The Virtual Public Sphere

The Virtual Public Sphere

Robert A. Cropf (Saint Louis University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-014-1.ch206
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Abstract

The public sphere does not exist and operate in the same way everywhere. Every country is different with regard to its own economic, social, political, and cultural characteristics and relations; therefore, each country’s public sphere has its own roots which grow and develop within a unique set of conditions and circumstances. As a result, the impact of information technology (IT) on a public sphere will also vary considerably from one country to another. According to the German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas (1989,1996), the public sphere serves as a social “space,” which is separate from the private sphere of family relations, the commercial sphere of business and commerce, and the governmental sphere, which is dominated by the activities of the state. Its importance is that it contributes to the strengthening of democracy by, in effect, serving as a forum for reasoned discussion about politics and civic affairs. Furthermore, Habermas regards the public sphere as embodying such core liberal beliefs as individual rights, that is, the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and communication, and “privacy rights” (Cohen & Arato 1992, p. 211), which he thought were needed to ensure society’s autonomy from the state. Thus, for the purposes of this article, public sphere is defined as a “territory” of social relations that exist outside of the roles, duties, and constraints established by government, the marketplace, and kinship ties. Habermas’ conception of the 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, for example, England and France, as well as early America, and which went into decline in the 19th century as a result of the increasing domination of the mass media, which transformed a reading public that debated matters of culture into disengaged consumers (Keane, 1998, p. 160). Along the way, active deliberation and participation were replaced by passive consumption of mass culture. As an ideal type, however, the public sphere represents an arena, absent of class and other social distinctions, in which private citizens can engage in critical deliberation and reasoned dialogue about important matters regarding politics and culture. The emergence of IT, particularly in the form of computer networks, as a progressive social force coincides with the apex of mass media’s domination of the public sphere in liberal democracies. Since the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the early 1990s, various observers have touted IT’s potential to strengthen democratic institutions (e.g., Barber 2003; Becker & Slaton, 2000; Benkler, 2006; Cleveland, 1985; Cropf & Casaregola, 1998; Davis, Elin, & Reeher, 2002). The WWW, it is thought, provides citizens with numerous opportunities to engage in the political process as well as to take a more active role in the governance process. Benkler (2006), for example, asserts the WWW encourages a more open, participatory, and activist approach because it enables users to communicate directly with potentially many other users in a way that is outside the control of the media owners and is less corruptible by money than are the mass media (p. 11). Fulfilling the promise of the virtual public sphere, however, depends on political will; governments must commit the resources needed to facilitate public access to the technology and remove legal and economic barriers to the free flow of information inside and outside national boundaries.
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The Virtual Public Sphere: Evolution

The public sphere does not exist and operate in the same way everywhere. Every country is different with regard to its own economic, social, political, and cultural characteristics and relations; therefore, each country’s public sphere has its own roots which grow and develop within a unique set of conditions and circumstances. As a result, the impact of information technology (IT) on a public sphere will also vary considerably from one country to another. According to the German social theorist, Jürgen Habermas (1989,1996), the public sphere serves as a social “space,” which is separate from the private sphere of family relations, the commercial sphere of business and commerce, and the governmental sphere, which is dominated by the activities of the state. Its importance is that it contributes to the strengthening of democracy by, in effect, serving as a forum for reasoned discussion about politics and civic affairs. Furthermore, Habermas regards the public sphere as embodying such core liberal beliefs as individual rights, that is, the freedoms of speech, press, assembly and communication, and “privacy rights” (Cohen & Arato 1992, p. 211), which he thought were needed to ensure society’s autonomy from the state. Thus, for the purposes of this article, public sphere is defined as a “territory” of social relations that exist outside of the roles, duties, and constraints established by government, the marketplace, and kinship ties.

Habermas’ conception of the 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, for example, England and France, as well as early America, and which went into decline in the 19th century as a result of the increasing domination of the mass media, which transformed a reading public that debated matters of culture into disengaged consumers (Keane, 1998, p. 160). Along the way, active deliberation and participation were replaced by passive consumption of mass culture. As an ideal type, however, the public sphere represents an arena, absent of class and other social distinctions, in which private citizens can engage in critical deliberation and reasoned dialogue about important matters regarding politics and culture.

The emergence of IT, particularly in the form of computer networks, as a progressive social force coincides with the apex of mass media’s domination of the public sphere in liberal democracies. Since the creation of the World Wide Web (WWW) in the early 1990s, various observers have touted IT’s potential to strengthen democratic institutions (e.g., Barber 2003; Becker & Slaton, 2000; Benkler, 2006; Cleveland, 1985; Cropf & Casaregola, 1998; Davis, Elin, & Reeher, 2002). The WWW, it is thought, provides citizens with numerous opportunities to engage in the political process as well as to take a more active role in the governance process. Benkler (2006), for example, asserts the WWW encourages a more open, participatory, and activist approach because it enables users to communicate directly with potentially many other users in a way that is outside the control of the media owners and is less corruptible by money than are the mass media (p. 11). Fulfilling the promise of the virtual public sphere, however, depends on political will; governments must commit the resources needed to facilitate public access to the technology and remove legal and economic barriers to the free flow of information inside and outside national boundaries.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mashups: A “mashup” is a product that incorporates multiple technologies and information from different sources into one application by making use of application programming interfaces (APIs). One example would be the correlation of information with Google Maps, for example, placing houses to buy and rent on the Google Maps interface, as used in www.ononemap.com.

Podcasts: Podcasting is the use of syndication, RSS, or Atom for the distribution of multimedia files such as audio recordings over the Internet for playback on mobile devices and personal computers. Usually, the podcast is some form of show, like a weekly radio programme.

RSS: Really simple syndication (RSS) is a method used for Web syndication which delivers information in the form of an XML (extensible markup language) file.

Blog: A “blog,” short for “Web log,” is a Web-based publication comprising individual articles that are posted periodically and are usually displayed in reverse chronological order. Blogs are often used to create online journals and others may focus on one particular subject, such as technology or politics.

Web 2.0: Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an architecture of participation, and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experience.

Tagging: A tag is a word attached to a piece of content that acts as a category. Multiple tags can be assigned to the content and they allow content to be sorted according to category, in the same way that similar files can be located within one directory. The difference, however, is that sorting by tags is dynamic. A piece of the content’s tags can be easily added, edited, or removed with no hindrance to the sorting process, as the sorting is done using software on the Web server.

AJAX: AJAX stands for “Asynchronous JavaScript and XML.” It is a technique used to create interactive Web applications, where small parts of a Web site can be refreshed with new content without the need to reload the whole page to reflect any change made by the user.

Folksonomies: Folksonomies allow Internet users to categorize Web pages, photographs, and links. This labelling process is called “tagging,” and the result is an improved quality of search results.

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