What does democracy look like in the age of social media? How do we reimagine public spaces for the digital era? What kinds of groups should the internet promote? These are questions posed by Cass Sunstein’s book #republic.

This is a book about how to reimagine public spaces

This isn’t a book about how political polarization is increasing because of Facebook, or how social media is threatening democracy as we know it. Instead, it’s a book about how public spaces have changed in the internet, when more of us are hanging out online instead of offline. It’s a book about how the little interactions that you have day today with other people are changing because of the nature of the internet.

Several times in the first chapter, the author talks about the idea of street corners, which are public spaces that anyone can walk on and you never know who’s going to be there. You never know who you’re going to run into.

On the internet, your street corners are more and more occupied by people who share the same views as you do.

To what extent is this a problem? It’s not unambiguously good or bad. Much of the book is spent exploring this question.

Digital street corners

An even more interesting point is the idea of street corners in digital spaces. It is something that we haven’t yet considered. What does it look like to have a serendipitous interaction with a stranger on the internet? (And what does it look like to have that in a way that isn’t filled with women being threatened or harassed?)

What does it mean to share a couple of moments of your time with a stranger online, when you don’t know who that stranger is, you don’t know what kind of views they’re going to hold, you never know what kind of effect that’s going to happen on you.

How do we reimagine public spaces in the age of the internet?

The public forum doctrine

The goal of the Public Forum Doctrine is to increase the likelihood that, at some points during the communication process, there’s an exchange of views between people who disagree. It’s total self insulation that is most dangerous, the author argues.

Polarization is a double edged sword. It’s caused primarily by a decrease in the “argument pool” (the kinds of arguments that you are exposed to). And even the mere exposure to views aligned with your own can contribute to your radicalization.

Meanwhile, when diverse speakers have access to a heterogeneous public, it’s harder to insulate yourself from other ideas. (That’s the public forum doctrine at work.)

Echo chambers—or “deliberating enclaves,” as Sunstein calls them—are not all bad. These primarily promote the development of new positions that would otherwise be silenced. Safe spaces for women, people of color, or other marginalized groups exist precisely for this reason.

But the incubation of new ideas by itself is not enough. In order for it to take effect in the public discourse, “members must not isolate themselves from competing positions.”

So it’s not that echo chambers are bad—we do need them, which is a point that I feel has gotten lost in modern discourse today. But echo chambers by themselves are, obviously, not enough.

On mixed groups

What kinds of groups do we want to promote? Probably a mixture of “echo chambers” / “deliberating enclaves” and more mixed groups? Well, it’s hard to know.

In some cases, having groups of people with different opinions can cause depolarization. People will move closer to the middle.

In others, if people dismiss the views of those who disagree, members might become more extreme. Ouch!

And being exposed to two sets of arguments at once (pro-X and anti-X) can also cause polarization. People will listen to what they agree with and tune out the rest (confirmation bias).

Mixed groups have two desirable effects. One is increasing tolerance (people become more respectful and more willing to consider alternate positions as legitimate). The other is increasing awareness of competing beliefs, or the likelihood that a counterargument exists to your own belief.

Self awareness

When I was reading this, I asked myself two questions:

  • When was the last time you were very wrong about something?
  • Which of your beliefs or positions do you think is most likely to be wrong? That is, if some (political) opinion you have turns out to be wrong, what do you think it is?

I think encouraging this kind of self-reflection can be powerful. None of us are right about everything. Spending time to think about what I’m most likely to be wrong about has increased my willingness to change my beliefs.

How much do people believe in their beliefs? How much are they convinced that they are right? How much are they willing to be wrong?

Finally, with respect to Sunstein’s findings, there are many that are hard to reconcile. In general, it boils down to the idea that people don’t have strongly held convictions on very many things. “On a wide assortment of issues, it’s a good thing if people do not sort themselves into communities of like minded types.”