As social media becomes a ubiquitous part of our lives, the question of whether they are the “public square of today” has been a resounding concern. While social media sites are, by definition, privately owned and operated for profit, there are some notable differences between them and a physical public square. These differences include a strong emphasis on inclusion and community, and the fact that the dominant social-media platforms are largely focused on profit-making and data extraction. Furthermore, the emphasis on “engagement” has created perverse incentives for harassment and invasion of privacy.
The public square is a physical place where people can gather and engage in public discussion. In contrast, the internet is a virtual space where people rarely interact face-to-face. They can also remain anonymous and undetectable, thereby creating significant differences in the dynamics of communication. These differences can be detrimental to the public good, as online communication can expand the boundaries of public discourse and foster destructive forms of harassment.
Moreover, social-media platforms may be modeled after academic institutions, salons, and other semi-private spaces. The public space that is created on these platforms could also be used to promote free speech and democratic deliberation. If these social media sites became the “public square” of our time, how would we respond? We will need to figure out the best ways to regulate them. Is Facebook the public square of today?
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