evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 3 – Social media, politics & the public sphere


So far in this course we have been mapping out three different approaches to understanding new media: a political economy approach, a cultural studies approach, and a media ecology approach. (The latter, so far, has been identified with the medium theory of Innis, McLuhan, and the “Toronto School” of communication studies. We will expand on that in weeks to come.)

Last week we began considering the political possibilities afforded by “media convergence,” in all its forms. This week we look closer at the relationship between politics and new media.

This week’s readings focus on the political possibilities and uses of social media, considered within debates over what constitutes — or ought to  constitute — the “public sphere.” By “public sphere,” what is meant is the realm within which citizens discuss and debate matters of common concern, particularly those related to the management of public affairs by the state (i.e. by governments).

This notion of the public sphere, in German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas’s influential account, arose in the eighteenth century. But its conditions have altered to the point that the sites for public deliberation are no longer self-evident.

This week we will ask: Have some or all of the functions once performed by public broadsheets (newspapers), coffee houses and salons, now been taken over by the internet? If so, how is online communication fulfilling Habermas’s public sphere ideals? What about the ideals of his critics?


1. Dahlberg & Siapera, “Introduction,” from L. Dahlberg and E. Siapera, ed., Radical Democracy and the Internet: Interrogating Theory and Practice (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

This will be the core theoretical reading for the week, which will inform our discussion for the remainder of the course.

Dahlberg and Siapera distinguish between two models of electronic democracy: a “liberal-consumer” model and a “strongly democratic” or “radical democratic” model. (A third, the “cyber-libertarian” model, is discussed as a historical reference point; this techno-utopian model flourished in the early days of the internet, but has since been largely eclipsed.)

Favoring the radical-democratic model, the authors then distinguish between three conceptualizations of radical democracy: a deliberative democratic strand (associated with Habermas’s public sphere ideals), an agonistic perspective (associated most closely with the radical-democracy theorists Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau), and an autonomist strand (associated with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri; we will discuss Mouffe & Laclau and Hardt & Negri further later in the course). Understanding the differences between these three strands will be important as we proceed to examine various uses of new media for social and environmental change.

2. Wikipedia article on the public sphere

While (as I hope we all know) Wikipedia has a highly variable reliability, its article on the public sphere is (currently) quite good. The introduction and sections 1 and 2 (on Habermas and on “Counter-publics, feminist critiques, and expansions”) are particularly important for our purposes. Please make sure you understand Habermas’s conception of the public sphere and the main points raised by his critics.

(Supplementary: Habermas’s encyclopedia article on the public sphere provides another useful summary of the topic. And this Social Science Research Council site on “Transformations of the Public Sphere” provides valuable insight into the continued relevance of Habermas’s conception and the ideas of his critics.)

3. Kahn & Kellner, “Globalization, technopolitics, & radical democracy,” from Dahlberg & Siapera, ed., Radical Democracy and the Internet.

While it’s a few years old, Kahn and Kellner’s remains a good survey of the many kinds of political uses of the internet, including of political blogging, wikis, social media, and the anti-corporate globalization movement. The examples they discuss should inform our own analysis of how the internet has altered and expanded the possibilities for social and political action.

4. Robert Bond, Christopher Fariss, Jason Jones, et al., “A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,” Letter, Nature, vol. 489 (13 Sept 2012), pp. 295-298. Click for Pdf.

Consider which of Dahlberg and Siapera’s two models of e-democracy (liberal-consumer versus radical-democratic) this case study falls into. (Nature is one of the two most respected scientific journals in the world; Science is the other.)

5. Thomas Poell, “Conceptualizing forums and blogs as public sphere,” in Digital Material: Tracing New Media in Everyday Life and Technology, ed. by M. van den Boowen, et al. Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

Which of the models does this examination of electronic forums and blogs fall into? As you read this and the above article, consider the authors’ methodologies as providing possible approaches in your own critical media analysis projects.


  1. Since we won’t be meeting in class this week, I’d like to say a few more things about the 3 strands of radical democratic thought as presented by Dahlberg & Siapera. (But we might also consider whether they make their case for “radical democracy” convincing at all, or if the “liberal-consumer” democracy we already have may be good enough.)

