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The Democratic Ideal and Its Translation Online:
The Possibility and Potential of the Internet as Public Sphere
Elizabeth Michelle Franko
University of Colorado
1968 Dryden Road, Suite One
Houston, Texas 77030
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In both popular and scholarly publications, the Internet has been
heralded as a new virtual public sphere, or as a tool for reviving a
tired democratic process in established democratic states. This paper
attempts to uncover and understand the ways in which classic and
contemporary democratic theory elucidate the very potential of the
Internet to become a viable public sphere. I also seek to interrogate
the rhetoric around the Internet as a so-called democratic space.
In the popular and scholarly press, much has been made of the
Internet as a new public sphere. The Internet is heralded as a
possible new public space, where debate and discourse takes place, in
a context that would make Jurgen Habermas proud. The Internet is seen
as a tool for reviving a tired democratic process for apathetic
citizens in established democratic states. Moreover, the tools of
network technology are being exported abroad in an attempt to unite
the disparate citizens of former totalitarian regimes, and move them
towards participatory democracy. The Internet is seen as a perfect
counterpart to the democratic process, encouraging conversation
amongst diverse citizens and their representative groups, and
building bottom-up support for or dissent against higher-level
governing bodies. Much of this theory is rooted in the classic
democratic theses outlined by such modern giants in contemporary
political theory as Jurgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib. Because
"democracy is a project concerned with the political potentialities
of ordinary citizens, that is, with their possibilities for becoming
political beings through the self-discovery of common concerns and
modes of action for realizing them" (Wolin 31), political
socialization and means for the realization and resolution of 'common
concerns' become of central significance. Thus, the Internet is held
out as a place where the ordinary citizen can have access to the
means of mass communication as never before. At its most ideal then,
the Internet is seen as a space where the conflicts of massification
and modernity can be overcome.
Peter Ferdinand makes this point explicit by stating that the
Internet, "(a)s a means of communication…has the potential to
revolutionize political activity far more profoundly than the
telephone or television ever did, for unlike them it offers the
possibility of direct two-way interaction between citizens and
politicians. This has lead to predictions that it will completely
revolutionize government and democracy, even that the outcome will be
a new wave of democratization world-wide, as authoritarian regimes
find it difficult to survive and as established democracies are
transformed" (2). In the study of International Communication, the
Internet has been profiled, and set forth as ideal and transformative
in both the developing and developed world. As the United States
actively sells democracy abroad, programs to enhance Internet
connectivity have been framed as overtly political projects meant to
encourage and promote democratic citizenship. Because, "the
Internet…provide(s) citizens with enhanced possibilities for gaining
information and communicating with politicians, which altogether
might potentially lead to a revitalization of the public sphere,"
(Jensen 349) implementation of programs for greater Internet access
and government sponsorship of online political forums is seen as
However, the Internet is seen, especially in popular literature as
far more than a political tool. "(T)he Net, we are told, will
dramatically change how we work, play, shop,
learn, live, and even love" (Rodman 11). The contemporary imagination
stands in awe of the "role of the computer as a prosthetic device
that catapults one into cyber spatial interaction" (Papacharissi
348). The Internet is a means to transform more than just the
political landscape, but to transform the Self. Scholars such as
Donna Haraway make much of the role of technology in freeing the
individuals from the bounds of the physical body, and allowing them
free play and self re-creation in the online space. The work of
Esther Dyson, et. al. details this so-called "central event of the
20th century (a)s the overthrow of matter" (31). As Dyson tells us,
"cyberspace is a bio-electronic environment that is literally
universal: It exists everywhere there are telephone wires, coaxial
cables, fiber-optic lines or electromagnetic waves. This environment
is inhabited by knowledge" (32). This language about cyberspace leads
to mystification about the honest potential and realities of the
Networked environment. Because the Internet is marked off as a
bodiless space, made up of thought and penetrating all physical
spaces, it seemingly escapes the control and hierarchy of other
institutions. However, I would urge great skepticism in viewing the
Internet as universally accessibly, easy to penetrate, and welcoming
to the average citizen. Dyson and his colleagues proclaim that
"cyberspace is a land of knowledge, and the exploration of that land
can be a civilizations truest, highest calling. The opportunity is
now before us to empower every person to pursue that calling in his
or her own way" (33). However, this praise and discourages serious
analysis of the character of the Internet, and its actual interaction
with citizen population. Thus, I admonish unfounded appeals to
network technology as savior, and instead encourage measured analysis
of the promise and potential of the Internet to enhance political
Technology is regulated, controlled, and in many cases implemented
in contemporary nation states, as thus, "modern state power is
inseparable from modern science and technologies" (Wolin 36). One
must view the history of technology, and its future potential within
the context of a historical, social, political and physical
environment. Our modern technological landscape is marked by
governmental deregulation, as well as consolidation of media
companies in the private sphere. As the means of communication around
the world conglomerate in multi-national corporations, "one of the
primary appeals of the Net for many observers is that it bypasses the
media monopoly altogether" (Rodman 28). Arguably the most sacred
notion about the Internet space is the idea that online people can
both create and respond to media outside of dominant communications
channels. Thus, the Internet is seen by many as a possible
counter-balance to the massive media conglomeration and information
consolidation movements in the contemporary marketplace. The access
to diverse and divergent information is critical to classic
democratic theory. Moreover, for a truly democratic decision, the
access to information must be made equal for all concerned citizens.
