Elon University

Survey XIII 2021-2022

Experts Suggest Solutions to Troubles Caused by the Toxic Side of Social Media, today’s ‘Online Public Square’

Critics say activities on online social platforms are damaging democracy and the fabric of society. Can these digital spaces be improved to better serve the public good by 2035? Researchers at Elon University and the Pew Internet Project asked experts to examine the forces at play and suggest solutions. 

In our 13th canvassing of experts since the early 2000s we asked participants to share their thoughts in answer to two big questions. The results emerge in two reports that analyze more than 860 experts’ responses. The first probes “The Future of Digital Spaces and Their Role in Democracy.” The second report – to be released in 2022 – will share how they imagine better digital spaces could serve the public in 2035. 

Please scroll down the page to find introductory details and links to the full research reports.

Report 1: ‘Digital Public Spaces 2035’  – Released Nov. 22, 2021

Will the design and uses of online social platforms be more or less toxic by 2035? This report shares thousands of predictions in reply to the following question:

This canvassing of experts is prompted by debates about the evolution of digital spaces and whether online life is moving in a positive or negative direction when it comes to the overall good of society. Will technology developers, civil society, and government and business leaders find ways to create better, safer, more-equitable digital public spaces? Looking ahead to 2035, can digital spaces and people’s use of them be changed in ways that significantly serve the public good – yes or no? If you answered “yes,” what reforms or initiatives may have the biggest impact? What role do you see tech leaders and/or politicians and/or public audiences playing in this evolution? What could be improved about digital life for the average user in 2035? What current problems do you see being diminished? Which will persist and continue to raise major concerns? If you answered “no,” why do you think digital spaces and digital life will not be substantially better by 2035? What aspects of human nature, internet governance, laws and regulations, technology tools and digital spaces may not much change?

61% said they either hope or expect that by 2035 digital spaces and people’s uses of them WILL change in ways that significantly serve the public good. However, because some wrote this is merely their hope and some listed one or more extremely difficult hurdles to overcome before that outcome can be achieved the numeric finding of 61 is not fully indicative of the troubles many expect will lie between now and 2035. 39% said they expect that by 2035, digital spaces and people’s uses of them WILL NOT change in ways that significantly serve the public good. It is important to note that a large share of those who chose “yes” – that online public spaces will improve significantly by 2035 – said it was their “hope” only and/or also wrote in their answers that the changes between now and then could go either way. The simple quantitative results are not fully indicative of the complexities of the challenges. The important findings are found in the respondents’ rich, deep qualitative replies.The 160-page report includes full details.

Report 2: ‘Imagining a Better World in 2035’ – report still to come

Experts who participated in answering the question about improving the digital public sphere to better serve the overall public good were asked to imagine the better world they’d like to see. Hundreds shared their thoughts in response to this question:

Imagine a better world online: What is one example of an aspect of digital life that you think could be different in 2035 than it is today? We invite you to create a vignette of something you would like to see taking place in a “new and improved” digital realm in 2035. Your example might involve politics or social activities or jobs or physical and mental health or community life or education. Feel free to think expansively – and specifically.

Most of these respondents said that if the correct steps are taken now toward making comprehensive global improvements in online cooperation and collaboration, society can launch itself on brighter path that will lead to more-positive outcomes. Among their dream goals for 2035: better defense of individuals’ rights; the advancement of equality; better economic development and future jobs; enhanced progress toward solving global grand challenges; and the further uplifting of humanity in countless ways.