Eli Pariser: How Can We Reshape Our Digital Platforms To Be More Welcoming Spaces?

Jul 23, 2021
Originally published on July 26, 2021 3:55 pm

Part 2 of TED Radio Hour episode The Public Commons

Eli Pariser has an optimistic vision for our digital public spaces. He says that by structuring them like real-life parks, libraries, and town halls, we can create more welcoming, safe places online.

About Eli Pariser

Eli Pariser is the co-director of New_Public at the National Conference on Citizenship, where he is working to create democracy-friendly spaces in the digital landscape.

He previously was the Executive Director of MoveOn.org where he led the organization's opposition to the Iraq war. Pariser is also the founder of Upworthy and the author of The Filter Bubble: How The New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read And How We Think.

He has a BA from Bard College at Simon's Rock and an honorary doctorate from Dominican University.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Rachel Faulkner and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, ideas about the public commons. We were just talking to Shari Davis about how to make our public places more safe and welcoming. But how can we bring those values to places online? That is exactly what Eli Pariser is trying to figure out.

ELI PARISER: All of these public spaces that we take for granted in the physical world - parks and libraries and, you know, all of this social infrastructure - doesn't exist in digital space mostly. We just don't have those kinds of institutions.

ZOMORODI: Eli is probably best known for coining the term filter bubble about a decade ago. That's when he noticed that the internet was getting so personalized that we only saw what the algorithms assumed we wanted to see.

PARISER: And, I mean, there are a couple problems here. One is that, you know, it sort of creates this feedback loop where you're fed content you're likely to be interested on it (ph). You click on it. That kind of confirms the model that the machine learning was building. And you're in this kind of pretty narrow echo chamber. And I think that's part of why we see, as a country, our realities are drifting apart. And as someone who cares a lot about both, you know, America and democracy, it stresses me out. I think it's stressing a lot of people out that - you know, it's not just that we, like, disagree about particular policies, it's that the whole story of what is happening in the world is different depending on who you are when you log on to Facebook or Twitter.


PARISER: The big question, I think, is not just what do we want platforms to stop doing, but now that they've effectively taken control of our online public square, what do we need from them for the greater good?

ZOMORODI: Here's Eli Pariser on the TED stage.


PARISER: To me, this is one of the most important questions of our time. What obligations do tech platforms have to us in exchange for the power that we let them hold over our discourse? So for the last year, I've been working with Dr. Talia Stroud at the University of Texas, Austin. And we've talked to sociologists and political scientists and philosophers to try to answer this question. We asked, what happens when we think about platforms as spaces? And for us, the platform crisis is a people problem. It's a problem about the emergent weird things that happen when large groups of people get together.

We know, from social psychology, that spaces shape behavior. When researchers put softer furniture in classrooms, participation rates rose by 42%. And spaces even have political consequences. When researchers looked at neighborhoods with parks versus neighborhoods without, after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, they found that neighborhoods with parks had higher levels of social trust and were better able to advocate for themselves politically.

So spaces shape behavior partly by the way they're designed and partly by the way that they encode certain norms about how to behave. You know, we all know that there are some behaviors that are OK in a bar that are not OK in a library and maybe vice versa. And this gives us a little bit of a clue because there are online spaces that encode these same kinds of behavioral norms. So for example, behavior on LinkedIn seems pretty good. Why? Because it reads as a workplace, and so people follow workplace norms. If LinkedIn is a workplace, what is Twitter like?


PARISER: Well, it's like a vast, cavernous expanse where there are people talking about sports, arguing about politics, yelling at each other, flirting, trying to get a job all in the same place with no walls, no divisions. And the owner gets paid more the louder the noise is. No wonder it's a mess. And this raises another thing that becomes obvious when we think about platforms in terms of physical space. Good physical spaces are almost always structured. They have rules.

ZOMORODI: So Eli, you did some research into how these rules in the real world sort of guide people - like, say to them, you know, this is how you should behave in these spaces. And you tried to figure out, you know, whether that was possible to translate those guidelines into how we behave online, right?

PARISER: Yeah. So then our project became, like, well, what are the qualities of public spaces that kind of translate into digital platforms? And we ended up with four categories, which was welcome, connect, understand and act

ZOMORODI: Welcome, connect, understand and act. OK.