    The deliberative democratic strand builds on Jurgen Habermas’s (pronounced YUR-gen HAH-bur-mahs) work on the public sphere. According to Habermas, the public sphere emerged in the 18th century as a domain of critical discussion and debate by which state authority could be monitored and influenced by “the people.”

    Habermas’s list of “institutional criteria” for the public sphere — disregard of status, domain of common concern, and inclusivity — is worth considering when we think about whether and how the internet might today facilitate a kind of “postmodern public sphere.”

    So are the views of Habermas’s critics. Some of them have argued that social status in the 18th and 19th centuries was “disregarded” only among a certain, pre-selected stratum of society — educated, white, middle and upper class men; that the “domain of common concern” presupposed that what was “common” was precisely that which was of interest to the educated, white, male classes, and that it left out things that might have been of common interest to others (e.g., to women, to non-whites, to the working classes); and that inclusivity was therefore a ruse, not a reality.

    The other two radical-democratic positions could both be considered loosely “postmodern” (in contrast to Habermas’s modernism). They differ from each other less, perhaps, in substance than in emphasis.

    The agonistic strand, unlike Habermasian theory, takes nothing for granted about any common interest among people. Rather, society is torn through by differences — between classes, genders, races, ethnic groups, environmental and other ideologies, and so on. Relations and identities are “radically contingent,” and common interests must be forged through the efforts of social groups seeking to articulate their goals alongside others. This process of articulating common goals is a process of “articulation” — coming up with the right terms, frames, slogans, discourses — aimed at building temporary alliances between groups, or what they call “hegemony” and “counter-hegemony.” It is a process with no guarantees.

    Finally, the autonomist strand differs from the agonistic one not so much in its recognition of plurality and contestation, but in its focus on what Hardt & Negri call “biopolitical production.” By this they mean something like the production of forms of life, subjectivities, values, knowledge, affects and feelings, meanings, and social relations in general. They think of this not as something that needs to be created to fill a gap — such as Laclau and Mouffe’s lack of a pre-defined common social interest — but as something that is being created all the time by all of us. Humans, being social creatures, create, invent, and produce culture and subjectivity. Today, that productivity is unleashed all the more through the technologies of communication, which in their nature follow a “networked” and “distributed” (thus, horizontal and democratic) logic.

    The problem is that anti-democratic forces capture and order this biopolitical production into systems of control. Just as political-economic forces acted to “enclose” the “commons” during the 15th-19th centuries — by creating laws to turn land and resources into private property owned and controlled by a few — so today similar forces are enclosing the creative and “immaterial” commons of culture, ideas, images, emotions, and desire. It is all that “immaterial labor,” for Hardt & Negri, that is the frontline of economic production in our society today.

    So, we might think about whether and how electronic and digital media today facilitate — or work against — these 3 different conceptions of radical democracy. Does the internet provide openings for new forms of rational, deliberative public discussion and consensus-shaping (as Habermas would like), perhaps for the first time on a global scale? Or does it more readily lend itself to irrational emotion, advertising and marketing, and the creation of subcultures that fail to communicate with one another?

    Does it, as Laclau & Mouffe might like, provide opportunities for the mobilization of strategic campaigns to forge alliances of “alternative power”? Or does it, as Hardt & Negri would like, create an ever more expansive biopolitical “commons,” that some are trying to control and “rein in,” but which is too large, too dynamic, too free, and largely (inherently) democratic?

    Where does environmental politics fit into these conceptions? Is it grounded in a “natural” consensus of what people would want if only they were informed about the scientific facts (say, about climate change)? Or is it a matter of strategic interventions and alliances? Or is it about something that eludes both factual deliberation (Habermas) and calculated strategy (Laclau & Mouffe) — something more to do with feelings, desires, and images that could be created and unleashed through the viral productivity of digital media?

    The case studies discussed in the readings by Kahn & Kellner, Bond et al, and Poell, provide a variety of examples of political use of the internet and social media. What do you make of them?

  2. “Or is it about something that eludes both factual deliberation (Habermas) and calculated strategy (Laclau & Mouffe) — something more to do with feelings, desires, and images that could be created and unleashed through the viral productivity of digital media?”