Garnham tells us that, "citizens require, if their equal access to
the vote is to have any
substantive meaning, equal access to sources of information" (357).
In this quest for multiple, substantive and equalized access to
information, the Internet is often referenced by scholars as the
potential vehicle for assuring and reclaiming democracy. The two
highest tenets of ideal democracy are equalized access to both
information and decision-making, or inclusion, and the existence
of forums for citizen participation in the making of governmental
policy. The Internet has been cited as a place where both
requirements might be fulfilled. As stated by Gilbert Rodman, "a
healthy democracy is the ability of ordinary people to participate
actively in the public sphere as both "speakers" and "listeners",
then the Net may be the only form of mass media that has the
potential to be genuinely democratic" (28). This sort of rhetoric
engulfs any discussion about the Internet or networked technology.
Contemporary scholars, exemplified by Habermas, have lamented,
scorned and searched for the new public space, that might rival the
idealized public sphere of the developing democracies in
eighteenth-century Europe and the United States. Habermas famously
described the archetypical coffee house of early London, and the
asserted its demise, and the refeudalization of this space by of both
the economy and the State. Scholars are searching for "the coffee
house, town-level meeting, and literary circle, in which early modern
public spheres developed" (Keane 367). Following both Keane and
Benhabib, a re-emphasis has been placed on the development of
micro-sites for democratic participation, where citizens might
embrace and engage with their democratic rights. Thus, the Internet
again emerges in contemporary discourse as a representation of what a
micro-public sphere might look like.
New media technology is tightly coupled in both scholarly and
popular talk with ideas about enhanced communication, new
cyber-realities, identity play, and distance-transcendent
relationships. More significantly, I believe, the Internet has
emerged in the minds of scholars as an often little understood, but
potentially redemptive space of emancipation, democratic engagement,
and political enhancement. "The utopian rhetoric that surrounds new
media technologies promises further democratization of postindustrial
society. Specifically, the Internet and related technologies (is
purported to) augment avenues for personal expression and promote
citizen activity" (Papacharissi 379). The contemporary trend seems to
regard the Internet as the magic solution, and potential escape route
to what is considered a flailing contemporary public sphere and
massive media consolidation movements. Zizi Papacharissi, in her work
on political participation online, goes so far as to say that, "the
Internet will open the door to a cultural and political renaissance"
(387). With such grandiose and empirically unsound praise by
academics, we must make additional efforts to look critically at the
Internet, with a special focus on access, actual content, and the
viability of political movements online. I urge caution around the
idea of a digital utopia, least analysis of the current social and
political world fall into misguided and invalid technological determinism.
II. The Internet Space as a Possible Public Sphere
The importance of the public sphere to democratic theory and
democratic movements cannot be underestimated. For a functioning and
purposeful citizenry to develop, it is argued that they must have a
space in which to engage, debate and make decisions. This space is
thought to exist outside of both the economic, the governmental and
the private realm, and work with the tension of those three spheres
in order to develop solutions to social problems. Citizens in the
public sphere are meant to leave their personal concerns behind, and
transcend their limited subjectivities in pursuit of 'the common
good'. Engagement in the public sphere defines the public, and it
is best to envision the public sphere not necessarily as a public
space, but as a purposeful interaction towards discussion and
democratic decision-making. Habermas tells us that, "a public sphere
comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals
assemble to form a public body" (350). Conversation and action
oriented around discussion define what the public sphere should be,
according to classic theorists. John Keane describes the public
sphere as "a particular type of spatial relationship between two or
more people, usually connected by a certain means of communication…in
which nonviolent controversies erupt, for a brief or more extended
period of time, concerning the power relations operating within their
given milieu of interaction and/or with the wider milieus of social
and political structures within which the disputants are situated"
(366). The linkage between people via means of communication is
critical here, whether this communication exists via conversation,
the press or the mass media. Communication is essential for the
public sphere, and in many ways, the only constitutive element of that space.
Historically, the public sphere has been associated with revolution.