PARISER: Yeah. And we actually, like, polled people in 20 countries, and we saw that there was this big buy-in to this notion that, like, yeah, we want these qualities in our spaces, and also the platforms that we have now aren't really doing a great job of delivering them.

ZOMORODI: OK. So four steps to a better internet. I got to say, I'm a little skeptical. But let's do it. Where do we start?

PARISER: Yeah. Well, I think welcome is kind of the foundation layer, which is, do I actually feel like I belong here? Do I feel like I'm invited here? Do I feel safe here? And, you know, I think in some ways, when people do use spatial metaphors, we overfocus on, like, a town square and people arguing about politics. But actually, like, a lot of what we've used public space for in democracies over the centuries isn't to, like, walk up to strangers and tell them your most incendiary political opinion...


PARISER: ...But it's, like, to have an experience of, like, oh, I can go outside. And I'm safe. And other people are kind of, like, with their families. And I can see how they relate to them. And it's OK. And that's actually a really important experience for people to have. And it's a place both that people told us that they didn't feel like current digital environments did a great job of, especially if they're coming from more typically marginalized communities, but it's also just not a place that most of these companies have put in a whole lot of thought or effort.

ZOMORODI: OK. So welcome.

PARISER: So we've got welcome. Yeah. And then connect is kind of the - it's a word that's been used a lot in digital space that was famously, you know, Facebook's mission. But really, underneath connect, what we're talking about is, how do you bring groups together in ways that they actually form cross-group bonds and ties? What we know from the social science is that if you bring two groups of people into a space and you have them play tug of war in those initial two groups, they reinforce their bonds with each other. And they reinforce the antagonism to the other group. If you mix up the groups - and this is an experiment that's been done - you know, you start to erode that sense of kind of, like, there's us and there's them. And a lot of that is about the rules of the space. And so I think our point with connect is that this is something that really has to be designed for. It's not something that just happens, when you throw people into a space naturally, that they form these kind of crosscutting connections.

ZOMORODI: I mean, this kind of is reminds me of ice breaker exercises at conferences that I've been to, where they want to make sure you don't just sit with the people you already know or people you came with. OK. So we've been welcomed. Connections have been facilitated. And then what?

PARISER: So then, yeah, understanding - what we think about in this understanding category is, how do we, like, make meaning together? So Audrey Tang, who's this amazing digital pioneer in Taiwan, has this system called Polis. And Polis is kind of like some of the, like, online petition systems that folks may have seen here, except that, essentially, what gets elevated to the Taiwanese government is what there is kind of the most cross-sectional support for in the society. So if lots of people across different groups all agree with the same statement and sign onto it, then that's a really important signal that, like, hey, this is a really urgent issue to address. That turns out to be a really different set of issues from what each little, tiny, you know, activist subgroup might want to elevate on a petition platform. And so I just offer that as an example of, you know, there are ways you can design online systems that support, like, oh, we have some shared goals.


PARISER: Some of them are kind of boring, but really important to a lot of people, like filling potholes. And that's important for governments to know, to be responsive. And then there's this last piece of acting together. Sociologists call it kind of collective efficacy. But this idea that - hey, if there's a problem that comes up, we can see it. We can address it together. And we can do something about it. It turns out that not only is that a really strong predictor of kind of positive community outcomes, but it also turns out, interestingly, that that's a function of how many public spaces you have in your community. And so places that have more public spaces have a higher level of collective efficacy.


PARISER: For example, I grew up in a small town in Maine, and I went to a lot of those town hall meetings that you hear about. And unlike sort of the storybook version, they weren't always nice. Like, people had big conflicts, big feelings. It was hard sometimes. But because of the way that that space was structured, we managed to land it OK. How? Well, here's one important piece - the downcast glance, the dirty look, the raised eyebrow, the cough. When people went on too long or lost the crowd, they didn't get banned or blocked or hauled out by the police. They just got this soft, negative social feedback. And that was actually very powerful. I think, you know, Facebook and Twitter could build this. Digital designers could think about what kind of conversations do we actually want to invite, and how do we build specifically for those kinds of conversations.

ZOMORODI: But the difference is - with a physical public space - is that at least those people come with at least one thing in common, which is that, you know, geography - their bodies are in the same place. How - that is not the case with being on the World Wide Web. Like, who decides online? Are we talking about creating kind of a governance? Like, what does this look like if we put those four pillars to work in a digital public space?

