A Digital Public Square?

Did we ever have a real public square? I’ve certainly used that phrase as shorthand for the sorts of public policy debates Americans conduct–debates that used to occur on newspaper editorial pages, and later by dueling television personalities. But the phrase itself calls up images of Greeks interacting in the Agora.

A column by Ezra Klein several months ago made me consider the realities of America’s approach to public argument, and our lack of anything that might be considered a replacement of that Greek Agora. As Elon Musk continues to destroy the utility of X (formerly Twitter) I’ve continued to mull over Klein’s observations.

As he began:

For what feels like ages, we’ve been told that Twitter is, or needs to be, the world’s town square. That was Dick Costolo’s line in 2013, when he was Twitter’s chief executive (“We think of it as the global town square”), and Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, used it, too, in 2018 (“People use Twitter as a digital public square”). Now the line comes from the “chief twit,” Elon Musk (“The reason I acquired Twitter is because it is important to the future of civilization to have a common digital town square”).

Klein points out that the metaphor is inaccurate in at least three important ways: for one, there is not–and cannot be–  a “global town square.”  Public spaces are rooted in the communities and contexts in which they exist. (As Klein. notes,  “What Twitter is for activists in Zimbabwe is not what it is for gamers in Britain.”)

Second, what makes a town square a public square is that it is governed by a public.  It isn’t just a square in town, and it isn’t the playthings of a “whimsical billionaire.” It lacks a profit motive. As Klein says, “A town square controlled by one man isn’t a town square. It’s a storefront, an art project or possibly a game preserve.”


What matters for a polity isn’t the mere existence of a town square but the condition the townspeople are in when they arrive. Town squares can host debates. They can host craft fairs. They can host brawls. They can host lynchings. Civilization does not depend on a place to gather. It depends on what happens when people gather.

Klein reminds readers of the rosy predictions that accompanied the introduction of our digital communication systems. More democracy, better inter-group relations, broader understandings…I will readily admit to subscribing to rosy predictions that–as Klein reminds us–have utterly failed to materialize.

Instead, the cost of our enhanced connection and information “has been the deterioration of our capacity for attention and reflection. And it is the quality of our attention and reflection that matters most.”

In a recent paper, Benjamin Farrer, a political scientist at Knox College in Illinois, argues that we have mistaken the key resource upon which democracy, and perhaps civilization, depends. That resource is attention. But not your attention or my attention. Our attention. Attention, in this sense, is a collective resource; it is the depth of thought and consideration a society can bring to bear on its most pressing problems. And as with so many collective resources, from fresh air to clean water, it can be polluted or exhausted….

Our collective attention is like a public pasture: It is valuable, it is limited, and it is being depleted. Everyone from advertisers to politicians to newspapers to social media giants wants our attention. The competition is fierce, and it has led to more sensationalism, more outrageous or infuriating content, more algorithmic tricks, more of anything that might give a brand or a platform or a politician an edge, even as it leaves us harried, irritable and distracted.

Twitter and Facebook and a multitude of other digital platforms make it easy to talk–but incredibly hard to listen and reflect.

We do not make our best decisions, as individuals or as a collective, when our minds are most active and fretful. And yet “active and fretful” is about as precise a description as I can imagine of the Twitter mind. And having put us in an active, fretful mental state, Twitter then encourages us to fire off declarative statements on the most divisive possible issues, always with one eye to how quickly they will rack up likes and retweets and thus viral power. It’s insane.

It’s one of the thorniest issues we face: how do we create a viable we from so many diverse I’s…without imposing on the fundamental rights of those diverse  individuals?

Klein’s essay–which I encourage you to read in its entirety–reinforced my belief that our current problems are exacerbated by the information environment we inhabit.

How do we fix that environment?


  1. Musk is yet another example of someone defining the adage: You don’t have to be smart to be rich.

    Where would Musk be without his father’s emerald empire or those clever engineers who designed the electric cars?

    Clearly, real intelligence cannot be purchased. Yes. A storefront. That’s what Musk is.

    This reminds me of an anecdote from Gene Klein’s insightful book, “First and a Billion”. He and the other NFL owners, while at their annual gathering, passed around ideas to improve the revenue stream. Rankin Smith, owner of the Atlanta Falcons offered this: He wanted to paint the gridiron in two different directions so it would look like a cross. His “reasoning”? He said that it would give him twice as many 50 yard line seats for which he charged double the money.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

  2. IMO what is needed in the town square is a shared reality….. a shared knowledge of the facts. We do not have that today as evidenced by the emotional reaction to the war raging in Israel with otherwise sensible people taking extreme sides.
    About this latest conflict we would all do well to go to Wikipedia and read about Hamas. Unless you know the facts, you cannot make it through the propaganda now pouring out into that town square.

  3. Ecclesiastes 7:7
    “But oppression can drive the wise one into madness, and a bribe corrupts the heart.”

    2 Timothy 3:1-5
    “For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, without gratitude, with no loving-kindness, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with self-esteem, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power; and from these turn away.”

    1 Corinthians 13:4-8
    “Love is long-suffering and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, does not get puffed up, does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked. It does not keep account of the injury. It does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.”

