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Habermas and/against the Internet

One of the advertised highlights of last year's International Communication Association conference, which I attended, was the keynote lecture by communication studies warhorse Jürgen Habermas. For most of us in the audience, this was an only moderately enjoyable experience, however - unfortunately, the acoustics of the plenary hall combined with Habermas's accent and pronounced lisp meant that much of the lecture was very difficult to understand, even in spite (?) of the Powerpoint slides (photos of some of which I included in my blog post at the time).

I think it's fair to say that what we were able to make out didn't exactly fill my colleagues and me with the obvious awe expressed by some of the more ardent Habermasians in the audience. As I wrote here at the time, Habermas's model seemingly failed "to allow for a move of audiences from a relatively passive stance of participating only by voting or responding to opinion polls to a more active discursive and deliberative involvement in democratic deliberation. It retains the mass media as those who act out public deliberation for, and in front of, the citizenry."

The keynote speech has now been published in the 16.4 (November 2006) issue of the ICA's journal Communication Theory, and I've now had a chance to examine it in some more detail ( a transcript of his lecture text can also be found here). Unfortunately, this has only confirmed my suspicion that Habermas is either unwilling or unable to translate his public sphere model of political communication in modern societies from the mass media to the network age. Or, put more bluntly, I don't think he really gets the Internet. His political sphere remains one in which politicians, journalists, and a variety of experts, lobbyists, activists, moral entrepreneurs, intellectuals and other proxies act out "elite discourse" and political deliberation on the "virtual stage" of the mass media (indeed, the term "virtual stage" appears repeatedly throughout the article). This appears to reject the possibilty of any direct participation and agency for the 'average' citizen - public opinion is formed for them on the "virtual stage", not by them in directly participatory environments.

Indeed, the Internet itself - the obvious location for such direct participation in political discussion and deliberation - appears only in passing in Habermas's speech, and mainly in a somewhat pithy footnote. Not content to just ignore the Net as a communicative space, he moves to explicitly dismiss its potential instead, pointing to an isolated example from the German mediasphere in support of his claim that in themselves, Web-based communities only contribute to a further fragmentation of the populace into isolated issue publics, and that the only value of such communities can be found when they parasitically attach themselves to "quality" media in other media forms. Here's what he writes on this matter:

The Internet has certainly reactivated the grassroots of an egalitarian public of writers and readers. However, computer-mediated communication in the web can claim unequivocal democratic merits only for a special context: It can undermine the censorship of authoritarian regimes that try to control and repress public opinion. In the context of liberal regimes, the rise of millions of fragmented chat rooms across the world tend instead to lead to the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics. Within established national public spheres, the online debates of web users only promote political communication, when news groups crystallize around the focal points of the quality press, for example, national newspapers and political magazines. (A nice indicator for the critical function of such a parasitical role of online communication is the bill for €2088,00 that the anchor of recently sent to the director of Bild.T-Online for "services": The bloggers claimed they improved the work of the editorial staff of the Bildzeitung with useful criticisms and corrections ... ).
(p. 423-4, fn. 3 in the published article; p. 9, fn. 14 in the transcript)

There are several crucial problems with this claim, however. To begin with, Germany's largest and vilest tabloid, Bild, hardly seems to exemplify the "quality press" Habermas sees online news communities as attaching themselves to. Indeed, Bildblog is a deliberate attempt to lift the standards in Bild by providing a critical corrective highlighting its routine failings, and the bill it sent to Bild for "journalistic services" is a tactical media stunt designed to draw attention to Bildblog (and a successful one at that, evidently - clearly even Habermas picked up on it). Such sustained tactical media action, however - and this is the second major problem with Habermas's example -, is hardly representative for the many citizen news and commentary projects which can by now be easily identified all over the Web: from communities of bloggers conducting engaged discussions on the political topics of the day to now mainstream Korean news Website OhmyNews.

Finally, and especially in the context of these other problems, Habermas's claim that Internet communities serve only to further fragment the public deliberation and lead to the rise of isolated "issue publics", must also be seen as misleading, if not downright disingenuous. Much like citizens in other contexts, participants in online communities are complex, multifaceted individuals who combine online participation in any one forum with activities in many other on- and offline contexts; to speak of them as fragmented and isolated ignores or rejects the reality that especially online, individual publics are multiply connected both implicitly through shared membership and explicitly through a network of hyperlinks connecting postings right across the boundaries of individual fora. (Indeed, what the Web as a hypertext medium has made possible is the increased connection of issue publics through cross-linkage - any of the myriad studies to be found on IssueCrawler clearly documents this!)

