Does Public Space Change with the Rise of the Internet?

According to Giovanni Sartori, the factors and processes that shape a person and transform them into an adult depend on four determinants: 1) parents, 2) peers (the peer group), 3) school, 4) media. Unfortunately, Sartori notes, in current Western society, parents are failing, as is the school system. That leaves the peer group and the media. However, upon closer examination, we can associate the peer group with the context of mass media, as in many cases it almost exclusively reflects the culture (audiovisual) proposed by these media. When the peer group is unable to produce information, it limits itself to reproducing or replicating the information proposed by the media. In summary, public opinion remains tied to the media and particularly to audiovisual communication.

Will this continue with the rise of social networks on the Internet?

Analyzing the growth of social network usage on the Internet, we realize that we are witnessing a process of change that will lead to the disappearance of the current dissociation between digital identity and physical identity.
That is, we are seeing how a part of our identity, the digital part, is being developed and empowered. The digital component of our identity will allow us to overcome the relational limits imposed by mass media communication: very soon, we will all (or almost all) be prosumers, that is, producers and consumers of information.

Most people can continue to live normally without having to take care of their presence (identity) on social networks. However, it is very likely that in a few years, the concept of identity will inevitably integrate both the digital and physical dimensions. As a result, each person will be forced to take care of both their physical and digital identity, something that many young people have already been doing for some years.

It is necessary to consider some specific factors of this new type of identity, including its peculiar temporal dimension. The process of constructing digital identity over time leaves a trace on the network, a trace that is visible and accessible to any user. The result is an identity that is perceived as a sum of the past identity (the trace) and the present identity.

We are normally accustomed to controlling our public image by showing only what we want at any given moment. However, when our identity leaves a trace on the network, its control is no longer exclusively in our power but is distributed among my friends and acquaintances (i.e., the peer group).

Anyone who knows me can publish information (photos, texts, etc.) directly or indirectly related to my identity without my approval. This is what happens in most social networks.

There is a line of thought that considers the network as an ecosystem in which we reflect the most negative traits of our personality. Dolors Reig highlights how this type of discourse does not take into account the differential uses by adults and adolescents: adults use the Internet more as a professional development and learning environment in our areas of interest, while adolescents are perhaps more prone to gregariousness or thoughtlessness.

The truth is that digital identity will be fully integrated into the learning process and will be increasingly associated with a physical place.

The idea we had of one (or more) parallel digital identity detached from reality I think no longer interests anyone: in reality, we don’t even have time to create parallel identities.

Our identity is no longer produced only through information published by me and my friends but also by the information published by my devices. An example is the use of services like Foursquare, which, taking advantage of the Internet connection of our mobile phones, allows us to publish on our social networks where we are at each moment.

To explain this phenomenon, Tim Berners-Lee talks about the Giant Global Graph, the future semantic web with which we will move from collecting the relationship between people to focusing on the relationship between people and their interests (documents). That is, if “Internet” has allowed us to connect computers and “Web” has allowed us to connect documents, then the “Graph” (or Graph) will allow us to connect people and documents (places, objects, etc.). Thus, we could define the Graph as the third level of abstraction, considering that in each layer (Internet, Web, or Graph) we have given up some control, yet achieving greater benefits. A direct consequence of this dynamic is the definitive affirmation of a (unique) identity on the web, recognizable by any agent, person, or application.

What will be the repercussions for public space?

Digital identity, social networks, and the use of new technologies will allow us to characterize public space as the place of free expression par excellence.

Places will once again speak of us, and it is possible that, as a consequence, we will once again be interested in the physical characteristics (qualities) of our environment.

The possibility of associating digital identities with certain public spaces will offer new opportunities for neighbors to get to know each other better: local social networks will be born that will

use the theme of these public spaces as an excuse to facilitate communication among their neighbors/users.

Associating a digital identity with a place (neighborhood, street) of residence will open new frontiers to local and hyper-local communication dynamics, catalyzing new identification processes with the public spaces of the neighborhood where we live or work.

Technologies will be developed that will allow people to interact with the public spaces of their neighborhood.

Some theorists, such as Emilio Martínez Gutiérrez, interpret public space as a place for social education. The union between social networks, digital identity, and public space will allow us to produce processes and dynamics capable of connecting the four factors that form people described by Sartori: parents, the peer group, school, and media. The result will be an amplification of social education processes, and what is more interesting, a new protagonism of parents and school.

The weight that the unequivocal digital identity of each person will acquire will facilitate the development of innovative social hardware projects. Currently, this type of project often has problems due to the anonymous nature of participation. (e.g., in the neighborhood square there will be a screen where videos produced by the neighbors themselves will be projected in a non-anonymous way – www.plazaletras.es).

BERNERS-LEE, T. (2007): Giant Global Graph: http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/215;
SARTORI, G. (1997): Homo videns. Televisione e post-pensiero, Laterza, Rome, 2007;
REIG, D. (2009):”Internet of the people”: http://.dreig.eu/caparazon/2009/02/15/internet-de-las-personas-ni-solos-ni-locos-en-la-web.

(the image is a re-elaboration by Francesco Cingolani of the “Città ideale, Galleria nazionale delle Marche, Urbino by Pietro della Francesca”)

This article was originally published on April 6, 2010, on the La Ciudad Viva blog under the title >
Social Networks, Digital Identity, and Public Space.

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