Speakers Corner was perhaps the original social media platform. What can we learn from three centuries of public discourse at Hyde Park?
We spend time these days talking about social media and the impact of digital platforms. In simpler times, social media was just about a stool in a park.
Speakers Corner in Hyde Park has spanned three centuries and is still going strong. Located near the Marble Arch in London, it is an icon of free speech. Anyone can show up and talk about anything, as long as it is legal. Often, crowds will gather. Many are tourists, some are regulars. The speeches often turn into debates with the audience.
Sound familiar? This Speakers Corner tradition has now moved to the Internet, perhaps consuming public discourse.
If you watch this video of a typical Sunday at Hyde Park, you will be amazed at the similarities with online social media. The main difference is the size and reach of the platform.
Digital platforms for social media have become ubiquitous and profitable. Many are more profitable, by far, than traditional media. Like Hyde Park, content is not curated. I don’t really have issues with social media content producers or platforms. Just with the consumers, us. We should all be a lot more selective in how much of our time and attention we give to social media. We need to be better curators.
In particular, I think traditional media should pay a lot less attention to social media. They are just making their own problems worse. Traditional media never paid much attention to 99% of the speakers in Hyde Park, and rarely covered their exhortations on the front page. Why do it now?
Speakers Corner and Web 2.0
About twenty years ago, technologists started pushing Web 2.0. The basic idea was to make it easier for ordinary people to create and distribute content on the Internet, to form personal or special interest networks, to interact and collaborate. Web 2.0 paved the way for the creation of digital platforms, which are now all the rage.
Unfortunately, a byproduct of social media is digital narcissism and ideological in-breeding. Digital platforms provide individuals with lots of benefits. But we still need to figure out how to mitigate the costs and risks.
Life was a lot simpler when the platform was just a stool in the park.
By the way, the idea of an analog Speakers Corner is not unique to London. There are many all over the world. In some more restricted societies, they serve as a safety valve.