The public gathering of individuals, to make decisions and garner
support is critical to most reform movements. Thus, Habermas defines
the public sphere as "the scene of a psychological emancipation that
corresponded to a political economic one" (46). The Internet is
widely understood to be a potential new public sphere, devoid of
physical space, but allowing for widely diverse citizens to converge,
interact and converse. The Internet is even seen as a force against
massification, that modern ill described best by Emile Durkheim. If
citizens can once again engage and be heard, so the logic goes,
anomie will once and forever be slayed in favor of enlarged citizen
participation and empowerment. As Dyson, et. al. lay out, the
"accelerating demassification creates the potential for vastly increased
human freedom" (33).
The Internet here become bound not only to ideals of democracy, but
to that more sacred but associated aim of human freedom. Papacharissi
details the way 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-fulfillment and
personal development'…It should be clarified that a new public space
is not synonymous with a new public sphere. As a public space, the
Internet provides yet another forum for political deliberation. As
public sphere, the Internet could facilitate
discussions that promotes democratic exchange of ideas and opinions"
(380). I disagree with Papacharissi's division between public space
and public sphere, for I believe in popular rhetoric both terms have
been used synonymously to glorify the Internet as a place where
citizens are able to correspond with one another towards the aim of
fulfilling their needs as citizens.
Much of the valuation and glorification of the online space is
motivated by what many scholars have seen as a disheartening and
ever-progressive decline of the contemporary public sphere. Like
Richard Sennett, who in his text The Fall of Public Man describes the
ends of citizen participation and public activity, scholars have
lamented the development of mass media, the suburbs, and increasing
colonization by the corporate world into the private space as the end
of public life, and a public citizenry. Thus, before nailing the
coffin lid shut on the public sphere, scholars have begun, in a most
uncritical way to turn to the Internet as a way to maintain, grow and
develop a new public sphere that overcomes many of the barriers of
access and distance of the classical public space. "Perspectives for
a strengthening of the public sphere via the Internet have been
discussed for years, but there is no deep agreement on how to reach
the goal" (Jensen 349). To that end, academics have begun to develop
ways of testing out the benefits and the effects of online
participation. Despite much inconclusive data, most scholars maintain
that "the Internet does provide numerous avenues for political
expression and several ways to influence politics and become
politically active" (Papacharissi 382).
III. The Network as a Place for Politics and Community Building
Manuel Castells asserts with equal vigor and pessimism that "the
media have become the essential space of politics" (144). Thus, any
analysis of the contemporary political climate must take into account
the interaction between the media and political candidates, issues
and citizens. Political participation, citizenship and the media
cannot be uncoupled. As Castells points out, "to an overwhelming
extent people receive their information, on the basis of which they
form their political opinion…through the media" (ibid). Thus the
media space is the space of information, and the sphere citizens
depend on to direct them towards relevant issues.
In this sense, the Internet stands alone as one of the only two-way
communication technologies available in our current social sphere. We
depend on the media not only for information about issues termed
political, but also as a place to perform our citizenship. The
closing off of media to more and more of the public makes the ability
to enact our citizen rights more difficult. Thus, citizenship is left
with only the crude mechanism of mass voting to express common
concerns. The Internet is presented as a way to reclaim spaces for
discussion, and increased involvement, beyond the purview of the
voting machine. Because, "online technologies render participation in
the political sphere more convenient" (Papacharissi 384), they are
seen as the ideal outlet for citizen participation.
Unlike a spatially bound public sphere, the Internet allows its
users to define or leave behind their identities. And Internet
populists claim that "anonymity online assists one to overcome
identity boundaries and communicate more freely and openly, thus
promoting a more enlightened exchange of ideas" (384). However, one
could counter-assert that anonymity veils users and undercuts the
responsibility of individual members to the group dialogue. In the
online space, users can freely end their engagement with the click of
a mouse button, jeopardizing and perhaps prohibiting any difficult or
potentially transformative dialogue. I will discuss this issue at
greater length in the forthcoming section on Netiquette and exclusion.
The quality and context of discourse online is not the only factor
which casts doubts over the current potential of the Internet as a
political public sphere. As detailed at length by Benhabib and Marion
Young, democracy depends on inclusion, and a guarantee of access to
all affected citizens. And, "while the(r)e are indisputable
advantages to online communication, they do not instantaneously
guarantee a fair, representative and egalitarian public sphere"
(383). Obvious issues around the digital divide and unequal access to
the technologies themselves must be addressed in order for the system
to be even moderately representative. Moreover, even, "greater
participation in political discussion is not the sole determinant of
democracy. The content, diversity and impact of political discussion
need to be considered carefully before we conclude whether online
discussion enhances democracy" (386). The judgment about what and if
a discussion is properly democratic is subjective and susceptible to
the motives of each analyst. To judge access, equality, content and
impact outside of the online realm, is a mammoth task, and thus, I
believe most discussion about the Internet as political public sphere
remains nebulous and superficial.
