Media Technologies Provide New Virtual Public Sphere Media

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New technologies provide information and tools that may extend the role of the public in the social and political arena. The explosion of online political groups and activism certainly reflects political uses of the internet (Bowen, 1996; Browni ng 1996).

The public sphere is subject to dramatic change, one might even argue that it is on the verge of extinction. Computer-mediated communication has taken the place of coffeehouse discourse, issues such as media ownership and commodification pose serious threats to the free flow of information and freedom of speech on the Web.

The utopian rhetoric that surrounds new media technologies promises further democratization of post-industrial society. Specifically, the internet and related technologies can augment avenues for personal expression and promote citizen activity (eg. Bell, 1981; Kling, 1996; Negroponte, 1998; Rheingold, 1993).

Utopian perspectives on the internet speculate that computer-mediated political communication will facilitate grassroots democracy and bring people all across the world closer together. Geographic boundaries can be overcome and 'diasporic utopias' can flourish (Pavlik, 1994). For example, the Indian newsgroup soc.culture.india is one of many online groups that foster critical political discourse among participants that might not even meet in real space and time. For several years this group has harboured lively political discussion on issues pertinent to the political future of India (Mitra, 1997a, 1997b).

Within these rhetorics and practices, three dominant 'camps' have emerged. First, a communitarian camp, which stresses the possibility of the Internet enhancing communal spirit and values. Second, a liberal individualist camp, which sees the Internet as assisting the expression of individual interests. Third, a deliberative camp, which promotes the Internet as the means for an expansion of the public sphere of rational-critical citizen discourse - discourse autonomous from state and corporate power through which public opinion may be formed that can hold official decision makers accountable.

Much online public interaction involves participation in virtual communities: cyber-groups based upon people connecting with others who share similar values, interests and concerns in order to exchange information, gain companionship and provide emotional support (Wellman and Gulia 1999). There are literally tens of thousands of virtual communities in cyberspace, flourishing via e-mail lists, electronic bulletin boards, online chat groups and role-playing domains. Many are linked to mega-communities, websites that host literally thousands of online communities. The OneList.com mega-community boasts over 900,000 groups and 18 million members. Geocities (geocities.yahoo.com) offers web space where tens of thousands of individuals and groups 'build' their homepages around 'themed communities' or 'clusters of interests' - 'communities of likeminded pages'. Both OneList and Geocities are now part of Yahoo, which itself hosts thousands of online 'clubs' (clubs.yahoo.com). Other mega-communities include SixDegrees.com, Microsoft communities (communities.msn.com), Lycos clubs (clubs.lycos.com) and TalkCity.com. These mega-community sites are largely corporate owned and profit-oriented. They offer free space to virtual communities but sell space to advertisers attempting to target certain communities of interest - indicating the ongoing colonization of online life by economic interests.

In contrast to these virtual communities, there are an increasing number of liberal individualist online initiatives promoting the use of the Internet to provide individuals with the means to access a plethora of political information and express views directly to elected representatives. Many such projects are US-'based', including DNet (dnet.org), Project Vote Smart (vote-smart.org) and The California Online Voter Guide (calvoter.org). DNet is an 'independent' online initiative that aims to improve democracy primarily by providing information about candidates' positions on election issues. As well as media reports and other secondary source election information, DNet's website encourages candidates to post issue statements, biographical data and endorsements (Doctor and Dutton 1999: 226). This 'unfiltered' access to politicians' views is supported by a facility for citizen-to-candidate communication: candidate e-mail contacts and occasional live interviews where users can communicate directly with candidates or with experts (1999: 228). Project Vote Smart is a libertarian style, non-profit, web based project that, since 1994, has provided extensive information on US congressional candidates. The California Online Voter Guide pulls together election-oriented information and resources offered on the Internet to help voters make informed decisions about the many choices available. Within the guide, voters can find hundreds of links to official campaign websites, phone numbers for campaign offices and campaign contribution information. All these online liberal individualist political initiatives share an emphasis upon information provision and direct communication between individuals and decision makers.

