In late 2010, a young Egyptian named Wael Ghonim posted a Facebook page titled "We are All Khaled Said". The page called attention to the death of a young activist, tortured to death by Egyptian police. The page became the rallying point for protests against the Mubarak regime after Ghonim asked his readers when they were going to take to the streets like Tunisians had in overthrowing their government. As the movement grew, Mubarak reached out to Ghonim and asked him to pull "his people" from Tahrir Square and negotiate. Ghonim explained that they weren't "his people"—he had sparked a movement that grew organically and was far beyond his personal control. That movement succeeded in removing Mubarak from power by February 11, 2011.
Like many Egyptians who had supported the revolution, Ghonim was frustrated with the outcome—a transfer of power first to the Muslim Brotherhood and then back to the Egyptian army. The tools that were so powerful in bringing angry people out into the streets were far less useful in enabling careful deliberation about a way forward for the country. By 2015, Ghonim began to believe the limitations of tools like Facebook were responsible in part for misdirecting the energy of the Egyptian revolution. So Ghomin started a new social media network.
Parlio, the network Ghonim created, was explicitly designed for a different kind of conversation than those normally hosted on Facebook. It opened by invitation to a small group of political activists and community leaders in 2014, and Ghonim explained that the goal was not to reach a billion users, but to reach perhaps a hundred thousand young leaders. These leaders could connect to one another and develop their thinking about how to create lasting political change. Instead of positioning itself as a free speech zone where anything goes, Parlio offered an official etiquette statement:
"Be curious, open-minded, and civil. We want you to share opinions and experiences that strengthen the community's collective intelligence. We believe diversity of thought is a virtue, and we're here to learn new perspectives; not to win arguments. We are trying to define a new type of network. One void of Internet-trolling, where we can create a community of trust and respect that expands our horizons. Parlio values dissent, but above all else, civility."
Parlio didn't last long—it opened to the general public in early 2015 and was acquired by question-answering social network Quora in early 2016. The conversations were remarkably civil and serious, but Parlio didn’t replace Facebook for most of its users, and it had trouble building a stable, growing userbase. It remains useful as an example of some of the key traits of a social network built around a civic logic, where the goal is not to maximize profit or achieve a particular technical vision of decentralization or robustness. Social networks ordered around civic logics offer different affordances for different uses, and may have different rule sets and revenue models. What they have in common is that they've got a specific social purpose behind them, and often a community that is a full participant in its own governance.
Different affordances, different norms
Not far from Tahrir Square, Esra’a al Shafei was working to create another civic community with a unique set of affordances and norms in Manama, Bahrain. Shafei is a Bahraini activist who has created several online communities dedicated to freedom of expression. Mideast Tunes is a platform for underground musicians to share music for social change. Crowdvoice.by encourages nonprofit organizations to amplify each other’s campaigns and content. But in 2011, Shafei was launching Ahwaa, a platform for LGBTQ youth in the Middle East—an especially challenging prospect given the social and legal threats to LGBTQ people from national governments in the region.
Ahwaa looks radically different from most social networks. When you join, you create a cartoon avatar of yourself—it is forbidden to upload most photos, especially photos of yourself, as they could be used by the authorities to arrest or harass those depicted. Ahwaa is a gamified social network: you earn points by making comments or creating content that other users find helpful. Those points give you privileges, like the ability to host chat rooms or send private messages. The system aims to insulate users from harassment, making it difficult for a troll to access sensitive content.
Ahwaa is not for everyone—most users would prefer to make friends in an environment where they can share photos of themselves. But that’s really the point of networks that operate on civic logics. They’re not for everyone, not for every use case, but they provide critically important spaces for conversations that are difficult to hold elsewhere, and which make us richer and more resilient as a society. If an aspect of Facebook logic is that a platform should be able to support 2 billion people and their various needs, one aspect of civic social media logic is that it’s okay for a network to support only 20 people if those people have a real need for an online community space. Civic networks are easy to ignore because they likely cannot or should not scale to many millions of users. Instead, they are likely limited to communities of a few dozen to a few thousand, communities who can meet and dialog in person with a minimum of structure to provide representation and coordination.
