Digitising the Public Sphere, Vol. 16 - 2009, No. 1
The discussion on how democracy is aff ected by the introduction and functioning of digital media and the Internet has been going on for at least two decades. Starting from the perspective of democratic theory and pecifi cally theories of the public sphere, this article tries to outline two key issues and what the current status of knowledge and debates on these appears to be. Referring to and drawing on all the other contributions to this issue of Javnost—The Public, the theoretical as well as the empirical, it is argued that while there is no doubt digitisation of the public sphere adds new dimensions and new forms of iscourse, the implications of these for the overall quality or health of democracy are still quite diff erently understood by scholars working in these issues. Consequently, further theoretical work is required, but, perhaps even more important, a variety of empirical studies.
The article addresses recent structural changes in the public sphere related to media as platforms for debate and deliberation. New media platforms for communication lead to changes in the communication structure itself. This can easily be seen in the differentiation processes of the public sphere that is now taking place: The differentiation of topics, styles and actors is an astonishing phenomenon, is constantly a topic of debate in itself, often labelled as both decay and democratisation. I argue that as Internet- based media take actively part in, and accelerate the internal diff erentiation of the public sphere, the role and function of the public sphere is put in a new light. Inner divisions of labour in the public sphere emerge, which forces us to reconsider conventional understandings of the political public sphere vis-à-vis political deliberation. The article addresses this new complexity of public discourse and presents a revised view on its democratic functions. I argue that as a consequence of the Internet, social and political theory need to distinguish between a presentational and a representational dimension, each serving different functions. I also argue that the altered media composition underlying the public sphere suggests a more network-like view on national and international public spheres.
This article analyses how digital media redefine the boundaries of the political public sphere. Against the mainstream assumption of a new emancipatory potential of the digital media, which strengthens the participatory and interactive elements of the public sphere, it is argued that digital media introduce a new representative order of political communication. In this sense, there is a need to conceptualise the digital public sphere in relation to political representation. Digital media do not straightforwardly unbound political communication in replacing the representativeness of the national public sphere. The performance of the Internet in promoting political communication remains rather limited and, by and large, continues to reproduce the national public sphere. At the same time, the digital media have multiplied the symbolism of representation, which is continuously in the making, by providing new offers for the identification of publicness through shared problems and solutions.
Globalising Network Public Spheres. The Dissolution of the Public Sphere into Private Attention Markets
The trend of the 1970s and 1980s of the previous century, which led to the so-called TV-society with para-social interactions, now has led to an all-invasive mediatisation and the dissolution of the public sphere into private attention-markets. Within this framework, only a few questions can be raised: (1) What do these trajectories imply for journalists who want to inform about distinct, controversial topics? (2) How far do new information and communication technologies advance the preparation and framing of public discourses – or do they implement a fundamentally new coding of amusement and commercialisation of attention markets? (3) How can the negligence of our conceptions of our pasts and of our futures be overcome in the up-to-the-moment news show business? These questions shall be pursued before their cross-linked answers (4) lead to a sketchy elaboration of Jürgen Habermas’ traditional concept of “a public sphere in appearance only” and an equally sketchy combination of Habermas’ and Castells’theories for a more reality-adequate concept of globalising network public spheres.
The article argues that, beyond the boundaries of activists and concerned citizens, the massive appropriation of the Internet techniques of self-publication and the social modes of interactions on the web, lead to the extension of the public sphere to the rank-and-fi le. It takes the position that civic culture is not homogeneous and that it is shaped by diff erent social practices that we examine through three sets of digital public spheres. First, the rise of “free speech” in professional journalistic practices on media websites expands to readers’ voices (in forums, online surveys, readers’ comments), while citizens’ engagement in amateur grassroots journalism challenges both the professional practices and the ethics of journalism. Second, the lively political blogosphere demonstrates how personal opinions on public matters fi nd their legitimacy in the interactive dialogue in and across networks and lead to the emergence of rank-and-fi le opinion leaders, while also presenting various pitfalls, such as the redundancy of a limited number of viewpoints. Third, the social and leisurely Internet usage of ordinary citizens leads them to confront political and public issues in a casual and random manner, which in turn leads them to discuss these matters occasionally in online or face-to-face settings. This trend is reinforced by the innovative creation of user-generated content, mixing text, sound, and video formats that are widely circulated on the web. The rise of new forms of political and social critique on the Internet and the sharing of common experiences in the electronic space results in novel mean of public engagement and contributes to the shaping of a new civic and social form.
A reading of New York Times’ coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign demonstrates that America’s most influential newspaper paid a great deal of attention to the role of new media (and some old media – television, cable television, television advertising) in the campaign. As a kind of reader’s diary chronicling the Times’ account, this article finds that the news coverage emphasised a new intensity, a remarkable ubiquity, and a note of anarchism in the new communication media, enabling citizens with little connection to candidate or party power centres to at least briefly gain national notoriety in political news.
The riots in the suburbs of Paris (and across the country) in October and November 2005 lasted for about three weeks. The degree of violence and anger of the riots astonished an entire world. While the mainstream media, both in France and internationally, covered these events ‘as usual,’ some became aware that the internet seemed to play a role in the youths’ involvement and engagement in the events. This paper attempts to answer some important questions regarding the role of the internet: Why and how was it important? Did the web-only-publications, such as online news-sites and blogs, have any function for the people participating in the riots, or for those who were trying to put an end to them? What is more generally the potential of the internet, outside of the established media that also operate online, when ‘hot social issues’ catch fire and become explosive happenings?