For the deliberative democrat, many spaces of discourse exist online that may be seen as extending the public sphere. Minnesota E-Democracy (e-democracy.org) is the oldest and possibly most successful experiment in developing an 'online commons'. Since 1994, it has facilitated e-mail based forums where participants engage in discussion of a wide range of issues relating to Minnesota politics. The project's central forum, the e-mail list Mn-Politics Discuss (MPD), attracts over 400 participants (about half of whom post) and has been replicated in a number of Minnesota E Democracy 'issues' forums (focusing upon the cities of Minneapolis, St-Pauls, Duluth, and Winona) and in the Iowa E-Democracy project (e-democracy.org/ia). The model was also adapted by the United Kingdom Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) project and borrowed by the Nova Scotia Electronic Democracy Forum.5 Other online deliberative democracy projects are developing somewhat independent of Minnesota E-Democracy. One promising initiative is the Canadian ECommons project (e.commons.net), which is presently soliciting and discussing ideas on how to best build a public space online. In Britain, the Hansard Society's [email protected] Forum is pioneering ways of enabling citizens with relevant social and cultural experience or expertise to discuss speci. C issues under consideration by UK parliamentary bodies.6 Another deliberative project, still in its early stages of construction, is CivicExchange: Strong Democracy in Cyberspace.

Fernback and Thompson's critique (1995) of the democratic potential of virtual communities interrogates the claim that online communications can actually strengthen civil society: 'It seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by [computer-mediated communication] will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation.' They criticise the general lack of debate about issues of ownership and control of the technology and for whose benefit it is being develop. Fernback and Thompson conclude that citizenship via cyberspace 'has not proven to be the panacea for the problems of democratic representation within American society.' Rheingold (1998), although generally quite upbeat about the opportunities of the new medium, believes this conclusion to be premature. He stresses the importance of active participation: Electronic media do offer a unique channel for publishing and communicating, which is fundamental to democracy. Communication media are necessary but not sufficient for selfgovernance and healthy societies: 'When we are called to action through the virtual community, we need to keep in mind how much depends on whether we simply 'feel involved' or whether we take the steps to actually participate in the lives of our neighbors, and the civic life of our communities.'

Earlier, Rheingold argued (1993) that the ICT industry is a business like any other, viewed primarily as an economic player: 'Telecommunications gives certain people access to means of influencing certain other people's thoughts and perceptions, and that access - who has it and who doesn't have it - is intimately connected with political power. The prospect of the technical capabilities of a near-ubiquitous high-bandwidth Net in the hands of a small number of commercial interests has dire political implications. Whoever gains the political edge on this technology will be able to use the technology to consolidate power.'

When thinking of the public, one envisions open exchange of political thoughts and ideas, such as those that took place in ancient Greek agoras or colonial-era town halls. The idea of 'the public' is closely tied to democratic ideals that call for citizen participation in public affairs. Jones (1997) argued that cyberspace is promoted as a 'new public space' made by people and 'conjoining traditional mythic narratives of progress with strong modern impulses toward self fulfilment and personal development' (1997: 22). It should be clarified that a new public space is not synonymous with a new public sphere. As public space, the internet provides yet another forum for political deliberation. As public sphere, the internet could facilitate discussion that promotes a democratic exchange of ideas and opinions. A virtual space enhances discussion; a virtual sphere enhances democracy. Habermas (1962/1989) traced the development of the public sphere in the 17th and 18th century and its decline in the 20th century. He saw the public sphere as a domain of our social life in which public opinion could be formed out of rational public debate (Habermas, 1991[1973]). Ultimately, informed and logical discussion, Habermas (1989[1962]) argued, could lead to public agreement and decision making, thus representing the best of the democratic tradition.