Civic networks may demand participation in very different ways than we’re used to interacting on social networks. Gell.com is a network designed to surface the best arguments on both sides of controversial political issues. A typical Gell page might feature a divisive question—Should travel bans be imposed due to coronavirus?—and a set of arguments for and against, each voted on by participants in the system. While the site invites participation, that participation is carefully scaffolded—you are giving your opinion on an issue or your thoughts about the merits of someone’s argument. The site’s CEO, Loren Bendele, noted in conversation with me (Ethan) that these affordances mean they have far less abusive behavior and remove less content than standard social networks, which is especially impressive given the political nature of the content. Gell might have more users and more engagement if they didn’t manage participation so carefully, but the civic goals of the network are well served by the careful rulesets.
We can see these limits on engagement even more explicitly in platforms like vTaiwan which aim to facilitate direct participation in government. vTaiwan and a similar platform called Decidim rose out of direct democracy movements in Taiwan and Barcelona respectively. On vTaiwan (which uses the open-source tool Pol.is to host debate) users cannot reply to posts. Instead, they participate solely through standalone posts. This is meant to discourage trolls and encourage constructive conversation. Additionally, vTaiwan uses upvotes and downvotes on posts to generate a map of the debate, creating clusters of people who voted similarly. The clusters show where there are divides and where there is consensus. People then try to draft comments that win upvotes from both sides of a divide, bringing them closer together. As Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang puts it, “If you show people the face of the crowd, and if you take away the reply button, then people stop wasting time on divisive statements.” vTaiwan was used to debate how to regulate Uber in Taiwan. Within a few days the debate had settled into two groups, one pro-Uber and one anti-Uber. However, as the groups looked to attract more supporters, their members started posting things that everyone could agree on. In the end, a set of seven posts emerged with almost universal approval and informed the new regulations Taiwan implemented.
Platforms like vTaiwan could be the town squares of the civic logic ecosystem, serving as meticulously designed spaces that host larger conversations and encourage groups who spend much of their time in separate networks to connect. This could address concerns that smaller civic networks would become echo chambers, and offer an alternative to taking to Facebook and Twitter when people want to engage in a larger debate. On the other hand, the demands of participating in these carefully constructed spaces and the lack of formal power can end up turning off many users. vTaiwan has 200,000 participants in a nation of 23 million, and while it is widely celebrated for helping to open a new era in participatory democracy, even its creators admit that it is a “tiger without teeth.”
Who makes the rules?
Parlio, Ahwaa, Gell, and vTaiwan represent the civic visions of their founders—in each case, a passionate founder had a vision for how online conversations could operate differently. But the most subversive idea about how networks could act as civic spaces may come from a site often in the news for its most toxic communities: Reddit. The interlocking message boards of Reddit are collectively one of the most popular social media spaces online, ranked 18th in engagement by internet traffic measurement service Alexa. (By contrast, Twitter ranks 50th in engagement.) While there are rules of the road that govern Reddit as a whole, and the site’s owners periodically purge the site of “subreddits” that frequently break the rules, most of the governance of the site is handled by volunteer administrators for each subcommunity.
Some of these rules can seem trivial: on the popular /r/aww community where people share cute and funny pictures of animals, you cannot post images of pets that are dying, sick, or just back from the vet—there is a blanket ban on “sad” content. Want bittersweet animal content? Start your own subreddit. Or become a moderator on /r/aww and lobby the other admins for your position. It might take a while—the most popular subreddits like /r/aww, which new Reddit users are subscribed to by default, usually only recruit experienced moderators, so you may have to warm up in the minor leagues first.