    As with many of these examples and discussions I think the answer is somewhere in the middle ground. But I think the “feelings, desires, and images that could be created and unleashed” hold the most potential for harnessing as a form of social and political power. Images, memes, and generalized sentiments on various topics, seem to have the most influence on public opinion. Facts alone, as we see time and time again, are not enough. WHO is producing and propagating these images, sentiments, slogans, etc. is also very important: certain people and groups tend to harness these very effectively.

    But it is this same potential that I think has not been adequately used in an environmental-political framework, one that acknowledges today’s environmental crises, some of its base causes, and promotes solutions. The viral media which enthralls so many people can be harnessed to make people more ecologically aware, and to promote solidarity among groups of people. I think it has to do with Kahn and Kellner’s democratically active and aware individual harnessing medias of their choice to do so, and steering public discussion towards where they want to see it go – towards the inclusive, critically rational debate that the internet could bring about on a wider scale than is already happening.

    • I would like to comment on Diego’s statement: “WHO is producing and propagating these images, sentiments, slogans, etc. is also very important: certain people and groups tend to harness these very effectively.” First off, as Zachary and Jesse have mentioned below, the idea of online “anonymity” may play a large roll in knowing exactly “WHO” the producer of content is in the first place.

      If the producer is anonymous, their credibility cannot be interpreted and judged. Further, their anonymity may give them a feeling of freedom that will allow their emotional responses and unpolished sentiments seep through their ideas and saturate their language with a more vulgar tone than would be used in an actual conversation. As Poell’s study points out, the emotional and irrational themes of many online forums detract from their overall usefulness and credibility. However, the size of the forums he discussed were small and his sampling method was not clear or well thought out. Further, his data seemed rather anecdotal and a thorough study across a range of forum types and sizes was not conducted. This being said, I must disagree with the notion that forums are not influential to the “public sphere”.

      Clearly, many people seeking information or other’s opinions on the internet are not trained researchers, journalists or those who delve deeper into the actual meaning of what others say. Instead, they take at face value whatever they may find and do not question the source or the content. This detracts from Diego’s idea that the “WHO” is truly important when it comes to online information. To the average user, “WHO” posted the content is probably the last thing they look at when seeking information. If this holds, then Poell’s assertion that online forums do not have true worth in the public sphere is misguided at the very least.

      Perhaps online forums have yet to pierce the public sphere of the intellectual elite however, they have certainly began to influence to lives and thoughts of the average thinker.

      • I actually very much agree with you Max. What I meant by highlighting WHO harnesses viral media, etc., was to point to groups that use it very effectively for marketing an idea, brand, or image. On the other hand I think online forums are increasingly influencing the lives of average people. I think it does not perfectly fit Poell’s idea of a good public sphere because in fact it is more like the real world, where there’s some great rational, critical debate, and also a lot of inane and irrational squabbling. I think any individual with internet access has a huge ability to intentionally put themselves in center of critical debate over democratic issues, and the fact that the people you’re debating with you know almost NOTHING is a double edged sword.

  3. “Internet public spheres only have a limited value when examining forms of online communication in the context of actual societal conflict” -Poell.

    Through his research within online forums, Thomas Poell asserts that only a small portion of actors participate in public debate. It is more common for participants to discuss issues more for entertainment or personal expression rather than intellectual discourse. Most of the discussions are “not rational, emotional and irreverent.”
    Is this the current state of our public sphere? Rather than rational thought and discourse, are we now becoming emotional and irreverent? Is this only within the online public forum or has it transcended into our traditional face-to-face public sphere been alerted?

    With the recent addition of the online public forum many of our previous relations and discussions are able to take place elsewhere. Instead of physically meeting and discussing issues we are now able to do many of these actions through the Internet. Emails, posts, updates, statuses, and messages are now forms of communication we use instead of directly talking with one another. However convenient, these communication techniques have altered the way in which humans relate to one another in person and created new realms in which we hold discussions and interact.