One of the most frequent metaphors associated with the Internet is
the idea of the network as a community. This analogy reinforces what
political idealists deem as necessary for purposeful political
engagement, which is investment and responsibility to a community of
other citizens. The development of the Internet has been colored by
attempts to recreate the online space as one big neighborhood of
interacting individuals. Companies, like AOL and Yahoo! which have
attempted to develop mass online groupings "frequently use real-life
metaphors, such as "neighborhoods", "streets", "blocks" and "suburbs"
to create a virtual space that resembles real-life communities and
helps members feel at home" (351). The Internet is seen as an
alternate mode of socialization, and frequently, the most engage
Internet users proclaim that "hours spent online are not necessarily
hours spent in isolation away from other social beings" (365).
Internet users can join virtual families, developing personal
homepages as a vehicle to express their individuality within the
Internet space. Papacharissi, in her lengthy study of personal home
pages and their makers tells us that "the uses of personal home pages
could also be understood as part of an effort to sustain a mode of
social existence" (362). Participants in the online sphere are
perhaps looking to this space as a supplement or an alternate to
their physical communities and relationships.
The Internet, then, becomes invested with ideas of not only
political participation and communication, but also of sociability.
Beginning with the industrial revolution and the development of the
mass society, thinkers have lamented the destruction of community.
The sentiment can be summarized as, "the modern world has lost some
sense of community and commitment to others and has become alienated
and fragmented…social cohesion – not to say democracy—is in crisis.
And technology, as it has so many times in the past, comes to the
rescue. The Internet, a noncentralized, nonhierarchical, anarchic
network of computer networks, would allow us to reconnect with one
another, to open a forum for public discourse, to allow each and
every one of us a voice in the grand debate that is society"
(MacGregor Wise 112). The linkage between community and the Internet
is defined in the very language used to define the online space; a
network or a web that connects individuals.
Community, communication and political participation are three
strongly associates terms. An essential part of any so-called
successful public sphere is communication, and citizens invested with
a responsibility to their community are supposed to carry this
emphasis on 'the common good' or group needs over individual wants
into their decisions. The Internet is not the sole channel for one
individual or party, and "participatory design has been the hallmark
of the most successful cyber communities" (113). Therefore, the
Internet is associated with highly idealized and charged ideas about
community, connection and engagement.
IV. The Fall of the Ideal: Access, Community and Control
Gilbert Rodman tells us that "many commentators discuss the
Internet as if it were a single, relatively uncomplicated medium"
(13) and that this view of a diverse, complex and developing
technology is a gross misinterpretation. Their seems to be an urge by
scholars to open a window in their grave and desperate totalizations
of the modern condition – and beckon us towards the Internet as
possible solution. However, this impulse popularizes a general
misunderstanding, technologically determined and retreatist view of
both the technology and the potential of the Internet. Especially as
the Internet becomes coupled with ideas about political governance
and citizen sovereignty, it is of the utmost importance that we
actually engage with and perform critical research about what the
Internet is and what it has the potential to do. We must always keep
in mind that there is a man behind the machine of all technologies,
and with a web-like and interconnected technology such as the
Internet, this is especially so.
A careful look at the Internet as public sphere has yielded some
negative interpretations, which undercuts the celebratory dialogue of
those scholars looking to the web as salvation. Empirical research,
focused on the Internet as a communicative tool tells us that in our
contemporary times, "despite the explosion of outlets for
communication, there is in fact no noticeable improvement in the
democratic quality of political institutions" (Noveck 18). In fact,
it is possible that "the Internet seems to be creating a hyper-speed
cacophony of dissonant shouting voices. Instead of widespread virtual
democracy, founded on interpersonal electronic interaction, it is
more common to find intrusive personal messaging, cantankerous
e-mails, cross-posted to dozens of listservs and inundating millions
of in-boxes" (19). This assessment downgrades and perhaps even
destroys the idea that the Internet can and will save community and
democracy. Both the ideal and the critique carry ideological messages
and are driven by the motivations of the scholars who espouse them.
Thus, I believe each position must be addressed within a sort of
dialectical tension, which allows the ideal to speak and the critique
to refine and strengthen our understandings.
As addressed in the previous section, the Internet is often
described as a community, and this aspect of connection and
relationship-building is seen as a fundamental strength. This idea of
the Internet as relationally bound web has been reinterpreted by
critics as more truly a loosely bound "foraging community". Instead
of meaningful connection, the Internet consists more of "temporary
individuals. There is often little sense of (in) online groups,
(with) the easy ability to leave the group" (MacGregor Wise 117). The
anonymity possible with an online persona negatively affects conduct
and responsibility towards online group members. Participants
literally forage the Net looking for information and products to
serve their individualistic needs, and the non-space of cyberspace
makes interactions with others all the more fleeting and unsubstantial.
