Public spaces in the physical sense are shrinking, and we also visit them less frequently than before. This trend can be traced back to the entry of electronic media in our lives—starting from the time TV sets made their way into our homes to mobile phones becoming ubiquitous in our hands today.
However, public spaces in the virtual sense—social media platforms to be precise—have only been expanding. In fact, digital/social media-based public spaces have been multiplying the world over, almost on an epidemic scale.
Most physical public spaces are either unsafe or lacking in diversity. Look around your neighbourhood, so much has changed in the last decade alone. Libraries lie deserted due to lack of readers, their crumbling walls and ceilings presenting a haunted look. Playgrounds and public parks are shrinking too.
Meanwhile in the past decade, on account of the spread of Internet connectivity and mobile penetration, social media has transformed into a public space, a virtual space that seems more real than any physical bricks-and-mortar public space. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Wordpress, YouTube, Snapchat and even WhatsApp are all public spaces that offer several functionalities to users. And these virtual public spaces are much bigger than any physical public space can ever be. Take Facebook, for example, close to 150 million Indians are on it. Can you imagine a physical space accommodating so many people at the same time or the government allowing even 1% of this population to physically gather anywhere in India to discuss and share their views?
Unlike virtual public spaces, physical public spaces are limited and can only accommodate a restricted number of people. We also expect physical public spaces, if functional, to be safe. I have a vivid memory of this one incident when I was still in school. I played cricket with friends at a ground near our colony. A group of aggressive and abusive older boys also started visiting the same ground. We felt uncomfortable around them and complained to our parents, who then negotiated with these boys to either visit the playground at another hour or use a part of the ground away from us. They were also warned to mind their language.
Public spaces are characteristically meant to be accommodating, inclusive and caring. Any public space that compromises on safety begins to become less inclusive. In fact, we are now seeing popular public spaces die due to frequent and high footfalls of antisocial elements.
Now think about the virtual public spaces that are being utilized by the world of connected individuals. Unlike physical spaces, we don’t always know all our “friends" and “followers" on social media. So, often—depending upon what we share, comment or post—we may be subjected to some of the most abusive and violent reactions by what are defined as “trolls".
A recent incident involving cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s wife Sakshi being subjected to filthy remarks and comments on social media is a case in point. She had taken to Twitter to react strongly against information that had been leaked from her husband’s Aadhaar application, jeopardizing his privacy. Her tweets directed at the telecom minister got hundreds of responses, some of which were extremely foul.
This isn’t a one-off incident. Social media is full of such attacks on a daily basis. Often people are subjected to extremely uncivilized reactions. The number of abusive and unwanted intruders and trolls has increased on social media and people are losing their right to express themselves freely. In other words, virtual public spaces are now antisocial, violent, intimidating, unfriendly, untrustworthy and unsafe.
Will we head towards the death of virtual public spaces, too, due to haters and trolls?
The number of haters and trolls may still not be that high but their weapon of foul and abusive language is intimidating. They are taking over virtual public spaces where a lot of people were able to communicate their opinions.
So are we again going to give up our public spaces to these antisocial elements? Will we continue to behave like mute consumers or will we become aware and act like responsible citizens? If we remain the former, then these haters will not only occupy our public spaces but also the spaces of our governance and end up becoming the “voice of our nation". Just like in a physical space, social media users should come together to protect other members of the community. We should come forward to reclaim and reoccupy our virtual public spaces.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member (advisory board) at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar