Places to congregate. Places to protest. Platforms where your political views can be heard. The open imparting of free knowledge. The threat of spatial privatisation. It's clear that one can draw many parallels between the current state of the Internet, and how physical public space has developed over the past 200 years. Investigating these parallels is Payal Arora, whose new book The Leisure Commons chronicles the parallel timelines between public Internet and public space.
Arora's book aims to be different to the glut of works which simply focus on “Web 2.0” being a new phenomenon for its own sake. However, when one considers the raison d'etre of Web 2.0, there are a number of fundamental, social questions to ask. To what extent are these developments “normal”? Are we being offered a radically new kind of public space? If we are, then we already have our conclusion: that public space is dead, and that the Internet in its new, matured form, is allowing for a new kind of participation, and a new kind of citizenry.
It's people such as Jon Gnarr who represent this new citizenry. A comedian whose schtick was about the corruption of the political system, he ended up becoming mayor of Reykjavik because of a combination of the ability to persuade and entertain, a genuine desire to see a 'cleaned-up'' political system, and a global appreciation of his routines via YouTube.
So, while it's easy to say that people like this are part of something unprecedented in society, we clearly need to look at such developments more critically. Arora takes us back to the 18th and 19th centuries, an era which gave us the first public parks. The documents and articles which chronicled their launch were not unlike the unbridled praise of Web 2.0 – that these developments are unprecedented, democratic, and are indicative of a global phenomenon. The public park was a radical idea to create an open space from nothing. It symbolised of a new kind of humanity; it could show that politicians were much more civil than had been the case to date.
“If we can tap into the history of urban public parks, then we can learn a lot from these different dimensions. They start to blur - speaker's corner has a very strong resonance online. It's a symbolic space, re-iterated online to evoke political protest. So, what is really 'normal', and what is deeply historical and yet permeates today? It's not a coincidence to describe the Internet in these ways.”
Arora's investigation offers a balanced approach in terms of how the park developed in different parts of the world. The British were one of the first to come up with the concept of the modern park, during Victorian times, with Americans absorbing that idea to make it more omnipresent and to “fork” its concept and build different spaces, such as the theme park. The concept of the park as public space is, perhaps, an early example of the globalisation of public networks.
One obvious symbol of the comparison between Internet and public space is the metaphor of the commons. The term “digital commons” is used to define an open, public space online; the “common” is rooted in the idea of 18th century public space, demarcated for "by the public" and sustained as such. Wikipedia is of course, exemplification of the online public commons, but it's one of a very small number of services which are not dependent on their IP, developed and accumulated, as a business model. As well as websites, Arora sees phenomena developed upward from nascent communities, such as couchsurfing, gradually turn from being very public endeavours to commercialised, controlled ones. “We're going against some very powerful opponents. It makes things much more complicated when corporations are usurping leisure spaces, and are capitalising on more collective, open spaces.”
Another clear parallel is that of the walled garden. The term came, again, from the British in the 18th century. The original walled garden was purported to be open to all, but was obviously designed for a particular ethnicity, class, and gender. Arora argues that it isn't a coincidence for the term to be appropriated for the Internet. Facebook, as Arora argues, is a set of concentric walled gardens; the outer wall is the closed system itself, with internal walls based on private networks, and relationships based on shared behaviours and interests – the filter bubble. While Facebook is seen as a public space, it is anything but. There is no such thing as "the public" here.
Arora's post-modern walled garden is, of course, the gated community. “Today, you don't have public parks, as much as "public" areas in gated communities. They are there in Brazil and many other emerging markets. There's a lot to be learned from both sides of this physical space which could be applied to the digital space.”
This is certainly the case with the Occupy Movement, and in uprisings from Tahrir Square to Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park. “Contemporary parks have brought people together. They have been instrumental in getting people together as a show of public power, and I would equate that to the viral nature of Internet content. What is viral? It's the emotion, the collective sentiment, when people come together. They might not have fully-formed idea of activist positioning, but when they come together, the idea becomes solidified and shaped by a collective, mimetic phenomenon.
“Tiananmen Square is a space created by the Chinese government for the public, but it became appropriated for activism. These unintended consequences mean that spaces which are not designed for protest, become usurped for it. Parks share the viral, mimetic structure of the Internet. It used to be what the Internet is fort - why we come together for protest. Why can't people come together to resolve issues such as class and quality of living, like a communal government? I see that at the core of these spaces.”
Online spaces, in Arora's view, are created and architected with intent, but even a small shift in their architecture is likely to result in behavioural change. Part of the architecture could be how private the space is, such as selective dating site Beautiful People. These are highly exclusive spaces, meant for a specific type of person who can cultivate the culture of that space. Once there is a sufficient body of people in one place who reinforce the intended culture, the space becomes a virtuous circle for them.
Theme parks provide an obvious parallel with certain online communities and services. They are recreational, pseudo-public spaces, focussed on a sense of community, but are ultimately private and, for their owners, provide a platform for many commercial opportunities. Disneyland is the perfect example here (Disney himself needed outside investors to pay for the venture – including ABC, which ended up being part of the Walt Disney Company).
Indeed, the development of Coney Island has parallels to contemporary startup culture. The founders of Coney Island's Luna Park, Freddie Thompson and Elmer Dundy, were witness to seismic shift in society in the 19th century. Industrialisation, the growth of finance, and immigration all contributed to a more diverse, more urban, more affluent society which became increasingly attuned to leisure, based on their demands to experience more and more ways of spending quality time. Coney Island is an answer to that question, in the same way that mass social networks are, to an extent, answers to the question of how to build connections in the knowledge economy. In The Leisure Commons, Arora uses both of these examples to explore how to be entrenched, yet corporatised, into such spaces.
A further way to draw comparison is through the use of metaphor. The 1990s brought old terms back into vogue: the Wild West, the Gold Rush, the Digital Frontier, and so on. Walled gardens and the cloud are their contemporary equivalents: initially innocuous but ultimately highly disarming, they represent the social concerns of the time.
The Leisure Commons gives the reader a chance to look forward by looking back. What will happen to public space? Does the privatisation of public space, online and offline, affect our views of what space should be, and who we are as people and communities within it? “It's worth starting from the point of understanding what type of ideologies lie out there, and what kind of public spaces people are interacting in- on and offline. We can, and should, talk about both, especially with mobile where it's now hard to draw the line between online and offline. Let's have a common discourse between physical and virtual space, so we can have a common discourse.”
Payal Arora is Assistant Professor in the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
Further information on Payal is available at her personal website, and she is @3Lmantra on Twitter.
The Leisure Commons is now available to buy from the Imperica shop.