In the early history of Greece, people would assemble in open public spaces which were set aside as places where free-born citizens could gather for public announcements or to discuss politics. As time passed, the nature of the Agora changed, and this open area attracted merchants (kapeloi) and artisans who wanted to sell their wares to the public. The agora of Athens, where philosophers came to ask of Athenians their understanding of life, was where young Plato heard Socrates speak for the first time. Literally, an “assembly” or “gathering place”, what the Romans referred to as Res Publica, this type of public space has, for the sake of this piece, its modern equivalent in social media.
When we use public spaces (parks, playgrounds, or public squares) there are constraints, but there are also opportunities; there is organisation, but there is freedom of action. We can, within reason, go and come as we please, and we can do whatever we like, within certain agreed limits. Equally, when we think of the agora, when there is no one around, it is passive; stalls are empty, traders and the public are nowhere to be seen. The agora is neither benign nor nefarious.
When we imagine social media as this gathering place, a place for connection, conversation, debate, and sharing, this agora is not junk food, narcotics, alcohol or gambling. It is simply a place where people meet. The place is not addictive, we don’t react to the place the same as we would to cocaine. When the agora is quiet, it does not impinge upon our time, it does not make us thin, it does not tell us to do things. A space doesn’t make inappropriate remarks about people’s weight, nor does the place harass our children.
Without the artisans and the traders, without the demos and the philosophers, the agora is silent. However, the agora provides opportunities and its operation is governed by understanding. What is, at times, forgotten, is that our behaviour in this space is guided and dependent on mores of etiquette; these guide us and help us interact with others. There are ways to do things, ways of being in the agora, similar to the ways of being in the world, that direct us. So, just as knowing where to go in public and who it is permissible to talk to, respect, knowledge, (self)discipline and responsibility, help us to enjoy all that public spaces have to teach and all that we can learn while there.
Those of us blessed with children know that, if we send them into the agora, we inform them that, alas, some public spaces are subject to abuse and exploitation. At times, traders take advantage of customers, philosophers sometimes espouse a philosophy that we do not agree with, and the demos can become unruly. We warn our children not to talk to strangers, we tell our teenagers to stay away from alcohol and drugs, we tell our young people to be careful. But we let them go there
The social media agora is incredible, rich with ideas, creativity and expression. An agora of communities and cultures, but like any other, one with risk. It provides people with a space where interactions can be modelled and tested, where social mores can be challenged in a safe space, surrounded by the like-minded, by friends. From this assembly, bounded by group defined mores, identities are formed, alliances are forged, and relationships are maintained.
The agora can seem noisy, feral and dangerous. The things that happen there, unfamiliar and unrecognisable. To the demos, it is simply the agora and, as such, it is not something that happens; it is a place of involvement, of exploration, of learning, of attachments, of emotional regulation, of experimentation, and of adaptation. In essence, the social media agora has become an environment helping young people to navigate and find their way in the world.