Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Public Sphere and Web 2.0

Right now I'm working on a paper with a dear friend Ingrid Erickson (Social Science Research Council). Surrounded by terms like 'virtual public sphere', 'networked information economy', ' the communicative space', ' networked publics' we started to wonder how the idea and thematics of the public sphere (Habermas 1962/1989) has translated to the web 2.0 era. We know, after all, several recent and major cases of social media and user-generated content in general playing a crucial role in the US, Pakistan, Iran (see the previous blog on participation).

After searching numerous databases we noticed some broad trends:
  • Conventional (especially non-US) communication studies us the PS framework to analyse old media. There are also quite a few of historical studies about television, radio and  news papers published in the past 5 years.
  • The idea of a European PS has been very fashionable within comm studies. More broadly, the idea of transnational or global PS facilitated by the internet and other digital media is widely discussed.
  • However, within comm studies, sociology or pol sci there is (yet) very little theoretical or empirical research to be found on web 2.0. Partly this may be due to the time-lag of the academic publishing process, partly perhaps because the development is rapid and the concepts and tools to study it are not up-to-date...
The main challenge, in a nutshell is this -- as Jostein Gripsrud has noted in the March 2009 special issue of the Javnost:

The discussion on how democracy is affected by the introduction and functioning of digital media and the Internet has been going on for at least two decades. (...) While there is no doubt digitisation of the public sphere adds new dimensions and new forms of discourse, the implications of these for the overall quality or health of democracy are still quite differently understood by scholars working in these issues. Consequently, further theoretical work is required, but, perhaps even more important, a variety of empirical studies.

I'm a believer in empirical work. I'm also a firm believer that the access to studies (databases) and forums addressing these issues should be even more interdisciplinary. A case in point: Ingrid, with a background in Science and Technology Studies, and vast knowledge of web 2.0 research noted how different the connotation of the term ' virtual public sphere' would be in that field -- virtual literally meaning virtual worlds. Our review of the term in the studies within 'conventional' comm studies and sociology indicated that it simply referred to the (potential) PS formed by other means than old forms of mass communication.

And I'm a firm believer that when any form of communication, involving some significant number of people, is popular, a formation of a public sphere is possible. We researchers need to show examples and options, to map good practices. 

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