PARISER: Well, I think in order to put these - to really kind of embrace these signals, I mean, I think the existing platforms can make some moves toward being better on these signals. But I think ultimately we have to reckon with the fact that we need a really different approach to online space, that the idea that we're going to come up with some magical algorithm that's going to serve all of these different needs for all of these, you know, hundreds of different countries and millions of different communities and billions of people on its face seems absurd and is absurd, and that we need to start thinking, again, in terms of the kinds of community institutions that have worked in the past, and that's the libraries and the parks, that do have a somewhat - there's not one solution for everyone. They're situated in particular spaces, in particular communities, and they're governed by those communities. And so they are suited to the particular needs of those communities in ways that one top-down algorithm is not going to be able to be. And some of those might be still profit driven, and some of them might put the public interest first, the way that parks and libraries do. And I think that's actually a much more durable model, is to have lots of well-constructed communities than one giant free-for-all that's global in scale, but that makes it really hard to manage.

ZOMORODI: OK, so let's just sum it up. You're envisioning this mix of public and private online places that meet the needs of different groups in new kinds of ways. But to build these places, you are saying that we need, like, a new design movement. We need urban designers for the digital world.


ZOMORODI: And I'm guessing, like, people are thinking, I love this idea, but the internet is way too far gone. We are at the point of no return. Definitely, Eli, there are going to be people who are thinking that. And I guess, how do you respond to the most cynical people out there who are listening and maybe don't even believe it is possible to build something egalitarian on the internet?

PARISER: I would say, number one, this is something we've done many times in the past with similar, you know, sort of capital formations arrayed against these causes. You know, one big hero of mine is Jane Jacobs, who kind of changed how we thought about cities and neighborhoods and what good neighborhoods looked like and having, like, a walkable, livable neighborhood where you see and meet people. So that's one piece. I think the second piece is, this doesn't have to be about competing with a giant, like a Facebook or a Google, on its own turf.

There's a really compelling argument to be made that if we invest in our digital ecosystem, that's going to be good for everyone who's part of it, including these companies, because they're not going to be, you know, the sole line of defense against the negative externalities that they're also, in some ways, creating.


PARISER: You know, so I think there's a - as we all kind of grow up a bit with the internet, I think there's a more mature way of looking at it that says, like, of course we need all of these different pieces of infrastructure working together if we want to have a healthy society.


PARISER: It doesn't surprise me that people are giving up on the idea of online public spaces. And sometimes - I'll be honest - it feels to me like this whole project of, like, wiring up a civilization and getting billions of people to come into contact with each other is just impossible. But modern cities tell us that it is possible for millions of people who are really different, sometimes living right on top of each other, not just to not kill each other, but to actually build things together, find new experiences, create beautiful, important infrastructure. And we cannot give up on that promise.

If we want to solve the big, important problems in front of us, we need better online public spaces. We need digital urban planners, new Jane Jacobses, who are going to build the parks and park benches of the online world. And we need digital, public-friendly architects, who are going to build what Eric Klinenberg calls palaces for the people - libraries and museums and town halls. And we need a transnational movement, where these spaces can learn from each other, just like cities have, about everything from urban farming to public art to rapid transit.

Humanity moves forward when we find new ways to rely on and understand and trust each other. And we need this now more than ever. If online digital spaces are going to be our new home, let's make them a comfortable, beautiful place to live, a place we all feel not just included but actually some ownership of. A place we get to know each other. A place you'd actually want not just to visit, but to bring your kids.


ZOMORODI: So let's cast forward. I think we've heard your kids playing occasionally in the background. What would you like it to be for all of us in - I don't know - are we talking about a decade, multiple decades where we do think about public commons, public spaces online? Like, what would our experience be like?

PARISER: Yeah, I mean, I think the digital world that I hope, you know, my kids grow up in is one where they feel connected to a bunch of communities, where they're valued, where they're seen and where they're valued not just for, like, the content they produce, but who they are in relationship to others - and that they also have some power in that situation, that they have some agency, that when they see, you know, the digital equivalent of a pothole, that they can get a group of people together and change that.


PARISER: And I guess I'd like, you know, sort of my kids and future generations to feel like, you know, that actually can be constructive and productive. And I think when you form better digital public spaces and you start to build trust, you start to see a bit more of the humanity in other people.

ZOMORODI: That's Eli Pariser. He's a researcher and author, and he runs the organization New Public. You can see both of his TED Talks at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about the public commons. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Stay with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.