The virtual public sphere does not exist and operate the same everywhere. Every virtual public sphere is different because each country’s economic, social, political, and cultural characteristics and relations are varied. As a result, the impact of information communication technology (ICT) on political and social conditions will also differ from one country to another. According to the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas (1989,1996), the public sphere is a domain existing outside of the private sphere of family relations, the economic sphere of business and commerce, and the governmental sphere dominated by the state. The public sphere contributes to democracy by serving as a forum for deliberation about politics and civic affairs. According to Habermas, the public sphere is marked by liberal core beliefs such as the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and communication, and “privacy rights, which are needed to ensure society’s autonomy from the state” (Cohen & Arato, 1992, p. 211). Thus, the public sphere is defined as a domain of social relations that exist outside of the roles, duties and constraints established by government, the marketplace, and kinship ties. Habermas’ public sphere is both a historical description and an ideal type. Historically, what Habermas refers to as the bourgeois public sphere emerged from the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe and went into decline in the 19th century. As an ideal type, the public sphere represents an arena, absent class and other social distinctions, in which private citizens can engage in critical, reasoned discourse regarding politics and culture. The remainder of this article is divided into three parts. In the first part, the background of virtual public spheres is discussed by presenting a broad overview of the major literature relating to ICT and democracy as well as distinguishing between virtual and public spheres and e-government. The second section deals with some significant current trends and developments in virtual public spheres. Finally, the third section discusses some future implications for off-line civil society of virtual public spheres.
ICT, in the eyes of some forward-thinking observers, (e.g., Abramson, Arterton, & Orrren, 1988; Barber, 1984; Becker & Slaton, 2000; Cleveland, 1985; Clift, 2004; Coleman & Gøtze, 2001; Cropf & Casaregola, 1996, 1998; Davis, Elin, & Reeher, 2002; Grossman, 1995; Negroponte, 1998; Rheingold, 1993; Saco, 2002) makes possible the type of public sphere envisioned by Habermas. According to these e-democracy advocates, ICT provides citizens with numerous opportunities to engage in the political process and take a more active role in the governance process. For example, a guide to effective public engagement notes: “A spectacular array of tools are emerging that give ordinary citizens a greater ‘voice’ in nearly every aspect of society today” (Lukensmeyer &Torres, 2006). Benkler (2006), for example, asserts ICT, in the form of the ubiquitous World Wide Web, encourages a more open, participatory, and activist approach to politics because it enables users to interact with other users in a way that the mass media does not and is therefore less susceptible to corruption than the mass media (p. 11). Nonetheless, the view that ICT can facilitate deliberative democracy is far from universal; a number of authors assert that technology creates its own set of problems with regard to democratic discourse practices (e.g., Margolis & Resnick, 2002; Sunstein, 2001; Taylor & Saarinen, 1995) Furthermore, these critics of technology argue correctly that advocates do not adequately account for the continued tenacity of mass media’s stranglehold over the public discourse in liberal democracies well into the 21st century.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Virtual Public Sphere: A group of people whose primary interaction is online but the felt experience of the individuals constituting the group is similar to an actual physical community.
Civil Society: Refers to the sector that is different from business and government, which is constituted by voluntary associations including religious groups, labor organizations, citizens’ groups and more.
Blog: Short for Web log. Generally, blogs are personal journals that are kept on the WWW and that can be updated frequently by a user, also known as a “blogger.”
Peer-Production: Large-scale, often worldwide, collaborative efforts to create information, knowledge, and culture (see “Linux” and “Wikis.”). Coined by Internet scholar, Yoshai Benkler.
Wiki: A software platform which enables any user to create, edit and otherwise add to Web page. An example of peer-production.
Linux: An example of open-source software that is peer-produced. A free operating system for servers originally created by Linus Torvalds.
Public Sphere: A concept that originates with the German social thinker, Jürgen Habermas, that refers to communications and relationships that are separate from the state, marketplace, and family structures. It serves to strengthen democratic institutions by serving as a space for deliberation regarding the means and ends of government and politics.
Social Networking: The use of ICT, particularly the WWW, to connect people who share common interests. Examples of successful social networking sites include MySpace, YouTube and Facebook.
E-Government: Using telecommunications technology as a means to facilitate public administration and improve public access to government information and services.
E-Democracy: Using telecommunications technology by democratic actors, including governments, elected representatives, civic organizations, communities, political groups, and activists to improve the political process and political institutions. Examples of e-democracy include online discussion groups, blogs, government Web sites, and other forms of networked participation and civic engagement.