In the 1990s, enthusiasts portrayed the online world as “cyberspace,” an extraordinary elsewhere set apart from the mundane three dimensions where we eat and sleep. Unbound from geography and unconstrained by bodies, we could build a new, egalitarian society on the “electronic frontier.” Or so many hoped. In recent years, the idea that computer networks constitute a “virtual” place distinct from the “real” world has almost fully faded. Social media seems less like another world and more like an extension of this one, less like a liberated alternative and more like a vector of increased social control. In The Leisure Commons, Payal Arora considers the social and political consequences of these spatial visions of information and communication.
Arora’s analysis of social media centers on a comparison with an older spatial technology that was also introduced with a bloom of optimism and collective imagination: the public park. For Arora, social media and the public park are both part of “the leisure commons,” spaces designed primarily for collective, nonutilitarian purposes such as play, relaxation, and socializing. During the 19th century, the public park symbolized democracy, openness, and individual freedom. Public parks were designed to provide an oasis of natural beauty within the industrial metropolis. Social media offers similar respite from the postindustrial hustle and bustle. Services like Facebook support the same types of activities that would have been found in fin de siècle Central Park: hanging out, flirting, listening to music, and playing games.
But Arora is clear that leisure isn’t easy. She draws attention to the challenges of designing, maintaining, and regulating the leisure commons, online and off. Like social media, public parks have historically been sites of conflict and negotiation over privacy, mobility, access, and use. While both were envisioned as open to all, they were and are governed by a combination of explicit rules and implicit norms. Commercial, sexual, and protest activities have been contentious uses of these spaces, and their regulation has surfaced what Arora calls the “moral politics” of leisure. These conflicts are materialized as walls, gates, login screens, trails, profiles, browser cookies, and security cameras. These architectural features reflect the key tensions that shape the production of common space: public versus private, open versus closed, work versus play.
The Leisure Commons begins with a critical index of the many spatial metaphors used to [End Page 83] describe the Internet of the 1990s. Arora’s analysis is particularly attuned to the strategic use of metaphors to influence policy making or shape public opinion. In their moments, terms like “electronic frontier” and “superhighway” reflected competing visions of a global future and diverging memories of America’s past. The electronic frontier recalled libertarian adventure and rugged individualism (conveniently ignoring the violence of colonialism), while the superhighway invoked postwar prosperity, nation building, and ambitious public infrastructure projects. Human participation in these networks was similarly described using the language of movement and space. Users were encouraged to imagine themselves as mobile actors, free to “explore,” “navigate,” and “surf” from their stationary desktop PCs.
Arora elaborates on her argument that social media provide a form of “virtual leisure space” with an examination of five common park metaphors used to describe social media systems. From Golden Gate Park and Tahrir Square to Twitter and WeChat, “protest parks” are public leisure spaces that have been turned, at one time or another, toward the purposes of political activism. The architectures of “walled gardens” such as gated communities and Facebook Groups are intended to ensure the security or privacy of park inhabitants by limiting who can enter and regulating their behavior once inside. “Corporate parks” include various spaces that blur the boundary between work and leisure—industrial parks, office playgrounds, Internet cafes, and coworking spaces. “Fantasy parks” are bound and branded territories for imagination and play, such as Disneyland or World of War-craft, that offer immersive experiences of an alternative social world. Lastly, “global parks” break down the distinction between park and city by refiguring metropoles such as New York, London, or Seoul as urban leisure spaces for a cosmopolitan elite.