    I wonder if the vast opportunities the Internet allows us in turn isolates those who want to participate in public spheres of discussion. I’m sure if one was invested in learning and discussing issues they need not look very far within the Internet to find something or somewhere to exchange ideas. However, where do these conversations and ideas go? Do the ideas created in online forums stay between the individuals or do the ideas travel? I suppose the answer is both, but due to the fact that they were generated online rather than face-to-face make them any less valuable?

    • In my opinion it is hard to imagine the public sphere as ever functioning as a valid domain of discussion and debate. I consider discussion forums and other internet communication media as forms of modern day public sphere in relation to what was previously regarded as the original form of “public sphere” but I do not think that either of these worked with the criteria Habermas described.The public sphere isn’t an extremely accurate domain of discussion and debate but instead a place where one can develop, build upon and discover ideas (although the authenticity of these ideas can be itself debated). Public spheres to me lose a lot of their legitimacy of arguments when they are moved from actual real world settings and into online discussion media. The original idea of the public sphere was set in locations like coffee houses and salons. These are places that people of all types would go to, regardless of the presence of the discussion. Therefor the opinions and ideas inserted into the discussion, for the most part, were of the three institutional criteria; disregard of status, domain of common concern, and inclusivity. Although I would also argue that the disregard of status and inclusivity of these locations were only true to a certain extent. However like Norah mentioned, when the public sphere becomes a place without location through web forums and discussions it becomes almost impossible to act inclusively. These forums cater to specific interests group and draw in voices from mostly just these groups. So the discussion exchanged will most likely revolve around a similar frame of reference. In my opinion, this deteriorates the validity of public spheres all together because you are not building on ideas at all. The internet has made these forums accessible to people all over the world, which would definitely diversify the experience, but instead of making the public forum occur in a place that people would go regardless-they are turning into something that people seek out because of an already established interest. I guess this could be considered a good thing in the way the Zachary posted about; in that people have expertise in certain arenas, but I don’t see this as being enough to make me think public spheres in general should be a political force.

  4. The points that Norah and Diego bring up are really thought provoking and as unanswerable as they sound. My question is, does there have to be a clear-cut solution? Why is it that our expansive Internet can’t support more than just one mean of communication? Nancy Fraser argues that the public sphere is for “debating and deliberating rather than buying and selling” but if that’s the case is there any reason that the Internet can’t house both a space for the public sphere and a space for the economic interests? Our system is so muddled now that it seems like the two can’t be separated. Our prominent public spheres such as Facebook and Tumblr are additionally making a large profit off of advertisements and other corporate support. It seems as though there should be a way to step back and provide a place for the public sphere to reside safely away from all of the “buying and selling”. However, the profit potential lodged in new and exciting websites is just too much for most people and even the most well intentioned sites inevitably end up as profit earning and therefore remove themselves from the “perfect public sphere”.

    • How is this different than the real world? The first obvious answer is what the internet does to identity and anonymity. Yes, bloggers and forum-goers can be shielded by the prejudices that may be carried about them due to their social status, physical appearance, background, etc, as Poell notes, but the fact remains that anonymity of the physical person does not erase his identity: a narrow-minded, aggressive bigot in the real world will still be a narrow-minded, aggressive bigot online (though there is reason to believe that the added anonymity may provide freedom to express those abrasive views more publicly). Communities that exist online contain personalities that have been amplified by anonymity, but the sources of these personalities are real people that exist in the physical world.

      As Norah points to Poell’s opinion on the low bar set for online discussion, I find myself concurring, due to the stakes that are lost when you do not have to defend your personal honor or local reputation. An outspoken frequenter of your local coffee shop must maintain his social capital far more in person than online, and therefore the refinement of his tact and arguments must be higher. Therefore, there may be some benefit found in the exchange of payment for the use of forum space, if only because it may sift through the casual commenters who have little stake, and those who find real worth in the contents of a debate formulated by others who are similarly committed to a mature and intellectual dialogue. In other words, exclusivity can be used not purely for exclusion, but to ensure the quality of those who care enough to be a part of the conversation.

