platforms.
These platforms are unaccountable to the people who use it — and they lack the incentives to change this fact, because we're not a part of their business model. We have little recourse for the detrimental things that happen in their “town,” and again there's little reason for these “mayors” to do a lot to change that (barring a US president using the town's megaphone to incite violence). For example, you'll never get enough people hashtag-deleting-Facebook for them to notice, because they have 3 billion people on their platform. They'll continue putting out laughable propaganda campaigns not in the interest of us “citizens,” who care about ideals like personal privacy, but rather to protect their bottom line.
Building a town, with the input and sway of its inhabitants, is a very long and slow process. Building the suburbs, at the behest of a single developer's vision, is much more expedient. These “suburban” social platforms become highly valuable to their financiers in a short amount of time, but come at the wider cost of equity and freedom for its inhabitants — just as one loses the ability to meet people from other walks of life, or to move as one chooses, in a suburban community.
There's a growing case being made with each passing year that if there's hope for the social web, it's in small communities. It's built on protocols like ActivityPub, rather than on one-stop “gated” (i.e. proprietary) platforms. Whereas our social giants are built from the start for unaccountable inequity, a web of small, connected communities has the ability to give us true “town squares” run by humans and organizations that are closer to their users, and answer directly to them.
I don't think we'll ever see mass movement away from the internet's suburbs. After all, it's comfortable there, just like our beautiful, sprawling American suburbs. The people who move to the internet's “towns” and “cities” will always be those who aren't comfortable in the 'burbs, or are actively marginalized. We should keep this in mind as we build these alternative spaces online.
Coming from this world, I used to think that the goal should be to “sell” people on the “city.” But my thinking has changed a bit, in part influenced by other people in the decentralized social web community. There are major pitfalls to these big social platforms, but we can't get too hung up on them. We can simply take their lessons and confidently keep building our better ideas. Our measures of success are not theirs; our goals are not theirs — we shouldn't conflate them. In the end, we don't need to eradicate the social suburbs to have the web we want. We only need to build the best digital “towns” we can.