Worst of all, however, in claiming the isolation of online issue publics, Habermas also contradicts his own views on (non-Internet-based) issue publics in the body of the article: here, he writes that today, "although a larger number of people tend to take an interest in a larger number of issues, the overlap of issue publics may even serve to counter trends of fragmentation" (p. 422 / p. 25). So, non-Net-based issue publics counter fragmentation, Internet-based issue publics promote it?

So what is it with Habermas and the Net? A similarly critical (and similarly questionable) negative stance towards the Net can be found in his (German-language) speech on the occasion of the Bruno Kreisky Award in March 2005: here, he suggests that while the Net "has led to an unforeseen extension of the media public and to an unprecedented thickening of communications networks", this "welcome increase in egalitarianism ... is being paid for by the decentralisation of access to unedited contributions. In this medium the contributions of intellectuals lose the power to create a focus." Overall, therefore, "use of the Internet has both extended and fragmented communication connections" (my translation, p. 4).

Again, there are two key problems with this description. On the one hand, the highlighting of the role of intellectuals as providing a focus for public debate smacks of paternalism - it implies that 'average citizens' cannot find or sustain this focus by themselves, and instead need the support of their intellectual betters in this endeavour. While in response we might not quite want to paraphrase Wikipedia's 'anyone can edit' as 'anyone can be an intellectual' in online environments, it is nonetheless possible to suggest that there are plenty more people with useful contributions to make to the public debate than there are card-carrying members of the 'intellectual' community as Habermas might define it; his view seems overly and unnecessarily pessimistic about the ability of 'average citizens' to participate, under their own steam, in the public sphere.

On the other hand, the claim that an egalitarian decentralisation of access necessarily fragments the debate (by giving everyone an equal voice and making it impossible to separate quality from not-so-quality contributions) has also been thoroughly discredited through the obervation of a number of factors which combine to allow quality material to emerge to public attention: such factors include both explicit social rating and tagging systems which in their aggregate serve to highlight quality and importance (whether this is in internal mechanisms like Slashdot's comment ratings, or in distributed models like, and implicit preference tracking systems (from Flickr's 'interestingness' score to Amazon's recommendations or finally to Google's PageRank), as well as the 'long tail' or 'power law' distributions of access to, interest in, and interlinkage between Websites which such systems almost inevitably come to exhibit. The much-feared 'information overload' predicted in the 90s simply hasn't arrived - as networked information has grown, so have the tools available for making sense of it.

Ultimately, I'm afraid Habermas's obvious aversion to accepting the Internet as part of the public sphere, or (more to the point) to modifying the public sphere model for the network age, is as inexplicable as it is unfortunate; with Net-based communication now a staple of everyday discussion, debate, and deliberation on political as well as virtually all other topics, it serves only to undermine the public sphere concept itself. As responses even to the limited references to the Internet in his ICA speech show, Habermasians are clearly hanging out for a more considered approach to addressing the question of incorporating the Net into the public sphere model: reports in the Tagesspiegel newspaper, Spiegel Online, and elsewhere highlighted his speech as extending his "until now only fragmentary reflections" on the Internet, in spite of the fact that the Net is mentioned only in a footnote. (In what could be seen as a further rebuttal to Habermas's pessimism about Internet-based "issue publics", it took blog comments and the "Habermas" Yahoo! Group to correct such reports.)

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see here

Habermas is right. The Internet does indeed have a subversive impact on political life in authoritarian regimes.

Sure, but that's hardly the point. Note that he says that the Web "can claim unequivocal democratic merits only for a special context" (the bold emphasis is mine), and dismisses it as no more than acting in a parasitic role for liberal democracies.

I don't know if that dismissal is deliberate, or if he's just unfamiliar with the various other roles Web-based political communication may play in liberal democracies - but either way, his conception of the Web's role in political communication is way too narrow, as far as I'm concerned.

After seeing this post for the first time a few years back I started telling everyone I knew that Jurgern Habermas doesn't understand the internet. I finally got challenged on that and had to look this up again, and not to be too mean spirited but this is still very funny. C'mon Jurgen you can do better.