Small is beautiful, but can it scale?

A first look at the Three-Legged Stool Manifesto
April 20, 2023

The Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, based at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has long been one of the most important contributors to the discussion on digital public space. Its founder, Ethan Zuckerman, has shaped the discourse on both sides of the Atlantic, including through his 2020 paper “The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure“.

This sets a pretty high bar for “The Three-Legged Stool – A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet” by Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci and Michael Sugarman, which was published by the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure late last month and describes the Initiative’s vision for a healthier digital public sphere. The work of Zuckerman et al. has long been an inspiration for our own work to promote public alternatives to the commercial services dominating our current online environment. it is worth taking a closer look at this latest contribution to the discourse.

The Three-Legged Stool takes its name from the three pillars – or rather legs – that underpin the Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure’s approach to building digital public spaces. These are:

In the vision of Zuckerman et al, these three legs can form the basis for a digital public sphere where people and communities with different preferences and purposes can participate accordingly, providing a viable alternative to the platforms that have dominated for the past decade and a half.

Small vs Public? 

There are a few points where the approach outlined in the three-legged stool differs from the approach underpinning our own work on Digital Public Spaces. One — fairly fundamental —difference is that Zuckerman et al. operate primarily on a small vs. big (tech) analysis, while our approach is strongly anchored in a public vs. commercial distinction. This difference seems to reflect the different operating environments: Community-based civic engagement in the US and a long history of public service provision in the EU.

Another issue that arises with an approach to building digital public spaces on top of a multiplicity of very small online platforms is the question of how smaller alternative systems can function at scale. In line with our previous work, the three-legged stool highlights the importance of interoperability as a means of ensuring that people and data can communicate across different networks and services. In this context, one of the most notable omissions of the three-legged stool is that it makes no reference to the fediverse, which is seen by many as the most successful attempt to weave together multiple smaller networks into a public communications space.[2]

But despite these conceptual differences these two approaches are clearly complementary and we have long argued that in order to build digital public spaces in Europe we need to both empower public institutions and strengthen digital commons (communities). The ideas developed in The Three-Legged Stool are another important contribution to this discourse.[3]

Paul Keller

Footnotes

  1. Which is of course a very clever reference to the VLOPs (Very Large Online Platforms) that feature prominently in the Digital Services Act and which epitomise the concentration of power in todays online landscape.^
  2. This article first published in Dutch by Apache Magazine and subsequently translated to English by EU Observer provides an in-depth look into the fediverse and how it can contribute to enabling digital public spaces.^
  3. And, it must be said, a very readable one, with just 15 very accessible pages.^