In previous articles on Online Public Spaces I made two arguments. Firstly, that online public spaces such as Google+, Facebook and Twitter, should be subject to no less regulation than physical public spaces like pubs. Secondly, that in order to guarantee online social interaction we need to protect our data by ensuring that it can survive the discontinuation of a social network. Thus, I made an argument for an import/export mechanism that would underpin a decentralised system of communications.
In this article I want to raise the issue of access to these social networks. If online public spaces are deemed as important for justice and democracy, then we need to make sure that they are accessible to everyone.
Take a big breath and bear with me. This is not complicated and it is in fact a common process that most of these services already implement to a certain extend. My argument is that the companies that maintain online public spaces should be required to provide external access to their services. To do that they need to provide APIs that are standardised across the industry.
API is short for Application Programming Interface – it provides the ability to third-party applications to access an online service. It explains to programmers what they should do in order to connect their applications to the social network. Third-party Twitter applications, for example, use the Twitter’s APIs to receive and send tweets.
In plain English, what APIs do is provide access to a service for third-party applications. In the case of Google Reader, you could use various desktop or mobile applications, like Reeder, Pulse or Byline, to connect to the central service. Now that Google Reader is ‘retired‘, Feedly has decided to implement their own APIs, mimicking those of Reader, thus enabling the programmers of third-party applications to move from Reader to Feedly as their base. The end user, provided that she has only been accessing the service through third-party applications, will hardly notice the difference.
Why is this desirable? What are the advantages and what the disadvantages?
Three advantages, one disadvantage and one that is both.
The first advantage is that people with disabilities will be able to access these online spaces of public interaction using specialised applications, thus enabling their participation in public debates. The second is that combined with an industry-consistent import/export mechanism, individuals and groups will be able to transfer their discussion to an alternative social service with as little hassle as possible. The third is that this solution is much more likely to gain wider acceptance by the industry, especially if we compare it to the earlier suggestion to require the wide availability of the discontinued service’s source code.
The big disadvantage is that this solution will still be considered paternalistic. This is why the policies I suggest should be grounded on a newly-formed attitude towards online public spaces. Only if we realise the value of these spaces can we justify such regulation.
Finally, there is the decentralised nature of the proposal I advocate, which can be considered both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, decentralisation is a disadvantage — Facebook is important because it is a centralised service where you can find everyone. To have a myriad different Facebook implementations would be counterproductive, since it would go against what makes it valuable in the first place. On the other hand, blogs are the very example of successful decentralised communication. The brief history of social networks demonstrates that users are quite mobile; they have the ability to collectively move to another (better or more popular) service. Thus, the decentralised solution that I have been advocating for in these three posts, although initially perceived as a disadvantage, it can in fact become a major asset of online public interaction.
Political elites need to be pressed on these issues. This is not easy to do because the value of online public spaces is not yet recognised and because these issues challenge traditional boundaries of public and private interaction, corporate and state-led public spaces and the reach of the law in these domains. In order to achieve these changes and secure the accessibility, longevity and portability of our data, we need to change not only the way online public spaces are perceived, but the limits and boundaries of the law.