Is Social Media A Public Space?
Exploratio Humanitas ꞮV
What Constitutes a “Public” Space?
In march of 2022, tied to his attempt to purchase the social media site, Elon Musk said “…Twitter serves as the de facto public town square”. His case for this notion is presumably that a great many public events and institutions take place on and around social media sites. Additionally, at face value, social media spaces such as twitter appear to offer a democratized platform of the written word. A twitter account is far more obtainable today for Americans compared to the printing press in the time of Martin Luthor. Another facet of social media’s power is the way in which public spaces and interactions are both less necessary and less incentivized. This evolution of what constitutes “public” has been exacerbated by pandemic isolation and the retreat to digital spaces1. I plan to write an entire blogpost on this subject, and will link it here if and when it is complete.
Why Twitter Is Not a Public Space
Twitter (and all social media sites) are not town squares, primarily because of their private ownership and operation. While the analogy between these sites and town squares has some descriptive relevance, the point of town squares is that all voices can be heard2 by those in the square. Social media breaks that analogy because a small fraction of posters have a massive % of the post engagements and responses. Someone with a million twitter followers is speaking to far more people than could fit in any town square, while most folks are barely able to break through the noise of the largest posters. While it is easier than ever to join in on the creation of written word, it is perhaps harder than ever to be heard by any substantial amount of society, due to the inset advantages of the larger social media accounts. It is the same issue as saying that one can “vote with their dollars”. It isn’t democracy if a single person can have billions more votes than other participants. Another way this issue shows up is that rich people have far better and easier methods of attaining wealth (for example, stock and real estate investment). Even gaining interest in their bank account can be enough to live on. Similarly, a large social media account tends to get far more engagements, replies, reposts, etc. This both spreads their posts to a larger group of people, and causes the social media algorithms to share their material with yet more viewers. A public square with this effect would be one in which the voices of the vast majority of people are drowned out by the most popular people, with these popular folks gaining a louder and louder speaker and access to larger and larger town squares (dependent on exactly how popular they are).
Another way that social media sites and town squares differ is governmental control. Private media sites can ban content and posters in any way they want, whereas U.S government tends to have to respect first amendment rights to speech. For twitter to be a town square, a requirement would be public/governmental ownership of the site! Twitter also has a profit motive, one that could be examined in far greater detail than the scope of this piece will allow. I may write more on that subject later.
In summary, Elon Musk’s claim about Twitter being a town square is merely a piece of consumerist and private company propaganda. It gives the false impression of impartiality regarding the companies that run these sites, companies who have stock values to inflate and bonuses to pay to their executives. They have shareholders demanding yet more income from their investments. Such private organizations also allow vast amounts of social power to accumulate in the hands of those with massive numbers of followers and site engagements. We cannot let this sort of propaganda dominate the discourse on these sorts of topics, or we will allow the rich and powerful to have yet more ways to hide how they attain money and attention.
Facebook’s parent company Meta is attempting to launch a holistic virtual reality system named Metaverse. The timing is no coincidence, as private enterprises attempt to dominate, subsume, and extract value from the digital in the same way they have done to the physical realm for centuries.
(Ironically, the term “Metaverse” was ripped from the pages of the cyberpunk dystopian novel Snow Crash. This irony appears to have been missed by the Facebook executives who birthed and greenlit this project)
One may object by saying that not everyone has the same loudness of voice, however megaphones and speakers are typically quite obtainable, and voice synthesis technology is certainly viable for general use. That said, a real life public square obviously has its own issues, as marginalization of race, economic class, etc… result in some folks being de facto banned from the public eye.