Sarah Drinkwater
Director, Beneficial Technology

Cultivating Healthy Engagement Online: Why We Invested in Civic Signals

November 8, 2019

In the early days of social media, platforms gave us the opportunity to feel seen, heard, and connected. We, and millions others like us, liked the sense of belonging they fostered. These platforms helped us understand the world and act together. The promise of inclusion, accessibility, comfort, and social opportunity was the first value proposition of social media. And then, somewhere along the way, these digital communities stopped being so safe, welcoming, and otherwise characteristic of a great, public space. Over time, we realized how much less inclusive and empowering social media was compared to its original promise. 

How do we reset and restore the value of social platforms for society? It’s an ambitious question—but one we think is worth exploring. That’s why have invested in Civic Signals to develop a better model for public spaces online and work alongside social media companies to build back some of the value that’s been lost over time.

Urban planners and public space designers can help transform civic engagement on social media platforms. 

Architects and urban designers understand that physical spaces shape how people gather and behave, and they work to create public-friendly areas that help people engage with each other easily and collaboratively. Digital spaces should be approached the same way. As Facebook’s VP of product design Margaret Gould Stewart said, creating online spaces is “... a new kind of digital urban planning.”

While the negative consequences of social media platforms are well-known, it is critically important that we recognize the benefits these apps and platforms could and should have on our society—allowing us to build healthier civic engagement, and empowering all of us to treat one another with care, respect, and dignity. That’s what Civic Signals is about: building a community of builders, thinkers, and designers to learn from each other and develop better models for public spaces online. 


Hosted by the National Conference on Citizenship and the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, Civic Signals is co-led by professor Talia Stroud and internet activist Eli Pariser, who recently brought this concept to life on the TED stage. The hope is that tech workers—specifically, product managers, engineers, and founders—can take cues from the practice of designing real-life space by building toward a common good.  

Making a business case for the four pillars of public-friendly digital spaces. 

In 2020, our continued support will help Civic Signals test the adoption of a powerful idea that, if seized upon, will influence the metrics, design direction, and overall ethos of those working on social media platforms. Specifically, that means co-designing with the individuals and social media companies who will adopt the principles, and recruiting leads from organizations to serve as ambassadors; as well as hosting a series of academic and Silicon Valley-focused conferences and convenings. 

The urgency of the moment. 

We know social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can add positive outcomes to society, like connecting people around the world and shrinking access gaps to knowledge and services. But tech’s negative impacts, like stifling innovation and competition, and undermining our democratic processes and institutions, are too glaring to ignore.

The urgency to establish guardrails and principles that not just address but provide solutions is heightened by the fact that nearly half of Americans are engaging in some form of political or social-minded activity on social media—representing a significant shift from when civic conversation and democracy happened in physical spaces like town squares and city halls.

Together, we will continue to build a global community of passionate optimists working to advance a solutions-oriented conversation and systems change.

Engage in the conversation on Twitter by following @civic_signals, @TaliaStroud, and @EliPariser

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