The Digital Town Square

Social media is often referred to as a “digital town square.” This expression conjures up images of a place where people can go to say anything. To discuss whatever is on their mind. To converse with others, who may or may not agree with their viewpoints.

I suppose, based on this description, that social media is meant to replicate an in-person experience where we chitchat with one another. The big problem with this image is that digital and physical communication are two vastly different mediums.

In reality, a real-life town square is physically small with a limited ability to spread beyond its boundaries. People discussing ideas in a real town square must remember what was said. It’s also highly unlikely that every snippet of conversation would be posted, shared, and distributed across the globe in seconds. And possibly with photos, or video, attached.

Social media, by contrast, spreads anything and everything. By anyone. Some of the things that make social media so amazing and successful, are also the things that make it unbearable.

The image of a digital town square is warm and fuzzy. It makes us believe that social media is inviting and welcoming. Innocent and harmless, even. Although it can be in some circumstances, the reality is different.

Over the years, issues continually emerged about how social media is used, by whom and for what purpose. For example trolling, doxxing, cyberbullying, election rigging, using automated bots for any number or reasons, etc. And of course the latest addition to the list, inciting violence and riots. Though to be fair, this last one has appeared before, but now there’s a renewed interest in it.

Social media companies, and legislators, have tried desperately to keep up. But they can’t. Algorithms to facilitate automated searching and monitoring, moderators, and new policies are examples of their efforts. However, social media is too widely spread, too diverse, and too rooted in everyday life for a simple fix.

The image of a digital town square dissolved a long time ago. Yet, I still hear this phrase repeated often. Even after this past week’s violent attacks on the US Capitol, some of which originated on various social media platforms.

Isn’t it time to redefine what social media is and how we use it?

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