Moreover, contemporary moves on the Internet towards customization,
and the personalization trend allow Net users to literally see only
what they want to say, making the online experience a private
pursuit. One of the major benefits of an actual physical public
sphere is the serendipity of chance encounters and unexpected
confrontations with the new. However, the virtual public sphere can
be one in which "I only see what I want to, and become an information
consumer, rather than a participant" (Noveck 29). The Internet can
further heighten isolation, unlike a library where one might
encounter books of people outside their direct purview, the Internet
can serve to winnow and eliminate all but the known from information searches.
Language around the Internet mistakenly veils the roles of both
individual users and consumers, who define what the space actually
is. Following the logic of Giles Deleuze and Paul Virilio, much
web-speak makes the point that, "we are moving toward…a control of
society, in which power has dispersed. There is no center to
society…Speed is the key as the society moves ever faster on the
backs on new communication and information technologies" (MacGregor
Wise 122). While this emphasis on speed in communication might be
true, the rhetoric is ripe with a technological determinism, which
hides the man behind the machine in favor of a logic of inevitability.
Moreover, the talk about the Internet as a community often overlooks
the failures and drawbacks inevitable in-group interactions. One of
the most striking feature of community life is not only inclusion,
but subsequent exclusion. "Communities consist of not only what they
include but also what they exclude, what is seen as unassailable. The
left our form excess, an excess that both defines the community…and
constitutes it. The excess is not just people, but things, even
technologies" (129). While exclusion is a normal part of defining
group boundaries, democratic theory makes the case for inclusion as
the marker of legitimacy in a democratic engagement. Thus, the online
community spaces, those places of supposed ultimate inclusion and
engagement harbor their own dynamics of exclusion. Because, "the
virtual public is (only) a shadow public, the realm of potential and
possible paths immanent to the actual public" (Deleuze 130), we must
always keep in mind that people use, control and create the
technologies and the virtual space of the Internet, and these people
carry with them conventions from the physical world.
Doubts are also cast over the potential and reality of the Internet
as public sphere because of the content of information online.
Because of the ease of self-publishing, educated net users can easily
create and link to sources of information, adding to the web of
online knowledge. Thus, multiple voices can create and contribute to
the body of information on the Net. This dynamic contribution of
multiple users would seem to strengthen the public sphere, allowing
for divergent points of view to have an outlet for debate and
dissent. The technology of the Internet allows those with a small
investment and technological skills to create web pages, and
potentially compete with mainstream media for bandwidth and exposure.
However, when we return to the classic theorists, particularly
Habermas, we are reminded that "debate in the public sphere presumes
not only an educated public sphere but an honest debate…in
cyberspace…. the blurring between truth and fiction raises grave
political questions" (Noveck 32). The very ease that allows my site
to be as easily accessed as CNN.com raises doubts about the validity
of online sources. As addressed in the work of Lynn
Schofield-Clark, even most youthful Internet users understand that
not all sites are equally as valid, and that there might be false
Moreover, despite the hopefulness of academics and community members
that the Internet represents a whole new world of political
interaction, it can be assumed that "new technologies will adapt to
the current political culture, instead of making a new one"
(Papacharissi 388). Thus the online public sphere might most
accurately represent simply an extension of the existing traditional
political space. Manuel Castells has even asserted that the
interaction between the media and politics might sully the potential
of politics to address true social needs. Because, "media politics
needs to simplify the message/proposals" (Castells 144), the media
takes away any depth from the political field, making politics as
much entertainment as any other media product. Even the Internet,
which tends to be dominated by e-commerce, as an additional channel
for corporate outlets tends to reflect the marketing of politics as
yet another product for consumption.
While spaces designated as message boards or community forums online
might be able to address and include more voices than traditional
media sources, researchers in this area have determined that "despite
the fact the 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" (Papacharissi 383). As in the
traditional public sphere, the most vocal dominate discourse, and
often determine the course of conversation. For example, in Jakob
Linaa Jensen's study of political websites in Scandinavia, he
determined that a select few users dominate almost 80% of online
messaging and posts. While more users have access, not all users
participate in an equal fashion. Thus the assumption that just
because someone has Internet access they are an engaged online
citizen is fallacious.
As Papacharissi also notes, not all websites promote democracy. The
Internet is ripe with information on fringe groups and exclusionary
movements. An online user could potentially use the Internet to find
and create divisive information.
Moreover, at least most of the popular history of recent social and
revolutionary movements has focused on the loyalty and solidarity of
participants. Papacharissi points out that "social and physical
solidarity is what spawned political and social change over the
course of the century and then Internet's anonymity and lack of
spatiality and density may actually be counterproductive to
solidarity" (Papacharissi 389). The very character of the Net as
dispersed and virtual might actually inhibit the development of any
tangible action or engagement. Without the existence of a physical
space to converse, become informed and move towards action, political
movements might stall in endless conversation and bickering.