      • I’d like to dig a little deeper into the idea of anonymity of the online. I believe the same goes for in person, through the styles and nomenclatures each individual chooses to role-play, whether consciously or subconsciously, in terms of the omnipresent advertisements, conscious or subconscious, in this modern life. Much like the counterpublics formed when the public sphere of the white man began, there are abundant counterpublics on the online, which, for appeasement to this well-put point by Zach (though I must say some people hold their online position even more seriously than their physical person (i.e. linkdin, etc)), the reality of this is that they are counterpublics. What has been sifted through is merely a more widely accepted and more difficult point of disclusion due to the nature of the perceived inclusivity of the web that is so world wide. However, much like the arenas of ancient men, those available to the most intellectual of our herd mainly repeat in their own simplified words an extension of the advertisement of their preferred intellectual lecturer.

        There is a definite possibility for greater inclusion in a space where a person cannot be seen by their flesh, blood, and guts that profound the hearts of what we are actually all united by, but, this is not how it so is. And, by definition, this is not uniting people, but ideas guided by the over-abundant opinions of the ones having time and money to be a greater part of this cyber space guiding the future of the emotionally inept children of our future. And the dramatic diction of my sentiments are not lost on me, though for lack of time and space in this place, I would rather fever in the extreme than attempt another essay on the back & forth possibilities that most people are not a part of even contemplating. There is a reason we are a generation that is part of the greatest wealth gap in American history. It is not that technology is not progressive, but perhaps we are not evolving with it, merely attempting to have it be our evolution, instead, losing our own. If money is survival in this country, and the economically depleted are losing the game of fitness, I think we need to ask ourselves what is sustaining those that are able to thrive. It does not seem to be the person, but rather the gadgets they are communicating through. From a biological stand-point, that is a turn-off. And I would rather not reproduce that.

  5. I would certainly agree with what Cary is saying and it does raise some interesting points. My view is perhaps individual’s specific views of the public sphere are subjective and can encompass a variety of aspects ranging from political, economic, or just merely social, depending on their intentions and desires but I feel as though there are places on the internet that facilitate whichever realm of that sphere they are seeking. Where some of the critics may argue that the internet’s function as our new, modern public sphere are eclipsed by less meaningful discussion being “not rational, emotional and irreverent ”or that it is being driven by corporate advertising, I feel there is undoubtedly the spaces for the traditional public sphere purposes. Whether or not these “pure” or “perfect” public sphere places are being overshadowed by the magnitude of other information and entertainment online is at least in my view different for everyone and heavily relies on their familiarity with the internet, age, and interests. Whereas the opportunities of the public sphere are present online, I also would strongly agree with what a few of the authors of this week’s readings were saying that online interactions require a following person-to-person interaction to garner some sort of progress or productivity for most people/groups. Therefore I may argue that as long as our societies are not solely connected through the web then the online offerings to fulfill the roles of the public sphere are supplemental to true, face-to-face interactions and have not replaced the traditional concept of the public sphere. I feel the internet greatly supports and facilitates the autonomist strand and offers another means of “biopolitical production” being a place of diverse opinions, perspectives, and representations where the user formulates their own view.

  6. I was intrigued by Poell’s critique of blogs and forums. It is interesting how the blogosphere and forums can “theoretically… contribute to the public sphere,” while lying somewhere outside of that sphere. Poell argues that this is because the content of blogs and forums tend to become debased by insult and groupthink. This is opposed to the broad viewpoints of the public sphere. It other words, the contents of most blogs and forums are too narrow to fit the interest of the public. In this way they are similar to traditional media. Many people accuse Fox news of becoming a mouthpiece for conservative politics. They report on objective news with a slant, and many of their viewers have similar ideals as are portrayed on the network. Similarly, forums tend to attract people of similar interests, or at least give these people with similar interests common space within the forum, and when this happens it is hard for these groups to accept other points of view, as their view is reinforced by their peers.

