The Virtual Sphere:
The Internet as a public sphere.
University of Texas at Austin
Paper submitted to the Communication Technology and Policy Division for
presentation at the August 1999 Annual Convention of the Association for
Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
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April 1, 1999
The Internet and its surrounding technologies are frequently touted for their
potential to revive the public sphere. Several aspects of these new technologies
simultaneously curtail and augment their ability to transform the public sphere.
First, the information storage and retrieval capabilities of net-based
technologies do infuse political discussion with facts otherwise unavailable,
however, information access is not universal and equal to all. Second, net-based
technologies do enable discussion between people on far sides of the globe, but
also frequently fragmentize political discourse. Third, given the patterns of
global capitalism, it is more likely that net-based technologies will adapt
themselves to the current political culture, rather than create a new one. I
assessed these possibilities and concluded that there may still be hope for the
The utopian rhetoric that accompanies the onslaught of revolutionary new media
technologies connotes a further democratization of post-industrial society,
where the Internet and its surrounding technologies will augment avenues for
personal expression and promote citizen activity (e.g., Bell, 1981; Kling, 1996;
Negroponte, 1998; Rheingold, 1993). New technologies provide information and
tools that may extend the role of the public in the social and political arena.
The explosion of on-line political groups and activism certainly indicates
political uses of the net (Bowen, 1996; Browning, 1996). In this case, how do
these political uses of the Internet affect the public sphere? Does cyberspace
present a separate alternative to, extend, minimize, or ignore the public
sphere? It is important to determine whether the Internet and its surrounding
technologies will truly revolutionize the political sphere or whether they will
be adapted to the current status quo, especially at a time when the public is
demonstrating dormant political activity and developing growing cynicism
towards politics. Will these technologies extend our political capacities or
limit democracy (or alternatively, do a little bit of both)? Such a discussion
should primarily be informed with an examination of the notion of the public
sphere and its ideological baggage. This is a theoretical essay, and its value
lies in evaluating what we know about on-line political communication, and what
questions we should focus on next.
The Public Sphere
When thinking of the public, one thinks of open exchanges of political thoughts
and ideas, such as those that took place in ancient Greek agoras or colonial era
townhalls. The idea of the public is closely tied to democratic ideals that call
for citizen participation in public affairs. Tocqueville considered the American
people's dedication to public affairs to be at the heart of the healthy and
lively American democracy, and added that participation in public affairs
contributes significantly to an individual's sense of existence and
self-respect. Dewey (1927) insisted that inquiry and communication are the basis
for a democratic society and highlighted the merits of group deliberation over
the decisions of a single authority. He argued for a communitarian democracy,
where individuals come together to create and preserve a good life in common.
The term public connotes ideas of citizenship, of commonality, and of things not
private, but accessible and observable by all. More recently, Jones (1997)
argued that cyberspace is promoted as the "new public space" because it is made
by people and "conjoining traditional mythic narratives of progress with strong
modern impulses toward self-fulfillment and personal development" (p, 22). These
separate visions share the hope for social progress that can be achieved through
the proper function of a public sphere.
Several critics romanticize the public, and think back on it as something that
existed long ago, but eroded with the advent of modern, industrial society.
Sensing the demise of the great public, Habermas (1962/1989) traced the
development of a public sphere in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and its
decline in the twentieth 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 1973/1991). Ultimately, informed and logical discussion,
Habermas (1962/1989) argued, could lead to public agreement and decision making,
thus representing the best of the democratic tradition.
Still, these conceptualizations of the public were somewhat idealized. It is
ironic that this pinnacle of democracy was rather un-democratic in its structure
throughout the centuries, not including women or people from lower social
classes, a point acknowledged as such by Habermas himself. Moreover, critics of
Habermas' rational public sphere such as Lyotard (1984), brought up that
anarchy, individuality and disagreement, rather than rational accord, lead to
true democratic emancipation. Fraser (1992) expanded Lyotard's critique and
added that Habermas' conceptualization of the public sphere functioned merely as
a realm for privileged men to practice their skills of governance, for it
excluded women and non-propertied classes. She contended that, in contemporary
America, co-existing public spheres of counterpublics form in response to their
exclusion from the dominant sphere of debate. Therefore, multiple public
spheres, not equally powerful, articulate, or privileged exist and give voice to
collective identities and interests. A public realm or government, however, that
pays attention to all these diverse voices has never existed, according to
Fraser (1992). Schudson (1997) concurred, adding that the evidence a true ideal
public ever existed is sparse, and that public discourse is not the soul of
democracy, for it is seldom egalitarian, may be too large and amorphous, rarely
civil, and ultimately offers no magical solution to problems of democracy.