Despite the assertion that the Internet is ultimately a fluid and
accessible space, "the Net is almost entirely comprised of
hierarchical networks and virtual environments such as this:
environments where access to (and thus control of) the heart of the
system is severely restricted" (Rodman 31). Even straightforward
online access requires the use of technology and basic computer
skills. To be a contributor to the online space, and create your own
webpage implies the investments of time, technology and
training. Moreover, as Rodman points out, access to knowledge and
networks is not free and universal. Most information is protected and
maintained by an elite group of technologically savvy webmasters, who
determine content and control access. As Cas Wouters, an expert on
etiquette manuals points out, "one way of formalizing a social
institution is to use specialized personnel to carry out its
functions" (68). This seems especially so for the Internet, where
understanding and creating new media is a highly specialized skill
not available to the general population.
However, the language of access and dialogue persists. In my work on
Blogs, both creators and users often point out that Blogs are the
ultimate sphere of conversation. As one key creator notes, "they
almost seem to be ideologically opposed to hostility, including
essayish commentary and observations. Because the site creator limits and
approves membership, they don't need to be defended as intensely
bigger sites, nor do they attract – or permit – posters who abuse
other. One obvious payoff is that the flow of ideas is strong,
uninterrupted, and impressive" (Katz 20). While Katz talks about the
Blog as the ultimate forum for meaningful discussion, he also points
out that the site's creator limits membership. Thus, not all voices
are heard or encouraged. Membership is limited to the so-called
deserving few, and thus, is not truly inclusive. Certain Blogs then
become isolated and self-referentially, serving only to reinforce the
viewpoints of the user group, without confronting difference.
Moreover, the site's creator is given ultimate power over access,
limiting the decision-making about who fits and who speaks to one or
a limited select few. Rodman asserts that "even in online communities
where "the public" is deliberatively given a voice in how systems are
configured and governed, such "democracies" still depend on the
willingness of the SysAdmin to follow through on publicly expressed
mandates" (31). Thus, despite the flexibility of the Internet, a few
still hold the keys to meaningful access.
V. Means of Exclusion: Origins of Etiquette and the New Netiquette
Just as in the actual physical public sphere, the virtual space is
governed by rules of etiquette and norms of control that maintain
boundaries, create hierarchies and determine interactions. These
rules of engagement can be termed civility, and in the online space,
these norms are often called netiquette. Civility is considered an
important pre-requisite for constructive conversation and productive
interactions. And thus, civility is often seen as fundamental to
rational-critical debate, the kind of talk essential to the
democratic process. The conventional democratic engagement, say the
kind exemplified in a town school board meeting is regulated by rules
of turn taking, voting procedures and speaking volume. When this
behavior is translated online, the rules of engagement involve
spam-emails, flaming, length of post, and language used. Civility
refers to many of the normative assumptions we make about the
ordering of the social world, in fact, civility is seen by some as
the glue that holds a divergent society together. And no process
depends more on norms of civility than the process of deliberation
associated with democratic procedure. However, civility has a dark
underbelly which excludes, veils and denies deviant voices. Those who
fall outside of conventional norms can and are excluded, and as we
have seen the access to the Internet is definitely maintained by
Thus, understanding the rules of civility, and where mechanisms of
communicative exclusion are enacted can help us to overcome some of
the ways civility is used as a defense mechanism and a veil for those
in control. The norms and procedures of netiquette are still being
developed, and fluctuate according to function. However, the rules of
netiquette are rooted in a long history of Western etiquette. As best
described by Cas Wouters, in her study of etiquette manuals,
"etiquette is a weapon of defense as well as a weapon of attack.
Rules of etiquette function to define the boundaries between those
who belong and those who do not belong to the group" (52). Etiquette
can often be used as a more conventional and accepted way to exclude
undesirables. Groups are as much defined by who fits, as by who does
not, and thus etiquette can often serve a "paradoxical function…as an
instrument of exclusion or rejection, on the one hand, and on the
other, as an instrument of inclusion or group charisma" (ibid).
However, when the group being defined is also supposedly democratic,
etiquette can serve to undermine and invalidate the democratic
process. If inclusion is key for democratic validity, any mechanism
of exclusion compromises legitimacy.
In the online space, netiquette supposedly serves to regulate the
Internet and promote productive dialogue and polite engagement. It is
thought that if more web users conducted themselves with rules of
netiquette, the Internet would be less hostile, crowded and obscene.
