Public Spaces

July 21, 1999

Baltimore City Paper

Flame war of the day: Are there public spaces on the Internet?

On one side, we have Andrew Shapiro — Harvard Fellow, Internet critic for The Nation, and author of a new book on the digital age, The Control Revolution (Public Affairs; $25).Taking the opposing view, we have an ordinary fellow known by Netters only as, um, Lizard. Lizard is an anonymous mailing-list gadfly, a sharp-witted curmudgeon who feels no need to mince words. As anyone who is on the same mailing lists as Lizard knows, he is a man of many rants.

In fact, it was one of Lizard’s rants that got this feud over public spaces started.

Now, when these two argued over "public spaces" they were referring to the notion of a community’s common meeting place, the town square of yore. It was the place where anyone with an opinion could be heard. By passing by the town square, visitors had to hear ideas they otherwise might not have been exposed to, theoretically making society more democratic.

There aren’t any more town squares, of course — they’ve been paved over — and we don’t venture outside much anymore anyway. The angry, dissenting voices don’t get heard much. This is why, in theory, the Internet is a good thing: It’s a place where anyone with a gripe can be heard by making a Web page, streaming a radio broadcast or venting to a newsgroup. Government’s corrupt? Company X’s gadget doesn’t work? You should be elected king? Tell it on the Net! Voices for all!

This is the belief cherished among hardcore Net users Shapiro punctures in The Control Revolution. Will the Net continue to provide a voice for all? Or, as people rely on it more, will it become more homogenized? Signs of the latter are already there, Shapiro warns. Far from roaming around the endless variety of oddball pages, most people venture no further than well-known sites such as MTV’s. Web browsers already come with "channels" of preselected news and entertainment sites. You can ignore them, but all too many users are willing to sacrifice some freedom for convenience. Add to this the trend of customization — filters allowing you to see only the news you want to see — and people will be driven further apart by this communications technology, not closer together.

Shapiro’s book closes with a call for an online public square. Perhaps free community networks could be set up, he suggests, someplace where users can log in on their way to the Internet to find out what’s happening in their own neighborhoods. What the Internet needs, Shapiro argues, is a shared space where dissidents can be heard.

One particular dissident found that argument absurd.

"The Internet is nothing BUT public space," Lizard ranted in a posting on an anti-censorship mailing list July 15, after he read an article about Shapiro in the media watchdog group Freedom Forum’s Web site. "It costs next-to-nothing (in the case of many services, EXACTLY nothing) to have a minimal site," he wrote. Anyone can set up a Web page and say anything that comes to mind. The virtual town square’s soapbox is open to all, Lizard contended, even if it comes with a corporate name such as GeoCities attached to it.

"Where is the public space on the Internet? Where is the water in the Pacific Ocean?" Lizard wrote.

Resultingly, individual voices abound online. "There is NO viewpoint...which is not represented on the Net.... Anything which can be said can be read, by anyone, anywhere," Lizard argued. The popularity of a Web site, he continued, "is driven by its content, not vice versa. If you have anything to say worth saying, people will visit your site."

Lizard went on to speculate that what really worries Shapiro is that there is no way on the Internet for the "self-selected intellectual elite to attain a captive audience," as it can through an already established medium such as, say, the network news. Or through a book contract.

It didn’t take long for Lizard’s comments to get back (via E-mail) to Shapiro, who replied, "In today’s world, the problem is not as much whether one can speak...but whether one can be heard... You believe (somehow) that ‘no one pays money’ to be displayed on a ‘popular site.’ I believe that the Net has become dominated by large commercial portals and other gatekeepers that absolutely do charge individuals money for the privilege of having their information posted on those sites. That’s why we don’t see much of you, Lizard, on the (Microsoft Windows) desktop, or on AOL's front page, or prominently displayed on Yahoo, Go, Lycos, etc."

Lizard dismissed the portal sites placements as ads that most people ignored. It takes just two clicks to get beyond them, he countered. He then pointed out that his own Web site was immediately accessible with a Lycos search.

"Help, help, I'm being repressed," Lizard mocked.

There was more, of course. The exchange stretched into the weekend. It’s hard not to appreciate the irony in how this argument gets played out between the Harvard scholar and the lone angry iconoclast. Each, perhaps unwittingly, reflects his own station in this world. Still, their sparring raises good questions: Are there public sites on the Net, places where we read opinions not our own? Or are our bookmarks sheltering us from what’s happening in the world? Will corporations and governments still be able to control what the masses see? Or do the people now have the power now?

The Control Revolution is a great title, though whether it plays out the way either Lizard or Shapiro predicts remains to be seen.

—Joab Jackson

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