Measuring The Health of Our Public Conversations

By Deb Roy, Eugene Yi, Russell Stevens

Published: March 1, 2018

The Internet and social media have transformed modern society in many positive ways by connecting us to the world’s information, enabling social connections that transcend space and time, and giving everyone a voice. Within this transformation, social media have become an essential part of our public spheres, where people come together freely to identify and discuss societal issues.

For all their benefits, social media have also contributed to certain ailments of public discourse: balkanization, sustained isolation of socio-political tribes, failure to entertain other points of view, distortion of others’ views, etc. It’s clear now that these and other ailments encourage growing extremism of opinions and dehumanization of individuals and groups. Extremism and hostility towards others are not new, but are sometimes being amplified and accelerated by social media.

Through studies done by our colleagues at the MIT Media Lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines on propagation of rumors and political tribalism during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we started to see ailments of the American public sphere(s) through the lens of data science grounded in data from Twitter, news organizations, and other sources.

This experience led us to the idea that perhaps we could measure aspects of the health of the public sphere — in terms of communication exchanges between groups or tribes — grounded in data from public social media and other public media sources. As a starting point, we are developing a set of health indicators for the U.S. (with the potential to expand to other nations) aligned with four principles of a healthy public sphere:

  1. Shared Attention: Is there overlap in what we are talking about?
  2. Shared Reality: Are we using the same facts?
  3. Variety: Are we exposed to different opinions grounded in shared reality?
  4. Receptivity: Are we open, civil, and listening to different opinions?


Our plan is to develop these indicators building on research from the MIT Media Lab and other organizations. We will make the indicators and the underlying methods by which they work publicly available and open for discussion and debate. We seek to analyze public discourse across social media and traditional broadcast media (e.g., talk radio and television).

For the health indicators to serve the public effectively, we plan to work with social media platforms and other media distributors, content producers, advertisers, and the public to understand how the health of our public spheres is evolving, and what actions can be taken to improve it. We are happy to see Twitter aligned with our approach (see here) and hope to see other stakeholders engage in the future as well.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers to how these health indicators will work in practice. We will need to learn through experimentation. As we prototype these methods, we will seek input from social and political scientists, legal scholars, journalists, behavioral economists, designers, policymakers, data scientists and others on the design of health indicators and how they can best serve the public.

Come help build these health indicators with us. We’re hiring at Cortico!


UPDATE: May 30, 2023

  • Our plan when we wrote this post was for Cortico to begin work on developing health metrics which we would then apply to publicly available social media and media data, and publish as a contribution for public good.
  • Ultimately the Cortico team decided that a better way to pursue our mission of fostering constructive conversations was to develop alternatives to social media. As a result, Cortico never worked on developing health metrics, and instead our work since then has been solely focused on developing tools and methods for supporting healthy dialogue and sensemaking.
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Cortico is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization led by a multidisciplinary team of experts in community engagement, technology and non-profit management. We strive to meld two elements not typically found in one space: technological innovation and community-centered advocacy. We'd love to keep you up to date on what we're doing!