The Internet itself is often seen as vast and nebulous, and thus in
need of some sort of regulation. Jorge Arditi describes the function
of netiquette as "creat(ing) "order" out of "chaos"" (84). The online
space is often described as the ultimate free space of social
interaction. Some scholars and users alike have lamented the abuse
and inconsideration of certain web users, and urged the understanding
and incorporation of norms of netiquette into online behavior.
""Netiquette," or "network etiquette,"…on the World Wide Web is a
means of exploring the implications of two major aspects of the order
of things that seems to be emerging in cyberspace: the very
redefinition of space implied in the term "cyberspace" and the almost
complete detachments of bodies that
it entails" (85). The theory goes that if people are detached from
their physical subjectivities, and allowed to run free they might
also abandon responsibility towards one another. The virtual space
opens up new means of communication, and the regulation of this order
is seen as essential for the development of a productive social
space. Netiquette, thus, "instructs about how to navigate an
order…(and) charts the specific
configurations of social relations inherent in that order" (89).
Rules of netiquette, while varied, tend to encourage users to act
with respect, not to send spam email, and to avoid overly lengthy
posts. Users are also supposed to respect the environment in which
they communicate, and avoid language that might offend certain users.
The Internet seems to occupy a strange liminal space in the public
imagination, as a place of wish fulfillment. One might have
conversations that reinvigorate the democratic process, or leave the
body behind and explore new identities with compassion and courage.
Net users have access to seemingly unlimited information, and objects
of desire, such a goods, services and pornography. However, this
supposedly limitless and uncensored space of the Internet is also a
source of fear for the public who seeks limits and protections. The
Internet has been seen as a place of immorality, where men seduce
young girls in chat rooms, and bored husbands access pornography. In
this way, "the Net (is seen) as an insidious threat to both home and
family" (Rodman 16). Thus, netiquette seeks also to regulate the
content of the Internet, keeping unwanted information away. Unlike
the 'real' life, the virtual world seems to be teeming with the type
of knowledge, the kind that got Eve into trouble in the Garden of
Eden. "Part of what makes cyberspace seem to be radically different
from "real life" – and thus part of what makes it the subject of
hyperbolic fears – is that, to many people, it appears to be an
environment that is both out of control and uncontrollable in ways
that "real" space isn't" (27). Thus, certain groups call for closer
monitoring and tighter regulation of the form and content of the
Internet, keeping some voices out and denying access to undesirables.
Therefore, despite the rhetoric of freedom, both users and creators
are regulated by norms that define their content and their access to
The very nature of cyberspace seems to cause some scholars great
apprehension, and they argue for norms of netiquette to harness and
make the Web more useful. For example, Arditi notes that "the order
of things that manifests itself in cyberspace is one marked by
dispersion and randomness, one is which anything can be directly associated
with anything else" (91). The web like nature of cyberspace thus
causes Arditi to question its social and intellectual significance.
Instead of uniting a diverse citizenry, Arditi argues that the Net
only reflects, "randomness and chronic dispersion… (and the)
suspicion of being lost" (92). He thus undermines the social
significance of the Internet as a unifier, and argues for rules of
civility to create order and give the Web meaning and function. In a
space where "bodies have become fully detached from one another"
(91), social relationships are reshaped and thus must be redefined.
Otherwise, Arditi prophesizes, we Net users will develop a
"schizophrenic subjectivity or the erasure and transgression of the
boundaries of one's self" (93). Scholars such as Donna Haraway might
view this transgression of the self as positive, and the ultimate
move towards post-modern freedom. However, Arditi begs to differ and
argues instead for norms to overcome the "constant violati(on) (of)
the boundaries of civility as we have come to experience them" (94) online.
Civility, and its offspring netiquette both seek to define, control
and create the online space. Whether it is restricting pornography,
or ejecting a rude commentator from an online chat, netiquette
excludes certain users for the supposed 'common good'. Research on
online democracy even suggests that rules of engagement and
boundaries aid the deliberative process. As Jensen asserts in his
work on Denmark, "debating on the Internet seems to be more qualified
when certain rules and paths for the conversation are set up, i.e.
when major topics are defined in advance" (371). However, any system
of gatekeepers or regulations excludes, thus not representing a truly
inclusionary forum. We are accustomed to rules of civility in the
physical public sphere, and often see them as necessary for the
safety and productivity of all. However, the Net is often described
as the one last frontier of social interaction, and is thought of by
many as a truly inclusionary and accessible space. In many ways, this
rhetoric is why the Internet is often associated with appeals to
democratic participation. Thus, if we see the Net as governed by
norms and civility, we are once again replicating the contradictions
of the physical public sphere, which is never truly inclusive and
thus never really democratically valid.
