January 23, 2016.
They say more than 20 inches of snow will fall by day’s end. If my afternoon walk offered any indication, there’ll be at least that much snowfall on the sidewalks of Brooklyn when the blizzard’s work is done. So, it seems a good day to think about what else is happening on the ground beneath our feet.
The New Year did not roll in the way I anticipated. Nuff said on that point. Suffice to say, many concrete confusions have been ushered by 2016. There have been some ephemeral questions, too, and I find myself wondering more frequently about social media and public space, specifically, social media as public space. Fact is, I’ve found myself inside virtual space with stirring, almost alarming, frequency this year. Some of that may be attributed to my weekly excursions to the Capitol in Albany, NY. “All aboard, Amtrak” is a veritable mantra for me these days.
That wondrous ride up and down the Hudson River inspires lots of meditation, particularly along the interstices between New York’s Upstate locales. I also find myself on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram quite a bit, however. And I notice myself trying to understand the world and my place in it from the vantage of those apps on my phone. The whole thing seems strange, to be honest—and, perhaps, misguided.
One of the underlying questions in Public Spaces, Marketplaces, and the Constitution—one of the book’s baselines, really—goes like this: What is public space? Do we just know it when we experience it? Is it planned? Built and pre-programmed? Is it socially constructed? Politically contested? Legally determined?
I’m not sure those questions can be answered in a definitive way. Maybe we should simply practice our perspectives on public space, just as we practice public space and let the chips fall where they may.
Nevertheless, I repeatedly feel a deep and abiding insecurity while I’m on my i-Phone. I am continually entertaining the idea that I’m not really practicing publicity while I’m scrolling down its screen with my thumb, seeking out the next great news report, photograph, or semblance of personal membership in a community. I am aware that I’m doing something public-like—seeing and relating to others, sure, sometimes comparing myself to them and despairing accordingly.
So, what am I doing when I inhabit those virtual spaces with even greater abandon nowadays? Am I engaging in something public when I read the news on Twitter, navel gaze on Facebook, or admire my friends’ children on Instagram? Am I experiencing or participating in social or political phenomena from the comfort of Amtrak’s 7:15am “Maple Leaf,” en route to Toronto?
I believe I’m doing something interactive, yes, but something still doesn’t feel right. Something doesn’t feel authentically public when I enter those environments. There is, I think, an excess of convenience in a “public sphere” comprised by our personal/handheld devices. Something, I dunno, less participatory about that kind of sphere.
I realize that I’m thinking out loud and sharing about this insecurity in a blog post on the web, no less in hopes of reaching other readers and interested parties. I certainly want to connect with people who agree with me, or others who will at least entertain the gravity of the question I’m trying to pose here.
That acknowledgement goes to one of my primary concerns with virtual space as a model of public space: Again, it seems that social media are all-too rife with their conveniences and confirmation biases. We can click our way to political participation. We can pick our audiences. We can hide behind the anonymity of our oft-creative handles and taglines. We can treat the medium as the message in our virtual spaces—mistaking communications about things and spaces political for those spaces and politics. I’ve been using the terms “clicktivism” and “slacktivism” quite a bit since I wrote Public Spaces, Marketplaces, and the Constitution. I trust there’s resentment embedded in my use of those terms; there’s surely an expression of distrust in using them, and that much is evident.
On the other hand, we know how vitally important social media such as Twitter and Facebook were to protesters who gathered at Zuccotti Park in New York and sister spaces around the US a few years ago. Similarly, we know that the Arab Spring could not have reached critical mass nor could it have sustained its force for extended periods of time without those media. Their utility in alerting people about what was happening where, where people and repressive forces were colliding in “meat space” was essential. The same sorts of vitalities have been expressed more recently in South America, in many Asian countries. The social media behind them were likewise deployed by Black Lives Matter activists inside the Mall of America, in Bloomington, MN this past Christmas.
These instances suggest that there is indeed a relationship between virtual space and public space. I believe I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge it. In the end, social media and political space may complement each other. We would do well to focus on how that complementarity will manifest as these media continue to expand and Millennials and their successors become the primary inhabitants of our public spheres.
As I write, my hope is that the virtual spaces younger activists depend on for their mobilizations will accommodate and even expand their capacities to redress grievances and resist social injustice. At a minimum, I hope the new media will withstand the politicizations that have traditionally sustained civic engagement among new and under-represented participants in our public sphere.