New technologies provide information and tools that may extend the role of the public in the social and political arena. The explosion of online political groups and activism certainly reflects political uses of the internet (Bowen, 1996; Browning, 1996). Proponents of cyberspace promise that online discourse will increase political participation and pave the way for a democratic utopia. According to them, the alleged decline of the public sphere lamented by academics, politicos, and several members of the public will be halted by the democratizing effects of the internet and its surrounding technologies. On the other hand, skeptics caution that technologies not universally accessible and ones that frequently induce fragmented, nonsensical, and enraged discussion, otherwise known as 'flaming', far from guarantee a revived public sphere.

Access to the internet does not guarantee increased political activity or enlightened political discourse. Moving political discussion to a virtual space excludes those with no access to this space. Moreover, connectivity does not ensure a more representative and robust public sphere. Nonetheless, the internet does provide numerous avenues for political expression and several ways to influence politics and become politically active (Bowen, 1996). However the internet users are able to find voting records of representatives, track congressional and Supreme Court rulings, join special interest groups, fight for consumer rights, and plug into free government services (Bowen, 1996). Jankowski and Van Selm (2000) expressed reservations that online discussions, much like real life ones, seemed to be dominated by elites and were unable to influence public policy formation. Despite the fact that the internet provides additional space for political discussion, it is still plagued by the inadequacies of our political system. It provides public space, but does not constitute a public sphere.

In one of the elections in the US, clever uses of the internet allowed politicians to motivate followers, increase support, and reach out to previously inaccessible demographic groups. Jesse Ventura and John McCain are two examples of politicians who benefited from this use of the internet. Voters were able to provide politicians with direct feedback through websites. Nevertheless, the internet opens up additional channels of communication, debatable as their outcome may be. These additional channels enable easier access to political information, spurring enthusiastic reformatory talk of a 'keypad democracy' (Grossman, 1995) and 'hardwiring the collective consciousness' (Barlow, 1995).

Therefore, celebratory rhetoric on the advantages of the internet as a public sphere focuses on the fact that it affords a place for personal expression (Jones, 1997), makes it possible for little-known individuals and groups to reach out to citizens directly and restructure public affairs (Rash, 1997) and connects the government to citizens (Arterton, 1987). Interactivity promotes the use of 'electronic plebiscites', enabling instant polling, instant referenda, and voting from home (Abramson et al., 1988).

Online communications do not instantaneously guarantee a fair, representative, and egalitarian public sphere. Several critics argue that online communication do not instantaneously guarantee a fair, representative, and egalitarian public sphere. Additionally, access to online technologies and information should be equal and universal. Without a concrete commitment to online expression, the internet as a public sphere merely harbours an illusion of openness (Williams and Pavlik, 1994). The fact that online technologies are only accessible to, and used by, a small fraction of the population contributes to an electronic public sphere that is exclusive, elitist and far from ideal.

Hill and Hughes (1998) in researching political Usenet and AOL groups (research of online political communities) found that demographically, conservatives were a minority among internet users. Online political discourse, however, was dominated by conservatives, even though liberal were the online majority. This implies that the virtual sphere is politically divided in a manner that echoes traditional politics, thus simply serving as a space for additional expression, rather than radically reforming political thought and structure. Still, they also pointed out the encouraging fact that at least people are talking about politics and protesting virtually online against democratic governments. However, despite the fact that all online participants have the same access to information and opinion expression, the discourse is still dominated by a few. Moreover, not all information available on the internet is democratic or promotes democracy.

Hart argued that some media, such as television, 'supersaturate viewers with political information', and that as a result 'this tumult creates in viewers a sense of activity rather than genuine civic involvement' (1994: 109). In addition, Melucci (1994) argued that while producing and processing information is crucial in constructing personal and social identity, new social movements emerge only insofar as actors fight for control, stating that 'the ceaseless flow of messages only acquires meanings to be read' (p.102). It was argued that increased online participation would broaden and democratise the virtual sphere, but could also lead to a watering down of its unique content, substituting for discourse that is more typical and less innovative (Hill and Hughes, 1998) However, this discourse is still not less valuable.