  7. I would like to expand upon Dahlberg and Siaspera’s critique of democracy which I find incredibly necessary. Especially in America, democracy has become a form of Orwellian double-speak. Politicians and the main stream media claim that we need to invade other countries to “promote democracy”. We need to bomb Afghanistan to bring feminism and peace to the women of fascist regimes. I think the word fascism needs to be critically examined and applied to the US context. According to the Webster dictionary, “fascism is the often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fascism The US does not work exactly this way, it functions more like Mussolinis definition of fascism the merger of corporations and the State. When we bailed out the banks in 2008, I believe we entered an unprecedented fascist period in the US. The Patriot Act allows the government to read or listen to any conversation. The NDAA act of 2012 allows the president to lock up anyone indefinitely without trial. In the course of 2 months, 10,000 arrests of activists in the occupy movement were imprisoned for overwhelmingly peaceful political action. Even the UN noted the insane abuse of human rights by the US government. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/02/occupy-wall-street-un-envoy_n_1125860.html
    In a country with 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners, the US now has more people in prison than Russia ever did. I think it is time we recognize that we are living in a fascist dictatorship and start fighting the regime. Ignoring the obvious will only encourage the elites of the world to increase the brutality on the poorr and minorities. For another perspective from Russia Today on the increasingly totalitarian nature of the US:

  8. I do not think that we can label internet forums as a public sphere in itself but rather a supplement to current public spheres. I believe the internet is separate of the public sphere since it is not always a truly public and inclusive space for free discussion on societal issues, but rather a sub-group where individual topics can be discussed by individuals who may have found a sense of community in these forums. For example, in Poell’s article he clarifies the culture behind blogs. It is a forum for discussion on a particular topic that was started and based on the opinions of its creator. This individual is not broadly sharing information with the general public, it is for his traditional audience and others who come across this forum based on their already established interests. This is a way that these forums can indeed be considered exclusive and thus not a true public sphere. I like the point that Katie made when she said, “this deteriorates the validity of public spheres all together because you are not building on ideas at all…. instead of making the public forum occur in a place that people would go regardless-they are turning into something that people seek out because of an already established interest.” This type of forum used by already biased consumers, combined with the power in anonymity mentioned by Zach leads to what I view as a dangerous environment. Constant exposure to those who think similarly, rather than listening to “the devil’s advocate” can build up unhealthy and sometimes unfair biases. The Ted Talk of Eli Prasier we watched in class also touched on this topic. We may be drawn to our interests and involve ourselves in specific forums that appeal to us but it is also important to receive a generic flow of information on other opinions, topics, and events. A well rounded knowledge base is not only healthy for an individual, but something I consider crucial to a successful public debate and discussion. While small side conversations on topics and interests may serve us well it is always important to step back and look at the bigger picture, and thoughts of others. It is the responsibility of the consumer to be smart, and put the effort forth themselves to remain educated. I believe the internet should be used for seeking information, as well as taking comfort in those who hold the same beliefs as you- but it cannot stop there. We must then take that information and challenge ourselves and others in the true public sphere of fair and open discussion.
    I realize though, that there is always a question of where does a truly public sphere exist. I found it very interesting to hear the thoughts of some critics of Jurgen Habermas and his theory. The once labelled public sphere may not have at all been a true public sphere as exclusiveness may have always been present. Is there ever a domain which does not exclude certain sectors of society? These modern internet forums can exclude audiences without the same interest, since they may never have the chance to participate in certain domains. But what about in the past? Were those spheres for discussion idealized as public domains? Or were they truly open for any member of society to partake and share their beliefs.
    Whether we can determine this or not I think it is crucial we keep moving in this direction: Maintaining the public spheres we have today, bettering them by allowing maximum inclusiveness, and educating these discussions with the constant information sharing that is provided by the internet and online forums.

  9. A few summary thoughts and further comments/questions…

    1. On anonymity & the public sphere

    A few of you (e.g., Max, Zachary) have pointed to the ways in which online anonymity allows people to hide and avoid responsibility for what they say. There are, however, online (open-source) platforms – wikis like Wikipedia, for instance – that provide detailed documentation of who did or said what, when, in response to what, etc. They would seem to allow the kind of “sourcing” that makes information on a web site traceable, verifiable, and thus more reliable.

    Jesse, however, seems to suggest that there’s potential for greater inclusiveness “in a space where a person cannot be seen by their flesh, blood, and guts that profound [profane?] the hearts of what we are actually all united by” — i.e., that anonymity can sometimes be a great boon for those who would otherwise be shunned or be too shy to participate in group discussion.

