The Changing Fabric of Online Space

The whole idea of an “online space” is abstract and difficult to pinpoint. When we refer to a space, we’re usually talking about some sort of physical setting. An actual location where actual physical things can be located. And though the term may often be used in more open-ended ways (such as the idea of a “safe space”) it is difficult to separate space and physicality.

Yet when we think about “online spaces” that’s still exactly what we’re doing. Or at least attempting to do. By online space, I mean those destinations that we visit on the Web and the connections that we make via the Internet. Despite the fact that the Internet isn’t really located in one single place, there still seems to be a tendency to think about online communication in physical terms.

The Web isn’t just a series of documents that are delivered to our computer screens. Instead it’s something that is located out there that we used our computer to connect to. We don’t just request, download, and read a web page. We visit a web site. When we access our hosted email and other Web app services, it’s not just a server farm that our computer is talking to. It’s the Cloud that our stuff is somehow in.

This is something that I’ve just started to think about and dig into researching, so I only have some initial thoughts about the physicality of online space. I’m sure that there are several reasons that such physical terminology has persisted in the distinctly unphysical setting of online communication. For instance, by discussing something abstract, complex, and unfamiliar in physical terms it becomes much more approachable. This is why the Macintosh and its graphical user interface was so successful at reaching home PC markets; it was more approachable and familiar than a DOS command line. And so with the early days of the “online world,” metaphors of physical settings may have helped people better grasp exactly what Internet is anyway.

And while a lot of the physicality of online communication has persisted into the modern vernacular, I still feel like there is something different today. When it comes to online spaces we may still like to use the terminology of the physical world, but the nature of said spaces seems to have changed. I think one thing that I’ve been especially aware of is that while online spaces certainly still exist, there are significantly fewer shared spaces. Everything has become increasingly customized and individualized, and there remain very few common spaces in online settings.

What do I mean by this? The best example I can think of is online chat. We used to visit chat rooms where large groups of people were all in the same “space” and conversing with one another. And though there certainly were still one-on-one conversations, the majority took place in “the open,” and fully viewable by anyone else. Whereas today one-to-one communication seems to be the new norm. Whether its a text message, email, WhatsApp message, etc. there is less taking place out “in the open.” Even posts on social media platforms aren’t really public. They’re accessible to only a select few, and even then subject to news feed sorting algorithms. This is a significant departure from and earlier era of BBS posts where once something was posted it was just out there to be seen by anyone.

Similarly, even the web site is becoming less and less of a common shared online space. The word site implies a physical location that multiple people can visit. This site might contain any combination of text, photos, and other content. But regardless of specific content, the idea is that everyone who visits a particular page on a particular site will be served the same content. And in 2019 this is no longer the case. Through targeted advertisements, customized content recommendations, and the like, every visitor to the same page is likely to get a slightly different experience. Again, rather than there being a single shared online space what I’m seeing is increased individualization and isolation. Everyone is receiving their own version of each online space, and by extension their own individual version of the world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what this change really means. I’m still not entirely certain what to make of this, but I’m pretty sure that this change from shared to individual online spaces is probably not a good thing. A lack of shared understanding or common ground (there’s that language of physicality again!) can lead to polarization, isolation, and potentially even confrontation. As I’ve thought about this changing nature of the “online world,” I’ve been reminded of Jürgen Habermas’ conception of a “public sphere.” In his view, the existence of a public is necessary for a functioning society. For him, it was critical that there be a “public sphere” – some place for members of the public to gather, discuss events of the day, and have conversations about pressing issues. For instance, the town square as a common meeting place where any person can express their opinions. In the early development of the Web, there was some talk that online communication could serve as a modern “digital public sphere.” And unlike a town square which was limited by physical space and boundaries, it could be accessible to anyone! It would be a great development. And when online space was more shared and common, this vision may have seemed much more realistic. But when even our online space is increasingly individualized and separated, it just seems entirely unattainable. When there is no single place (physical or online) for “the public” the gather, and when everyone has their own individual place (physical or online) to retreat to, society as a whole suffers.

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