Disclaimer: I work in Google's Policy Team, developing multistakeholder cooperations for internet governance & policy themes, hence I want to point out that all the opinions and ruminations on this blog are mine, not Google's.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Social Media in Cyberspace & the public sphere

I recently had the chance to meet Howard Rheingold - godfather of the study and practice of virtual community building. We had a really interesting conversation and i am really excited to work, co-think and design a social media classroom.

Most of our philosophizing dealt however with the fundamental effects human expansion into cyberspace can potentially have. The next day I attended a class on Social Media Howard is teaching in Berkley and fittingly the theme of cyberspace and the public sphere was discussed.

Rather than paraphrasing his argument i found the following quote (1):
"Although civic engagement encompasses many dimensions, this chapter focuses on participation in the public sphere through direct experience with online publishing, discourse, debate, cocreation of culture, and collective action. By showing students how to use Web-based tools and channels to inform publics, advocate positions, contest claims, and organize action around issues that they truly care about, participatory media education can draw them into positive early experiences with citizenship that could influence their civic behavior throughout their lives. Formal theories of the public sphere could be introduced most productively after, and in the context of, direct experience of exercising a public voice. Talking about public opinion making is a richer experience if you’ve tried to do it."
In 2006 Habermas himself acknowledges that there is a second structural disruption of the public sphere by the internet:

“Use of the Internet has both broadened and fragmented the contexts of communication. This is why the Internet can have a subversive effect on intellectual life in authoritarian regimes. But at the same time, the less formal, horizontal cross-linking of communication channels weakens the achievements of traditional media. This focuses the attention of an anonymous and dispersed public on select topics and information, allowing citizens to concentrate on the same critically filtered issues and journalistic pieces at any given time. The price we pay for the growth in egalitarianism offered by the Internet is the decentralised access to unedited stories. In this medium, contributions by intellectuals lose their power to create a focus.” (translation and bold from signandsight)
I am not sure i agree with Habermas on this point. It seems to me that he has not fully grasped the cyber-logic of the blogosphere and the web-based media. The aggregated power of links pointing to authors with a special-knowledge reputation or exceptionally "on the spot" statements allows in my eyes for an increase in egalitarianism as well as space to enjoy positive freedom and the prudent evolution of a professional reputation or kleos.

IMHO it is exactly the media competence Howard alludes to a) develop a Voice online, as well as to b) navigate the public cyber-sphere and be able to perceive and understand the online Voices in their context.

(1)Using Participatory Media and Public Voice to Encourage Civic Engagement
Howard Rheingold Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth, Pages 97-118 - online @ www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/dmal.9780262524827.097

PS: I also really like the Yochai Benkler "The Wealth of Networks" quote in Howards text:
" We are witnessing a fundamental change in how individuals can interact with their democracy and experience their role as citizens. Ideal citizens need not be seen purely as trying to inform themselves about what others have found, so that they can vote intelligently. They need not be limited to reading the opinions of opinion makers and judging them in private conversations. They are no longer constrained to occupy the role of mere readers, viewers, and listeners. They can be, instead, participants in a conversation."

1 comment:

Max Senges said...

thanks celular - i will go and check out your blog!