🎭 Democratic transformations require an eye for design

How should we understand recent transformations to the spaces of democratic action? Jennifer Forestal outlines the spatial characteristics required for democratic politics β€” and reminds us just how fragile those spaces are

We are, as Hans Asenbaum writes, living in a time of transformation. Citizens are increasingly wielding digital tools to explore identities, mobilise communities, and make change. But as we consider these personal and social transformations, we must also consider the transformation of the spaces within which they are playing out β€” the sites of political and personal discourse that shape the field of possibility for ourselves and our society.

Recently, we have witnessed mass exodus from Twitter and the search for a meaningful alternative. Facebook has introduced changes that cripple news sharing on the platform. Meanwhile, almost 9,000 subreddits 'went dark' in protest at decisions of Reddit's corporate leadership. Several countries have imposed bans on Tik Tok, while the app continues to run into trouble with the European Union.

What do these transformations to our digital public spaces mean for the practice of democracy?

Spaces shape our behaviour, both offline…

It should come as no surprise that the spaces we inhabit profoundly influence our attitudes, behaviours, and relationships with other people. Casinos, for example, are specifically β€” and famously β€” designed to keep people inside to spend money. But so, too, are more mundane spaces like grocery stores, which strategically lay out aisles to maximise customer purchases.

These same dynamics shape our civic practices and relationships, too. In formal political spaces, like parliamentary buildings, architectural features can shape policy outcomes. Seating legislators next to one another randomly, for example, can mitigate the effects of polarisation by facilitating interaction between members of different parties.

Seating legislators next to one another randomly, rather than by party, can spark constructive dialogue between members of different parties

Likewise for the informal spaces citizens inhabit daily. Public spaces β€” like parks, stadiums, and plazas β€” can help us develop a sense of community identity and perform our public roles. And the arrangement of streets and yards β€” even the presence of front porches β€” can help foster attitudes of cooperation and solidarity among neighbours.

…and online

The digital spaces in which we increasingly operate work in much the same way. The design of social media platforms shapes the behaviours β€” individual and collective β€” in which their users engage.

Consider that Facebook is, for the most part, built around individual users. We largely make one-to-one connections with our 'friends' β€” who are not necessarily connected to one another. This individualisation is amplified by the Facebook NewsFeed, which delivers personalised content to its users. As a result, though we might share the experience of being on Facebook with others, we tend to engage with the site as individuals.

Moreover, what communities do exist on Facebook β€” like those of Facebook Groups β€” are again influenced by the platform's design. By fostering collective ties, Groups encourage users to cultivate feelings of belonging with other members of the community. But such communities also operate in conjunction with a Facebook algorithm designed to prioritise affectively polarising conflict. As a result, these groups can easily socialise their members into unreflective attachments to particularly dangerous worldviews. We can see this play out in recent movements like anti-vaxx campaigns and the Stop the Steal conspiracy.

The design of social media platforms shapes our attitudes and behaviours, just as the physical built environment does

Just as the physical built environment shapes our attitudes and behaviours, then, the ways that social media platforms are designed can influence whether users see themselves as individuals or part of communities, whether they seek out new and different information or close ranks around the familiar, and whether they take an active or passive role in shaping their online experiences.

Democratic spaces require certain features

If the spaces we inhabit shape our field of possibilities, what kinds of spaces does democracy require?

In my own work, I have identified key characteristics of 'democratic spaces'. For spaces to support the kinds of attitudes and practices democracy requires, they must, first, have clear, durable boundaries. Citizens must be able to identify these spaces easily, and return to them again and again. But the spaces must also be flexible, in the sense of hosting multiple types of people and different kinds of activities.

For spaces to support the kinds of attitudes and practices democracy requires, they must have clear boundaries yet also be open to hosting multiple types of people and activities

In the offline world, we see these characteristics at work in mixed-use public spaces like (ideally) parks, schools, and libraries. These spaces serve democracy by anchoring communities: they are easily identifiable and are often the emotional core of collective life. By engaging repeatedly with these sites and the people within them, inhabitants form attachments not just to the physical spaces, but to the communities they host β€” in all their variety.

Transforming digital spaces

The same is true of digital spaces. Though certainly not perfect, Twitter, for example, was initially designed in a way that largely supported democratic practices. With hashtags that created bounded conversations, Twitter helped many communities to gather, amplify their voices, and organise collective action. Moreover, the retweet function meant that the platform added a degree of flexibility that introduced variety and heterogeneity into an information environment otherwise largely dominated by traditionally mainstream perspectives.

But under Elon Musk's ownership, X (as it is now called) has lost many of these democratic qualities. The changes introduced include limiting access to view posts on the site without an account, requiring paid subscriptions to disseminate posts (or even use the site at all), and throttling links to competing social media platforms. All this works to undercut the democratic features and possibilities of the platform. The result is an exodus, with a lament that other platforms cannot provide the same services β€” due, largely, to their design features.

Building democratic futures

The spaces of everyday life β€” online or offline β€” have a profound effect on the ways we think, act, and relate to others. As such, they are a critical element in fostering democratic practices and facilitating democratic transformations. But, as the example of Twitter illustrates, these spaces are not static. We cannot take them for granted β€” especially in ever-shifting digital environments. As we consider the scale and scope of the transformations we face, we also must think of the structures themselves. These are not just questions of who and how, but also of where.

No.9 in our 🎭 Democratic Transformations series

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Jennifer Forestal
Jennifer Forestal
Helen Houlahan Rigali Assistant Professor of Political Science, Loyola University Chicago

Jennifer has written and published on topics such as digital culture, platform design and governance, radicalisation and extremism, and democratic theory.

She has been a visiting faculty fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics and the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study.

www.jenniferforestal.com

She tweets @seejenspeak

@seejenspeak.bsky.social

Designing for Democracy How to Build Community in Digital Environments Jennifer Forestal

Designing for Democracy: How to Build Community in Digital Environments
Oxford University Press, 2023

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