It was not long ago that human beings interacted with each other in face-to-face, brick-and-mortar operations that defined our public sphere. Some of these physical buildings became community centers where human beings exchanged ideas and maintained and nurtured friendships.
This is the case with coffee houses, pubs, salons, neighborhood libraries and bookstores, all of which created community. They brought people together, not always to agree but at least to face each other in the open.
In the Western world, these community centers were the bedrock of what we call “civil society.”
Not only did civil society give expression to our democratic beliefs, but it also created a buffer zone for talk between the government and the people that allows for peaceful coexistence between the two forces.
Otherwise, the temptation is to regularly overthrow the government. Democracy would not long survive under such chaotic conditions, no matter what Thomas Jefferson quaintly said about our republic needing a revolution every 20 years. Most of the globe never experienced the benefits of civil society. This explains why some countries today are politically unstable, or fall prey to political extremism despite democratic leanings.
Beginning with the rise of television and certainly since the spread of the Internet, community and the public sphere migrated to the electronic world and away from face-to-face contact.
Facebook and Twitter take the mediating commons idea to a higher level. They not only fashion their own private social domains, a kind of parallel universe of sharing and liking, but they also in effect have become their own nations.
At 860 million regular users, Facebook is one of the largest parallel nations on Earth, including the archiving of private information about us just like governments do. Is it a democracy? Well, not really, but it functions like one and it encourages people to think in democratic terms — to like and dislike, to friend and defriend.
For a website to become a mediating commons, it must do more than offer commercial products or services — it must become trusted and respected.
In my research on mediating commons, I found that such places are hugely important to the social fabric of a community. Trust is key — without it, such places wither and die.With trust in place, a mediating commons can do many things, among with is to encourage social interactions and even roll out new ideas and innovations.
Some form of education may even take place over social media. Why? Because this is where we meet today. And where increasingly we will meet tomorrow.
If this development seems frightening, it is. The lecture-centric educational world must conform to the new mass reality. There is little time for boredom anymore.
And the new electronic public sphere offers instantaneous dialogue with little time for reflection. Democracy is thus now on steroids and this speeding up affects how we make decisions. But this era also promises benefits: We are not tied down to institutions that move slowly. Applications for government and private services are handled online.
We spend less time in an office and more time with people and events that matter to us. And we unshackle the tethers and burdens of routine and pointless traditions. Social media allow us to communicate in faster, more efficient and less time-consuming ways. We engage more in the public sphere because it has never been easier to do so.We are no longer boxed in by four walls and a roof. Communication and connections are everywhere and at all times. And almost limitless. That’s the amazing value of social media.
(A longer version of this piece was published in The Seattle Times on May 4, 2012)