Community, Identity, Speech, and Power

Written by Nuala O’Connor

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A lot has changed since this introduction to CDT on our first website, circa 1994. The web has grown to contain more than 4 billion pages on an underlying infrastructure that connects nearly half of the human population. Eclectic virtual communities dedicated to Klingon verb forms, Smalltalk programming, Silurian trilobites, or brownie recipes have been eclipsed by a handful of platforms undergoing ever more centralization and consolidation. Governments increasingly seek to assert control over content and intermediaries in a bid to refine or manipulate online discourse. Looking back, we see that CDT’s foundational commitment to the civil liberties of internet users could not have been more prescient, as practices around content policing, service throttling and shutdowns, data breaches, and internet surveillance and cybersecurity technologies continue to have a direct impact on the rights of individuals.

As we look forward to our next twenty years, we must ask ourselves: Are we achieving our goal of promoting an empowering internet that truly enables individual users to speak and be heard, to exercise control over their online identity, and to connect with one another in pursuit of a sense of belonging and community? This year, CDT is launching a long-term focus on these and other questions whose common theme is “Community” online. Ultimately, CDT seeks to offer policy recommendations and best practices that will invigorate a greater sense of user engagement, empowerment, and membership in their chosen online communities. We will host and inform conversations on issues like news feeds and polarization, the personalized web, and the impact of web design and online architectures in fostering open and collaborative communities.

We’re thinking in new terms, turning to the ways in which power interfaces, self-identity, user interactions, and network effects influence our diverse perspectives and experiences of Community online.

Our focus on Community incorporates many of the issues we currently address through our work developing best practices on content moderation and algorithmic decision-making; helping intergovernmental and standards bodies to ensure internet governance includes civil society voices and digital architectures remain secure; advocating in agencies and courts to defend the core principle of net neutrality in service of the open internet; and protecting speakers and online communities by resisting government attacks on the virtual spaces where they communicate and congregate.

But we’re also starting to think in new terms, turning to the ways in which power interfaces, self-identity, user interactions, and network effects influence our diverse perspectives and experiences of Community online.

As we embark on this project, we have tried to distill “Community” to its core elements in order to better understand how different actors in the internet ecosystem shape the experience of users and groups. To that end, we have proposed four structural pieces, corresponding to widening conceptual layers of “Community” and evoking questions that will further our understanding and guide our work:

Power. How do structural and operational rules enable users to challenge or entrench traditional power structures and relationships online? Sexual degradation and racial discrimination across a variety of platforms have drawn those sites into the public conscious and determine who is allowed to participate as a full member of those communities. But moderators and mechanisms for flagging or suspending accounts are also sources of power that can be subject to abuse. We will explore questions such as: How do groups, site operators, and regulators leverage control over online communities to entrench or upend traditional power structures? What factors contribute to the phenomena of online harassment and cybermobs? How do laws, company policies, and site architectures impact power dynamics within online communities, and how do users and communities influence these power structures?

Identity. How do individuals use online spaces to create, explore, and define singular or multiple identities, in the context of the existing power relationships? Real-name policies have led to mass deactivation of the accounts of drag queens, Native Americans, and Catholic priests, while anonymous apps are accused of liberating our inner trolls. The identities we create online define who we speak to and who is willing to listen. We plan to examine questions such as: How do individuals use online spaces to create, explore, and define different identities? How do different approaches to identity — real-name policies, anonymity, reputation mechanisms — affect an individual’s exploration of identity and interactions with other users and groups? How does the exploration of identity affect an individual’s life and wellbeing? How does losing access to an online identity, through account deactivation or cyber harassment, affect the individual?

Speech. How do content-promotion and content-enforcement mechanisms decide which individuals are heard? A user’s experience on Twitter is heavily influenced by policies based on user preferences that determine who can follow, block, or report whom, while the community of Wikipedia editors rely heavily on rules and norms about relevance and reliability to decide whether and how information appears in the free encyclopedia. We will explore questions such as: How do communities use norms and rules to determine relevant and newsworthy speech, or to create “safe” spaces, topical fora, or general-audience platforms? How do these norms and rules impact which users can engage as active speakers or contributors on those platforms? How can norms and rules strengthen the voices and experiences of marginalized groups and individuals? How do users interact with community norms and policies to engage in constructive (or destructive) dialogue?

Community. How does a network of individual speakers come to understand itself as an online community? With the massive consolidation and centralization of the social internet into global platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, it is not clear that the ideal of an internet community in which individuals can transcend cultural, economic, political, and religious barriers to associate and identify around common interests, issues, and objects have continued resonance today. We will examine questions such as: How does users’ sense of community vary with the size, subject matter, and global reach of a particular site or network? How do network effects, competition, personalization, and economic, geopolitical, and language factors interact with the success of online communities? What does success mean for an online community today?

These wide-ranging questions deserve our attention, and we are beginning by examining the vast body of research about online community across the disciplines: computer science, sociology and social science, communications theory, social psychology, human-computer interaction (HCI), and economics, among other disciplines. Further research will involve partnerships with researchers, academic institutions, platforms, and users.

There may not be conclusive answers for how communities can best enable their users to speak and to be heard. But we do believe that as the internet grows and changes, we need to understand how the basic relationships that define us as humans — power, identity, speech, and community — shape our online experience.

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