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Redrawing the Public Sphere

Finally had an opportunity to do some basic networking in the break. I really don't seem to have much success with technology at the moment, though - now even my mobile phone seems to be acting up! I came in late on Mattia Miani's presentation on electronic democracy in cooperative enterprises, so I'm not sure how much sense I'll be able to make of the rest of this talk. Not sure what co-ops he's been looking at. Ah, OK, so apparently they've come from housing, production, social services, etc. - but I'm still not sure where electronic democracy comes in here? Sorry, I'm afraid I didn't get this one.

John Kelly comes next, talking about selectivity and community in unstructured online political discourse. Sunstein's presented a view of the media as performing a deliberative function, which might be lost with the move towards Internet fora - the mass media enable people to come across a broad range of multiple view points, but in an Internet context people might select only what they agree with already - a kind of ideological echo chamber leading to polarisation, in which public agenda are lost to lobbyism. On the other hand, Rheingold's idea of virtual communities enables people to escape pigeonholes in favour of more diverse engagement and affiliation with multiple and diverse interest groups.

What is necessary here is to establish where we're really coming from first. We are always already part of multiple social networks - more homogeneous for small networks immediately around us, more heterogeneous the larger the (imagined) community becomes. (Is this true, though - for example, even small family networks might involve some very diverse political views.) Also, there is more risk-avoidance in small networks, since the maintenance of social ties are seen as more important than the expression of views. Both Sunstein and Rheingold also speak of selective exposure - ideologically driven for Sunstein, issue-based for Rheingold. One's social environment (e.g. the interests of friends and relatives also affect this selection, of course - there is an issue of agency (active selection) vs. structure (selection through social contexts we find ourselves in).

Overall, too, public opinion is structurated; in an "attentive public" model (closer to Sunstein), people are actively seeking out engagement in broad governance issues, while in an "issue publics" model (closer to Rheingold) our engagement is tied to other factors in our life (e.g. age, socioeconomic placement, etc.). Whatever is closer to the truth, at any rate, the idea of selective exposure hasn't yet been fully analysed and tested - there was an attempt by Stanford University to track people's interests through the production of a CD on the U.S. elections to check what people from different backgrounds might be interested in.

Kelly suggests a third kind of selectivity - a social selectivity which is also driven by the (online) communities we operate in. He has studied interaction in political Usenet newsgroups, both on the level of whole newsgroups and of individual posters. From this, the question is: is there a public sphere here, or simply enclave deliberation (diversity vs. balance)? From the findings, there clearly is a community factor (size, community, level of disruption through flames or spam). There are also some clearly identifiable online personalities amongst high-volume posters: people who never originate discussions but reply often, and people who focus more on initiating debates but don't necessarily take part in the ensuing debates.

Some results of all of this: right- or left-wing stances do not affect the form and style of participation in political newsgroups (other than that right-wingers appear more prone to initiating personal attacks). There are differences between mainstream and edge ideologies, though, and more radical participants are more likely to initiate debate, more 'reasonable' users are more likely simply to engage. Also, community and discourse quality do not go in tandem - groups which show more traits of being a community produce less engaging discussion than groups which don't. There is evidence for both issue selectivity and the idea of an 'attentive public' - a kind of reverse ideological selectivity where people seek out opposing viewpoints in order to 'go out for battle', that is, to pick a fight. Of course the final question is how this will translate into other online media forms as Usenet continues to decline as a significant online discussion forum, and as blogs, Webchat sites, and other systems take over…

Next is Jakob Linaa Jensen, working towards a model for social spheres in the digital age. What are the challenges to the public sphere in the age of the Internet? The Internet is often seen as a social sphere in itself, and an object of research, but it must be seen in its social context; there is no social space on the Internet, but the Internet is embedded in social space. The Habermasian model for a public sphere links political system, public sphere, and citizens, but it has some shortcomings: for Jensen, the public sphere is only one of a number of social spheres (public, private, common, and sacred; this follows Henaff & Strong). In this, the common sphere builds on medieval times, where the common was a space between villages and their public and private spheres that was accessible to all; this disappeared with increasing privatisation of land. As for the sacred sphere: a religious fundamentalist, for example, would argue that this is the only sphere in existence and all others are subordinate to it; more moderate people would have more balanced views, of course.

Traditionally, these four spheres interact and their boundaries are blurred; in Western civilisation, the common and sacred spheres are often very much reduced (but Jensen points out the significant impact of the sacred sphere which still persists in U.S. politics, for example). The Internet, then, is a medium - placed within and between the social spheres. The spheres are undergoing some significant changes, too: there is continuing privatisation (retreat into), but also increased exhibition of the private sphere (blogs are an example here). The public sphere is being further extended; perhaps we are on the way towards a return to the very public nature of the public sphere in the middle ages - panoptic and synoptic (many watching few) and perhaps even omnoptic (everyone watching everyone) tendencies are becoming increasingly evident through increased surveillance technologies ('mediated observation'). Jensen suggests that we are moving towards a mediated medieval age. Further, then, there is growing overlap between the spheres - being online from one's private space one might still be participating in public or common spheres at the same time (and there are questions of definition, too - are chat rooms public or private, for example?). Ubiquitous access further complicates this, of course.

Ultimately, is there a move towards a return of the common sphere? Online, originally, everything was free, but this has been overturned by increasing commercialisation; with open source and creative commons movements perhaps this is turning once again - but who will win this battle?