Reddit is far from a model democracy—not all moderators poll their users before making changes to a subreddit’s rules, and “drama” on Reddit often comes from moderators who make decisions out of step with their community’s desires. But well-moderated corners of Reddit may serve as a model for how communities can make and enforce their own rules about acceptable online behavior with little outside supervision.
This, in turn, represents another way in which civic-model social spaces could help our overall civic culture. While sites like Gell or Parlio encourage us to engage in certain types of productive conversation, Reddit offers practice in the day-to-day use of our civic muscles. Moderators put hundreds of (unpaid) hours into mediating online conversations. In the process, they get a practical education in politics, much like the people celebrated by Robert Putnam who ran neighborhood organizations like the Elks lodge or the local bowling league. Putnam worried that without these institutions to socialize us into running good meetings, compromising on controversial issues, and listening to those we disagree with, our ability to be good citizens would erode. Participating in online communities that take participatory civics seriously seems like a worthy way to exercise those neglected muscles.
(Is Reddit best understood as a civic-model social network? Probably not. It’s core goal is entertainment, giving people spaces to explore their passions, from cute animals to European football. But its governance model—inherited from chan logic spaces like message boards—may be a more civic vision of governance than that embraced by early experiments in civic social spaces.)
Are civic networks viable?
By conventional metrics of userbase or ad sales, the answer is simple: no. Networks like Gell and Ahwaa have barely enough traffic to register on measurement sites like Alexa. They are unable to cover costs through advertising and most cannot rely on venture capital investment to grow their communities until they are viable.
But what does viable mean? If we accept that the goal of running a site that operates on civic logic is not to make money, but to nurture and support a community, viability might equal survivability. Global Voices, a self-governing civic-logic community that celebrates perspectives and reporting from around the world, spends roughly $1 million a year in donor funds to support a staff of editors and translators, but its core technical costs (bandwidth and professional technical talent) is only a tenth of that expense. Medium-traffic image boards (tens of thousands of users) routinely run using volunteer labor at costs of a few hundred dollars a month. At these levels, subscription revenues could easily keep a site afloat.
But survival is a low bar to clear. The exciting possible future for civic-logic networks is that they become regarded as public goods—aspects of our social infrastructure that are so important that we choose to support them through taxpayer dollars or through community giving, the way we support libraries and public parks.
Getting there won’t be easy. The early attempts at civic logic are inspiring and have demonstrated the value of similar projects. But it’s still too hard to create a civic social media platform. You need a significant amount of technical work and money to launch a community, gather users, and moderate the conversation. To truly enable a flowering of civic life online, we need a system that enables civic groups with minimal technical expertise and money to spin up their own social media space.
However, even more importantly, we have to address the problem of network effects and scarce attention. If you are a regular user of Facebook, it may not be because you think the network’s tools are the most effective or that the community’s values align perfectly with your own. You may be there because many of your friends and family are there. A new civic network has to fight for your attention, peeling a fraction of it away from Facebook to bring you into a new and different space. Most projects have set themselves up beside existing social networks and hoped to lure participants in, like a town meeting hosted between two busy bars, hoping to lure in stray patrons. Instead, these new networks may need to interoperate with existing networks, bringing highlights of their discussions into existing conversations and inviting participants to join in without forsaking their existing social ties. The Gobo project at the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure is building a social media client that’s compatible both with new civic logic networks and with existing networks in the hopes that users will dip in and out of these new spaces.
Right now, many of our online interactions take place in the digital equivalent of a shopping mall. Controlled by corporations and designed to maximize advertising revenue, they sometimes host civic discussions, but they aren’t real civic spaces. There is clearly an opportunity to build a better future, one that commits to digital spaces that enhance our social and civic life; one that gives communities control over where and how they come together online. We need to learn from the successes and failures of the civic platforms that have come before if we hope to exit the shopping mall and enter the park.
Ethan Zuckerman is Associate Professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, and the 2020-2021 Senior Visiting Research Scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci is a research fellow at the Knight Institute.