Networked Participation and the New Public Sphere

In recent times, there has been a practically universal consensus on the transformative capabilities of the internet, especially social media, on politics at large. Many an article proclaims the coming of a new age of Participatory Democracy, enabled through the world wide web, which addresses and combats all the problems of Representative Democracy. No longer will the highly controlled mass media be able to coerce and direct public opinion unilaterally, since the uber-participatory social media platforms will provide alternative perspectives, say optimistic believers of networked transformation. Rather, they claim, the Web 2.0 – that part of the internet that allows for participation, communication and sharing of information – results in the creation of a new space for social and political discourse, and a new version of the Habermasian Public Sphere is seen to emerge in the virtual world.

While these propositions are certainly attractive and exciting, there is a need to look more soberly at how exactly the web 2.0 is accomplishing this transformation, and also to examine the nature of the transformation. Does it really allow for the construction of a new Public Sphere? But first, we need to ask: what constitutes a Public Sphere?

German sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas articulated the idea of the public sphere in his book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. He describes the public sphere as a “sphere of private people [who] come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.” In other words, it is an inclusive, participatory space where private citizens can gather to debate and direct governance policies that affect them as a whole, as a ‘public’.

The most basic argument for how the web 2.0 results in a new public sphere is that it allows greater participation and collaboration, provides platforms for the average citizen to voice and share their opinions and concerns, and that this directly results in more inclusion and more democratic governance. Yochai Benkler takes this view in his book, The Wealth of Networks, where he makes the additional argument that the web 2.0 revolution results in a “Network Information Economy,” that enable communication and information sharing across geographies.

On deeper reflection, however, this seems rather too simplistic as a means for transforming political environments at large. The mere voicing of opinions does not necessarily translate into better policies and instead may very possibly result in a Babel-like cacophony. What is required in addition to participation, it appears, is what we can call coordination and synthesis. For Habermas, this is one of the most important aspects of the public sphere – that there needs to be some level of moderation and synthesizing of different points of view in order to reach a consensus on the public’s opinion.

Does the web 2.0 manage to achieve this? The answer seems to be no, it does not. Rather, the kind of political participation that it affords is limited in its scope, and seems to end at voicing opinions and garnering collective action. So the question remains: can we use the web 2.0 platforms and their inherent participatory structures to truly transform governance? And if so, how? Your thoughts welcome.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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