VII. Conclusion and Direction for Future Research: Nations, Identity
Politics and the Net
The Internet serves a strong case study of the language and
aspiration of democratic theorists and towards an ideal public
sphere. In much popular and scholarly press, the Internet serves as
sort of the magic window, or untested but possible solution to the
decline in political participation in modern society. In the formerly
totalitarian world, the Internet is seen as a way to teach citizens
about the democratic process. However, as we have seen, the Internet
itself is a medium controlled by a certain few. Moreover, the
Internet is a technology created and maintained by people and
existing within a certain historical moment in society.
Because "changes in media structure and media policy are properly political
questions" (Garnham 357), the development and control of the Internet
is a social issue that should be widely debated and understood. The
association of the Internet with the public sphere and with the
ideals of democracy itself makes the virtual space a highly charged
and contested medium. Despite the contradictions addressed in this
paper, the Internet still offers some of the best potential for
spreading and encouraging an more engaged citizen population. "A
burning issue is whether the Internet can overcome (its own)
limitations while yet enriching democracy in ways envisioned by
Habermas' public sphere conception" (Karvonen 347). Can the Internet
escape overt regulation and remain a space for free access to diverse
opinions and information? Will Internet users seek out and engage in
rational debate directed towards the public good, despite online
anonymity? Moreover, will the Internet be able to live up to its
promise of creating new public spaces that strengthen political life?
Papacharissi notes that "as a vision, (the Internet) inspires, but it
has not yet managed to transform political and social structures" (390).
How should we scholars and Net users shape the future of the
Internet, and should we create structures that supposedly facilitate
engaged interaction, or should we allow the Internet to develop with
its own unbounded free architecture? Certain scholars have asserted
that we take a more active hand in controlling and creating a virtual
space that we want. For example, Beth Noveck asserts that, "we need
'public architectures' on the Net which facilitate conversation,
interaction, deliberation, education and engagement" (31). Thus, in
her opinion, we should reign in and recreate an Internet that
encourages the kind of interaction we prefer. The Internet is seen as
a tool to overcome the "current government, even in established
democracies, (which) is too dominated by outdated and out-of-touch
bureaucracies" (Ferdinand 5). The Internet seems to offer a hands-on
tool for citizens to get information and communicate with one another
and with their representatives. However, despite the promise of the
Internet, we must remember that "the theory of the Information
Society, (is) both a science and ideology" (Garnham 165), and at
every turn we confront the specific motivations of interested parties
who seek to shape the dialogue about this new technology.
Moreover, the contemporary uses of the Internet are not
overwhelmingly positive nor are they directed exclusively towards the
common good. The very nature of the Net blurs the "line between abuse
and intimacy produced by the porousness of personal
boundaries in cyberspace" (Arditi 97). The Internet has also been
harnessed by groups proclaiming messages of dissent and violence. The
Net has a sinister side, as we have seen in the recent wave of
beheadings broadcast via Internet from Iraq. Groups like the
Neo-Nazis and the Taliban use the Net as a major instrument of
communication and community building (Chroust 104). Not all Net users
seek rational-critical and accessible debate or access.
However, despite its contradictions, the Internet still has a major
role to play in the minds of Political Scientists. Across the globe,
"there has been an increasing interest in using the Internet to
(re)create a new sense of community, especially at the local level"
(Ferdinand 5), and to expand participation in the Nation as a whole.
I plan to pursue research on the promotion of democracy abroad, and
the ways that the Internet plays into programs that sponsor
participatory government. Because, the "general belief holds that
representative government is the only form of democracy that is
feasible in today's sprawling and heterogeneous nation-states…
interactive telecommunications now make it possible for tens of
millions of widely dispersed citizens to carry out the business of
government themselves, gain admission to the political realm, and
retrieve at least some of the power over their own lives and goods
that many believe their elected leaders are squandering" (Ott and
Rosser 137). The Internet, as both imagined, virtual, and real space
holds the potential for greater democratic engagement. However, we
must caution ourselves against the kind of rhetoric that sees the
Internet as uncontrolled and free from society. The virtual space is
both a reflection and a creation of our own social world.
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 Please refer to my work "Confronting the Democratic Ideal",
which outlines the theses of Jurgen Habermas, Seyla Benhabib, Iris
Marion Young, and Amy Guttman. I am also preparing a subsequent work
based in the theories of Benjamin Barber and Carole Patemen, on
micro-practices of democracy and alternative institutional spaces for
 See Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy.
 As opposed to a 'mass'.
 See Seyla Benhabib, and her notion the transformative quality of
 See Dr. Clark's work with Teens and New Media.
 I am working on a study of the political websites of major
candidates in the November 2004 elections in order to determine how
much these websites added to the body of knowledge around issues and
platforms, versus traditional and broadcast media.
 Please see future work on Blogs, which is meant as a case study
to lengthen and strengthen this paper. I was unable to include this
information at this time, even though I have begun the research, due
to time constraints.