    The apostle Paul counseled: “Whatever things are true [not false or slanderous], whatever things are of serious concern [not petty], whatever things are righteous [not wicked and harmful], whatever things are chaste [not unclean slander or evil suspicions], whatever things are lovable [not hateful and belittling], whatever things are well spoken of [not derogatory], whatever virtue [not badness] there is and whatever praiseworthy [not condemned] thing there is, continue considering these things.”​ (Philippians 4:8)

    Speaking truth to power, showing empathy, showing compassion, having concern, lifting up instead of tearing down, loving your neighbor, loving your God, loving your enemy!

    Deceit greed and hypocrisy along with craven power grabbers, make sure that there is no natural agreements, no agreeable reasoning. That way, in the middle of tremendous turmoil, they can do what they do because the forest is in the way of all the trees….

    The Town square, the debate like turns, are all useless because every single one that claims to be an expert in problem solving and truth telling, are liars and hypocrites! He won’t hear a word of truth in a Town square, absolutely you won’t hear a word of truth in a debate. Close? Maybe! But they’re always is a caveat or misnomer, meant to deceive or mislead.

    If you have a democracy built on deceit and lies, it isn’t a democracy. And I think it’s been known for a long time, we do not live in a democracy, but this country has citizens that have been deluded long enough that this Kool-Aid everyone is drinking tastes pretty good.

    Everyone then goes along with the program, even if the program is a ticket to the precipice of disaster.

  4. There have always been bad actors, and when some of them have so much more money than others, and the platform that that can buy, we will continue to have people acting badly. So much for X and FB.
    It seems that the anonymity of the “digital age” makes it easier for people to give voice to imbecility and craziness. And then there are the fools who suck that right up.
    I do not know the answer to your question, Sheila, and I am not especially hopeful, with the likes of Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, and ilk carrying on Rush Limbaugh’s rancid legacy.

  5. It would make a great experiment to see what might happen if we suddenly were unable to use our phones and tablets for a month or two. Would we wake up a bit more sane? Would we crave connection with living people or with the Internet?

  6. How do we fix the information environment?

    Bard has four recommendations:

    Educating the public about disinformation and misinformation. People need to be aware of the different types of disinformation and misinformation out there and be able to identify them. They also need to evaluate information and critically identify reliable sources.

    Supporting fact-checking and verification organizations. Fact-checking and verification organizations play an essential role in combating disinformation and misinformation. They need to be supported with resources to continue their work.

    Regulating social media platforms and other online platforms. Social media platforms and other online platforms play a significant role in the spread of disinformation and misinformation. They need to be regulated to ensure they are taking steps to combat these problems.

    Promoting media literacy and critical thinking skills. Media literacy and critical thinking skills are essential for navigating the information environment. People need to be able to understand how the media works and how to evaluate the information they consume critically.

    Notice this sentence in the last paragraph: “Media literacy and critical thinking skills are essential for navigating the information environment.”

    I consider this the major challenge – a lack of critical thinking skills and no concept of media literacy.

  7. Mitch D is on to something today. With the freedom of expression in an organized society comes the civic responsibility to tell the truth and debate sans insult and Goebbelizing. Of course, terminal capitalists like Musk have little interest in the rules of the game (though pretending otherwise) in their drive for ever greater profit from their investment(s).

    I have seen twitter/X decline as a platform for legitimate public debate into a means for idiocy and propaganda to rear their ugly heads, and now with Musk’s telling us that he is going to charge us for giving him the content which makes him richer, I will do what I was getting ready to do before such announcement, i.e., leave such platform.

    He can sell more Teslas to sate his greed.

  8. Good post, Todd. The problem is that one political party is dead set on seeing none of that happen unless the “education” is fundamentalist religion and right-wing crony capitalist propaganda, both cults being crucial to the oligarchs controlling the peasants.

    Gerald, just leave “X.” It’s no longer a good portal for information and is a sinking ship anyway.

  9. Peggy – you need to sell your plot for the next episode of “The Twilight Zone – 21st Century”.

    Best public square still there – Black barber shop.

  10. In regards to social media I decided it’s best I not share things when I feel frustrated or emotional about a subject. I limit the way I use social media and I try to keep the algorithm coming at me stuck on cute animal videos and other lighthearted information. I have found if I click on political or news stuff it just feeds the algorithm with negative political garbage. While it’s important to know what is going on in the world a 24/7 bombardment is not healthy. Staring into the abyss is just not healthy.

    I think John Lennon had it right about imagining people living for today and giving peace a chance or Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be”.

  11. It seems that the “public square” is only available from a few Internet sources.

    I only trust websites that end in “GOV” because we the people pay for them with taxes.

    All screen media of every type is, to me, meant as entertainment , which complements the viewer’s mindsets.

    Business pays for all screen media. The purpose of business has always been to grow the grow their bottom line.

    We all grant sources, personal or from others, credibility based on our internal carrot versus stick sensibilities. We trust those like us. I am a liberal and so is Sheila and most of the others here.

    I believe all of this is that I also accept that the Constitution defined “liberal democracy” to the world, though the idea came from the European Age of Enlightenment which was also the inspiration for the French Revolution that later in history.

    That all makes visits here trustworthy for me.

  12. Calling Bullzhit: The Art of Skeptcism in a Data-Driven World
    Carl T Bergstrom & Jevin D West (Professors at the University of Washington)
    Random House. 2020

    Also the name of a course at the University of Montana.

    Specifically deals with the problem of identifying misinformation, disinformation, and fake news.

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