    Perhaps there’s a lesson here: sometimes something (like anonymity) can be a good thing, and other times it might not be. The task for us might be to design the kinds of online spaces that are most appropriate to what we want to accomplish.

    Could all the discussion about the internet and the public sphere be similarly nuanced: i.e., might some forms of online communication genuinely contribute to the public discussion of political issues, while others (perhaps most) do not? What are the best sites for such broad public debate? (See, for instance, Open Democracy, Global Voices, and On the Commons – all linked to on the “Links” list above – for examples of sites that seem to be trying to do this.) How could we make them better at it?

    And is there anything wrong with having some places where people with a particular perspective – say, Republicans as opposed to Democrats – would get together and carve out their commonalities and differences, and other places where people in a local area (and there are many neighborhood/community blogs and forums out there) could discuss issues across political lines? Weekly magazines have traditionally performed that function in this country (e.g., The Nation on the left, the National Review on the right). Newspapers continue to have that function in other countries: e.g., in the UK, everyone knows that The Telegraph and some of the tabloids will be more conservative/right, while the Guardian will be more liberal/left. Same with the main newspapers in France: Le Figaro on the right, Le Monde and Liberation on the left. It would seem that Fox News (right) and MSNBC (left) play a similar role among US television networks today.

    Perhaps it’s more of a matter of balance. Are there trusted sites where everyone comes together to discuss issues of common concern? Might public radio/television perform that function again (as it was intended, and as it arguably does in some countries)? What’s lacking and how do we change that? (Lawrence Lessig, in his video talk “Republic Lost”, has some well developed arguments about that; see http://youtu.be/AxCo2bE9Gtk )

    2. On environmental advocacy

    Diego wrote:
    ” The viral media which enthralls so many people can be harnessed to make people more ecologically aware…. I think it has to do with Kahn and Kellner’s democratically active and aware individual harnessing medias of their choice to do so, and steering public discussion towards where they want to see it go….”

    This makes me wonder about the relative value of doing this versus traditional means of environmental advocacy. Perhaps a useful project would be to compare the efficacy of media campaigns such as Diego described it. What would be a good way of measuring such efficacy?

    3. On Dahlberg & Siapera’s 3 radical-democratic strands

    Andrew suggests the internet “greatly supports and facilitates the autonomist strand and offers another means of ‘biopolitical production’ being a place of diverse opinions, perspectives, and representations where the user formulates their own view.” (Thanks, Andrew, for bringing the discussion back to those 3 perspectives.)
    What do others think about the internet’s relation to those 3 strands?

  10. As Alex asks in the conclusion of her comment, “Is there ever a domain which does not exclude certain sectors of society?” And “but what about the past? Were those spheres for discussions idealized as public domains?” I think it’s quite obvious as many people have mentioned in their comments that collecting data from solely internet conversations and debates doesn’t necessarily represent the public sphere. However, there is no doubt that these techniques are used in statists very frequently. It seems to me to be similar to an optional survey. The bias in those results lays in those who chose to take the survey versus those who have chosen not to. Clearly those who choose to take an optional survey are more opinionated, or radical on either spectrum, and the results will be skewed. I think the same of internet forums and blogs. It only takes into account the population of people who choose to participate in these realms (or have the ability to) and therefore are clearly strongly opinionated, and not an accurate account of the whole public sphere.

    In terms of Norah’s question about rational thought and discourse, vs. emotional and irreverent, I find myself disagreeing with both statements. On one hand, although mass media can seem more formal and rational compared to the seemingly emotional comments on facebook, Mass media has become too staged that I find it almost incomparable to online debates and discussions. As stated in the Dahlberg and Siapera reading, “Mass media are seen as largely isolating individuals and channeling them to media spectacles, publicity stunts, consumer advice, and discourses legitimating dominant ideologies.” I wonder what the presidential debate would look like if it took place only on a live online forum. I’m sure those comments and statements would seem much more emotional and irrational. That is not to say that those discussions on online forums are invalid, but on the contrary, I wonder given the chance for the average individual to cross over to the “rational” mass media side and become part of the discussion, if they would still use the same language as they do in their forums.

