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 (A third, the “cyber-libertarian” model, is discussed as a historical reference point; this techno-utopian model flourished in the early days of the internet, but has since been largely eclipsed.)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.


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