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  • I was talking to a guy at a party in California

  • about tech platforms

  • and the problems they're creating in society.

  • And he said, "Man, if the CEOs just did more drugs

  • and went to Burning Man,

  • we wouldn't be in this mess."

  • (Laughter)

  • I said, "I'm not sure I agree with you."

  • For one thing, most of the CEOs have already been to Burning Man.

  • (Laughter)

  • But also, I'm just not sure that watching a bunch of half-naked people

  • run around and burn things

  • is really the inspiration they need right now.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I do agree that things are a mess.

  • And so, we're going to come back to this guy,

  • but let's talk about the mess.

  • Our climate's getting hotter and hotter.

  • It's getting harder and harder to tell truth from fiction.

  • And we've got this global migratory crisis.

  • And just at the moment when we really need new tools

  • and new ways of coming together as a society,

  • it feels like social media is kind of tearing at our civic fabric

  • and setting us against each other.

  • We've got viral misinformation on WhatsApp,

  • bullying on Instagram

  • and Russian hackers on Facebook.

  • And I think this conversation that we're having right now

  • about the harms that these platforms are creating

  • is so important.

  • But I also worry

  • that we could be letting a kind of good existential crisis in Silicon Valley

  • go to waste

  • if the bar for success is just that it's a little harder

  • for Macedonian teenagers to publish false news.

  • 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?

  • 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 we let them hold over our discourse?

  • I think this question is so important,

  • because even if today's platforms go away,

  • we need to answer this question

  • in order to be able to ensure that the new platforms that come back

  • are any better.

  • So for the last year, I've been working with Dr. Talia Stroud

  • at the University of Texas, Austin.

  • We've talked to sociologists and political scientists

  • and philosophers

  • to try to answer this question.

  • And at first we asked,

  • "If you were Twitter or Facebook and trying to rank content for democracy

  • rather than for ad clicks or engagement,

  • what might that look like?"

  • But then we realized,

  • this sort of suggests that this is an information problem

  • or a content problem.

  • 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.

  • And so we turned to another, older idea.

  • We asked,

  • "What happens when we think about platforms as spaces?"

  • We know from social psychology that spaces shape behavior.

  • You put the same group of people in a room like this,

  • and they're going to behave really differently

  • than in a room like this.

  • When researchers put softer furniture in classrooms,

  • participation rates rose by 42 percent.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • You can even see it in the way they dress in their profile pictures.

  • (Laughter)

  • So if LinkedIn is a workplace,

  • what is Twitter like?

  • (Laughter)

  • 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • No wonder it's a mess.

  • And this raises another thing that become obvious

  • when we think about platforms in terms of physical space.

  • Good physical spaces are almost always structured.

  • They have rules.

  • Silicon Valley is built on this idea that unstructured space is conducive

  • for human behavior.

  • And I actually think there's a reason for this myopia

  • built into the location of Silicon Valley itself.

  • So, Michele Gelfand is a sociologist

  • who studies how norms vary across cultures.

  • And she watches how cultures like Japan -- which she calls "tight" --

  • is very conformist, very rule-following,

  • and cultures like Brazil are very loose.

  • You can see this even in things like

  • how closely synchronized the clocks are on a city street.

  • So as you can see, the United States is one of the looser countries.

  • And the loosest state in the United States is,

  • you got it, California.

  • And Silicon Valley culture came out of the 1970s Californian counterculture.

  • So, just to recap:

  • the spaces that the world is living in

  • came out of the loosest culture in the loosest state

  • in one of the loosest countries in the world.

  • No wonder they undervalue structure.

  • And I think this really matters, because people need structure.

  • You may have heard this word "anomie."

  • It literally means "a lack of norms" in French.

  • It was coined by Émile Durkheim

  • to describe the vast, overwhelming feeling

  • that people have in spaces without norms.

  • Anomie has political consequences.

  • Because what Gelfand has found is that, when things are too loose,

  • people crave order and structure.

  • And that craving for order and structure correlates really strongly

  • with support for people like these guys.

  • (Laughter)

  • I don't think it's crazy to ask

  • if the structurelessness of online life is actually feeding anxiety

  • that's increasing a responsiveness to authoritarianism.

  • So how might platforms bring people together

  • in a way that creates meaning

  • and helps people understand each other?

  • And this brings me back to our friend from Burning Man.

  • Because listening to him, I realized:

  • it's not just that Burning Man isn't the solution --

  • it's actually a perfect metaphor for the problem.

  • (Laughter)

  • You know, it's a great place to visit for a week,

  • this amazing art city, rising out of nowhere in the dust.

  • But you wouldn't want to live there.

  • (Laughter)

  • There's no running water,

  • there's no trash pickup.

  • At some point, the hallucinogens run out,

  • and you're stuck with a bunch of wealthy white guys

  • in the dust in the desert.

  • (Laughter)

  • Which, to me, is sometimes how social media feels in 2019.

  • (Laughter)

  • A great, fun, hallucinatory place to visit has become our home.

  • And so,

  • if we look at platforms through the lens of spaces,

  • we can then ask ourselves:

  • Who knows how to structure spaces for the public good?

  • And it turns out, this is a question

  • people have been thinking about for a long time about cities.

  • Cities were the original platforms.

  • Two-sided marketplace?

  • Check.

  • Place to keep up with old friends and distant relatives?

  • Check.

  • Vector for viral sharing?

  • Check.

  • In fact, cities have encountered

  • a lot of the same social and political challenges

  • that platforms are now encountering.

  • They've dealt with massive growth that overwhelmed existing communities

  • and the rise of new business models.

  • They've even had new, frictionless technologies

  • that promised to connect everyone together

  • and that instead deepened existing social and race divides.

  • But because of this history of decay and renewal

  • and segregation and integration,

  • cities are the source of some of our best ideas

  • about how to build functional, thriving communities.

  • Faced with a top-down, car-driven vision of city life,

  • pioneers like Jane Jacobs said,

  • let's instead put human relationships at the center of urban design.

  • Jacobs and her fellow travelers like Holly Whyte, her editor,

  • were these really great observers of what actually happened on the street.

  • They watched: Where did people stop and talk?

  • When did neighbors become friends?

  • And they learned a lot.

  • For example, they noticed that successful public places

  • generally have three different ways that they structure behavior.

  • There's the built environment,

  • you know, that we're going to put a fountain here or a playground there.

  • But then, there's programming,

  • like, let's put a band at seven and get the kids out.

  • And there's this idea of mayors,

  • people who kind of take this informal ownership of a space

  • to keep it welcoming and clean.

  • All three of these things actually have analogues online.

  • But platforms mostly focus on code,

  • on what's physically possible in the space.

  • And they focus much less on these other two softer, social areas.

  • What are people doing there?

  • Who's taking responsibility for it?

  • So like Jane Jacobs did for cities,

  • Talia and I think we need a new design movement

  • for online space,

  • one that considers

  • not just "How do we build products that work for users or consumers?"

  • "How do we make something user-friendly?"

  • but "How do we make products that are public-friendly?"

  • Because we need products that don't serve individuals

  • at the expense of the social fabric on which we all depend.

  • And we need it urgently,

  • because political scientists tell us

  • that healthy democracies need healthy public spaces.

  • So, the public-friendly digital design movement that Talia and I imagine

  • asks this question:

  • What would this interaction be like if it was happening in physical space?

  • And it asks the reverse question:

  • What can we learn from good physical spaces

  • about how to structure behavior in the online world?

  • 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 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 Facebook and Twitter could build this,

  • something like this.