    So it’s true, like Jesse stated in her comment, that in both realms of debate people put on costumes and act a part, create this alter-ego, so even more, how can that be an accurate description of the public domain? Face-to-face conversations between a comfortable group of individuals seems like a way more accurate description of when people will be most honest, least influenced by advertisements, and a wider variety of people will state their opinions. But I guess it’s a lot easier to make statistical data about online conversations than it is to make about face-to-face conversations between two comfortable individuals. There are obviously pros and cons to both types of debates (online vs. other) as it has been debated on for years now, but regardless, I do think that the lack of coffee houses and salon conversations and their importance has definite negative consequences.

  11. I’ve followed up on some of these discussions in a separate post entitled “More on e-activism & the public sphere.”

    Please feel free to continue with any comments there.

  12. I believe Habermas was spot on in discussing the bourgeois public sphere. He states that these public spheres started as Britain’s coffee houses, France’s salons and Germany’s Tischgesellschaften – more or less places where people naturally spend time and where discussion between people is ongoing. He further stated that there are three criteria in common – disregard of status, domain of public concern, and inclusivity. Although written more than fifty years ago (1962) Habermas made astounding predictions that are still true today, especially in regards to the Internet. However some can argue that the Internet is exclusive as certain regions of the world lack technologies and access to such information. But on a larger scale it is inclusive, because if you have Internet you have access to such a vast array of information and services. The Internet however does not represent the entire public sphere, but merely a small portion that is ever growing. It will be interesting to see how the debate on open or selective access plays out in the upcoming months and years.

  13. An interesting take on the public sphere of the Occupy movement and the ways that activists attempted to create egalitarian public spheres.

  14. I agree with Alex’s point that “we can’t label internet forums as a public sphere in itself but rather a supplement to current public spheres.” Total inclusivity is rather difficult to attain when dealing with online public spheres, especially those of blogs, as Poell points out. Even though people of all different opinions and backgrounds are able to participate in online discussions and debates, the individuals usually found participating most are those who share in the same values and judgements as the blogger himself. The conversation thus becomes a circle of bias same value judgements versus any sort of public debate that can positively add to social/political progression.
    Does a space with total inclusivity exist? I think that political participation and action are best shown through public spaces that require people to be present rather than online and anonymous. When I think of a positive inclusive public sphere I think of the beat generation: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ansen, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac. I think that the inclusivity of this group was major, showcasing free forum poetry readings at City Lights Publishing in San Francisco, or getting together in a coffee shop and talking about social problems in the 1950’s. During a time, where sexuality, race and war were all topics that were tip-toed around, the inclusivity of all types of sexualities were encouraged to share their thoughts. Individuals like Leroi Jones, an African American poet and Joan Volmer, the wife of William Burroughs were important minds that sparked up differing viewpoints of the world based on their gender and race. One had to be well versed and educated to keep up with the beat conversation but all types of people were invited to give their differing perspectives on the current politically charged situations of the world. The inclusivity of this space, allowed for critical political discussion about many civil rights issues and enabled people like Ginsberg to be a predominant civil rights spokesperson.

    Even if total inclusivity was trying to be attained by those in internet public spaces, the majority of modern forums are being “used as entertainment or personal expression rather than debate” (Poell). There indeed are few forums that participate in critical analysis and rational debates but the majority are seen to express emotional and irrelevant concerns that don’t contain any critical merit. Lets take the Kony 2012 video on Youtube for example. For many this film was a prime example of the media’s power and influence on the public. The short film was funded by Invisible Children to educate the world about Joseph Kony, an african war criminal. The video urged people to donate to the cause and to purchase wrist bands but didn’t encourage people to learn more about the situation. When scandal arose surrounding the video, much of the debate that leaked onto Youtube, consisted of irrational emotionally charged comments, lacking the critical rationality that could have potentially added to any sort of political progress. The majority of comments on Youtube are of profane nature, either consisting of non-constructive anonymous fighting or comments that don’t add to critical discussion at all. The media is so powerful and even though online public spaces strive to include all types of people in order to attain a critical objective truth, the tendency to not research more than what is being fed to you on the surface and the tendency of online communities to become exclusive, makes progressively inclusive online public spaces difficult to come by.

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