The Virtual Sphere: The Internet as a Public Space

This week’s reading titled ‘The virtual sphere’ explores the concept of democracy and whether or not it exists or will exist in the internet equivalent of the offline public sphere. Papacharissi (2002, p. 11) paraphrases Habermas (1962/1989) who romanticises the public sphere in the 17th and 18th century as ‘the domain of our social life in which public opinion could be formed out of rational public debate… [and] could lead to public agreement and decision making, thus representing the best of the democratic tradition’. Habermas believed the public sphere to be something ‘that existed long ago, but became eroded with the advent of modern, industrial society’ (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 11), the writer notes the irony in Habermas’ idealised vision of the ‘pinnacle of democracy [which] was rather undemocratic [due to its exclusion of] woman or people from lower social classes’, this point is humorously portrayed in a BBC video clip on youtube (BBCWorldwide, 2008). The writer also references other critics such as Carey (1995) who argued that the public sphere has been replaced by a ‘mass commercial culture’ by the forces of capitalism, and Fraser (1992) and Schudson (1997) who both believe that an ideal public sphere ‘never existed’, and that ‘public discourse is not the soul of democracy’ (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 11). Papacharissi (2002, p. 12) states that these critiques don’t sum up a complete review of the various viewpoints yet she implies that they make up the bulk of the ‘academic expectations’ on the public sphere, by choosing critiques that are mainly negative in nature, and then dismissing Habermas’ vision of early democracy as ironic, Papacharissi clearly demonstrates a dystopian vision on the status of democracy in the public sphere, despite her efforts to appear neutral.

 Papacharissi (2002, p.12) states that these academic opinions serve the purpose of helping us, the reader, to ‘understand if and how the internet can measure up to these expectations’, but due to her choice of critiques the bar hasn’t been set very high. Papacharissi (2002, p. 13) poses a variety of questions to the reader and then answers them through the words of select ‘scholars’ and professional critics and in doing this creates a sense of the stagnant public  sphere that she is trying to depict. Ironically she brings up Jankowski and Van Selm’s (2000) belief that ‘online discussions, much like real life ones, seemed to be dominated by elites’, this is a very true statement, considering Papacharissi’s discussion on democracy and the public sphere consists of opinions of elites and not of the general public, when did the writer ever say ‘hey Michael, what do you think about this?’. Papacharissi (2002, p. 14) asserts that the ‘internet as a public sphere merely harbors an illusion of openness [as] online technologies are only accessible to, and used by, a small fraction of the population’, she contends that the ‘electronic public sphere… is exclusive, elitist, and far from ideal – not terribly different from the bourgeois public sphere of the 17th and 18th centures’. The writer’s main question she is trying to address is ‘how do we recreate something online, when it never really existed offline?’ (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 20), Papacharissi believes that the internet has provided a public space where people can share their opinions and discuss issues, but not a public sphere which ‘enhances democracy’ (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 11). Despite this dim view of the capacities of the internet to rejuvenate the public sphere, Papacharissi (2002, p. 23) mentions the hope that is present in the future of the internet, due to its ability to connect people ‘from different cultural backgrounds, states, or countries [and] involve themselves in virtual political discussions in a matter of minutes’, however, the writer concludes in his belief that this ‘is a vision, but not yet a reality’.