Access to online information is not universal and equal to all. Those who can access online information are equipped with additional tools to be more active citizens and participants of the public sphere. There are popular success stories, such as that of Santa Monica's Public Electronic Network, which started as an electronic town square, promoted online conversation between residents, and helped several homeless people find jobs and shelter (Schmitz, 1997).

Poster (1995), argued that rational argument, reminiscent of a public sphere, can rarely prevail and consensus achievement is not possible online, specifically because identity is defined very differently online. Because identities are fluid and mobile online, the conditions that encourage compromise are absent from virtual discourse. Dissent is encouraged, and status markers are eliminated. Poster concluded that the internet actually decentralizes communication but ultimately enhances democracy.

Barrett (1996) traced how various communication technologies have destroyed one barrier after another in pursuit of profit, starting with volume, moving to mass, and finally space. He argued that time is the target of the electronic market, the fall of which will signal a more transparent market, in which conventional currency will turn into a 'free-floating abstraction' (Barrett, 1996). McChesney (1995) agreed that the internet will open the door to a cultural and political renaissance, despite the fact that large corporations will take up a fraction of it to launch their cyberventures. McChesney admitted that capitalism encourages a culture based on commercial values, and that it tends to 'commercialize every nook and cranny of social life in way that renders the development or survival of nonmarket political and cultural organizations more difficult' (1995: 10).

Hence, capitalist patterns of production may commodify these new technologies, transforming them into commercially oriented media that have little to do with promoting social welfare.

Hill and Hughes (1988) concluded that 'people will mold the internet to fit traditional politics. The Internet itself will not be a historical light switch that turns on some fundamentally new age of political participation and grassroots democracy' (p. 186). McChesney (1995) agreed that new technologies will adapt to the current political culture, instead of creating a new one, and viewed the political uses of the internet as 'making the best of a bad situation' (p. 15). Ultimately, it is the balance between utopian and dystopian visions that unveils the true nature of the internet as a public sphere. Fernback (1997) remarked that true identity and democracy are found in cyberspace 'not so much within the content of virtual communities, but within the actual structure of social relations' (p. 42). Therefore, one could argue that the present state of real life social relations hinders the creation of a public sphere in the virtual world as much as it does in the real one. This is an enlightened approach, because it acknowledges the occasionally liberating features of new technologies without being deterministic. What Melucci termed 'identity politics' allows room for both the private and public uses of cyberspace. The virtual sphere allows the expression and development of such movements that further democratic expressions, by not necessarily focusing on traditional political issues, but by shifting the cultural ground (Melucci, 1996).

Nevertheless, the most plausible manner of perceiving the virtual sphere consists of several culturally fragmented cyberspheres that occupy a common virtual public space. Groups of 'netizens' brought together by common interests will debate and perhaps strive for the attainment of cultural goals. Much of the political discussion taking place online does not, and will not, sound different from that taking place in casual or formal face-to-face interaction. The widening gaps between politicians, journalists, and the public will not be bridged, unless both parties want them to be. Still, people who would never be able to come together to discuss political matters offline are now able to do so online, and that is no small matter. The fact that people from different cultural backgrounds, states, or countries involve themselves in virtual political discussions in a matter of minutes, often expanding each other's horizons with culturally diverse viewpoints, captures the essence of this technology. The value of the virtual sphere lies in the fact that it encompasses the hope, speculation, and dreams of what could be. Castells noted that 'we need Utopias - on the condition of not trying to make them into practical recipes' (interview with Ogilvy, 1998:188). The virtual sphere reflects the dynamics of new social movements that struggle on a cultural, rather than a traditionally political terrain. It is a vision, but not yet a reality. As a vision, it inspires, but has not yet managed to transform political and social structures.

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