Online spaces can be crowded with lots of people and lots of ideas. Discussion boards and chat rooms offer the opportunity for us to say almost anything, anytime. But as the popularization of the Internet has demonstrated, when we are given the opportunity to have broad disucssions that take into account a wide range of ideas, we don't. Instead of rambling around in the landscape of possibilities and potentialities, we say the same things, to the same people, repeatedly.
The effect is what has been called "isolated publics." In these echoing chambers, fake news, which relies on uncritical repetition and circulation of false claims, finds a welcome home. A notable recent result was the 2016 federal election in the U.S. Two years on, official investigations are still expanding and multiplying in an effort to find out whether (but more likely how) online fake news affected the election's outcome.
At the beginnning of the 20th century, when radio and television were the new media, liberal democracies, including Canada and the U.K. but many others, too, established national broadcasting agencies. The purposes were to create a public space for citizens, protect cultural sovereignty, and diffuse reliabile information. Perhaps the time has come for a national online public space. Such a space would aim to achieve some of the same goals as those now seemingly ancient public broadcasters.
So what would a national online public space look like?
A national online public space could have three big purposes: access, news, and engagement. It would provide universal access to cultural content, community news production, and opportunities for citizen engagement.
Would changes be required to existing cultural organizations? Probably. But potential partners, collaborators, and allies for a national online public space abound. They include citizen journalists, nonprofit newsrooms (for example, Taproot in Edmonton), universities and colleges (especially communication and journalism degree programs), and existing public and nonprofit broadcasters.
In an age of broken business models, the potential benefits of a national online public space might just outweigh the risks.
Photo: Antony Mayfield, Creative Commons