Still, Garnham (1992) took a position defensive of Habermas, pointing out that
his vision of the public sphere outlines a tragic and stoic pursuit of an almost
impossible rationality, recognizing the impossibility of an ideal public sphere
and the limits of human civilization, but still stoically striving toward it.
Other critics take on a different point of view, and argue that even though we
have now expanded the public to include women and people from all social
classes, we are left with a social system where the public does not matter.
Carey (1995) for example, argued that the privatizing forces of capitalism have
created a mass commercial culture that has replaced the public sphere. Although
he recognizes that an ideal public sphere may have never existed, he calls for
the recovery of public life, as a means of preserving independent cultural and
social life and resisting the confines of corporate governance and politics.
Putnam (1996) traced the disappearance of civic America in a similar manner,
attributing the decline of a current public not to a corrosive mass culture, but
to a similar force, television. Television takes up too much of our time and
induces passive outlooks on life, according to Putnam.
This is not a complete review of scholarly viewpoints on the public sphere, but
presents an array of academic expectations of the public, and can help us
understand if and how the Internet can measure up to these expectations. Can it
promote rational discourse, thus producing the romanticized ideal of a public
sphere put forth by Habermas and others? Does it reflect several public spheres
coexisting on-line, representing the collectives of diverse groups, Fraser
posited? Are on-line discussions dominated by elements of anarchy or accord, and
do they democracy? Will the revolutionary potential of the Internet be
ultimately absorbed by a mass commercial culture? These are questions that guide
my assessment of the virtual sphere.
Research on the public sphere potential of the Internet responds to all of
these questions. Some scholars highlight the fact that the speedy and cheap
access to information provided on the Internet promotes citizen activism. Others
focus on the ability of the Internet to bring individuals together and help them
overcome geographical and other boundaries. Ultimately, on-line discussions may
erase or further economic inequalities. Utopian and dystopian visions prevail in
assessing the promise of the net as a public sphere. In the next few pages, I
would like to focus on three aspects: the ability of the Internet to carry and
transport information, its potential to bring people from diverse backgrounds
together, and its future in a capitalist era. This discussion will help
determine whether the Internet can recreate the public sphere (that never was),
foster several diverse public spheres, or simply become absorbed by a commercial
Much of the on-line information debate focuses on the benefits for the haves and
the disadvantages for the have-nots. For those with access to computers, the
Internet is a valuable tool for political participation. It provides numerous
avenues for political expression and several ways of influencing politics and
becoming politically active (Bowen, !996). Internet users are able to get 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). In 1996, Decision Maker, a software program
developed by Dutch Marcel Bullinga, enable one of the Netherlands' first
political on-line debates, grabbed the attention of the government, and also
landed Bullinga a job as senior adviser to the Ministry of Housing, Spatial
Planning, and the Environment. Easy access to political information promotes
democratic ideals, pushing forth what some refer to as "keypad democracy"
(Grossman, 1995). Speedy dispersion of diverse information is at the heart of
net-based political activism, thus "hardwiring the collective consciousness"
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 restructures public affairs (Grossman, 1995;
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, Arterton, & Orren,
1988). Acquiring and dispersing political communication on-line is fast, easy,
cheap, and convenient. Information available on the Internet is frequently
unmediated, that is, it has not been tampered with or altered to serve
particular interests (Abramson, Arterton, & Orren, 1988)
While these are indisputably advantages to on-line communication, they do not
instantaneously guarantee a fair, representative, and egalitarian public sphere.
As several critics argue, access to on-line technologies and information must be
equal and universal. Access must also be provided at affordable rates. Without a
concrete commitment to on-line expression, the net as a public sphere merely
harbors an illusion of openness (Pavlik, 1994; Pavlik & Williams, 1994;
Williams, 1994). The fact that on-line 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 - not terribly different
from the bourgeois public sphere of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
This point is reiterated in recent empirical research of on-line political
communities completed by Hill and Hughes (1998). In researching political Usenet
and AOL groups, they found that demographically, conservatives were a minority
among Internet users. On-line political discourse, however, was dominated by
conservatives, even though liberals were the on-line majority. This implies that
the virtual sphere is politically divided in a manner similar to the real
sphere, thus simply serving as a space for additional expression, rather than
radically reforming political thought and structure. Moreover, despite the fact
that all on-line participants have the same access to information and opinion
expression, the discourse is still dominated by a few. Also, not all information
available on the net is democratic or promotes democracy; extremist groups often
possess some of the savviest (and scariest!) web sites. Still, Hill and Hughes
(1998) point out the encouraging fact that at least people are talking about
politics and virtually protesting against democratic governments on-line.
Some researchers pose additional questions, such as, even if on-line
information is available to all, how easy is it to access and manage vast
volumes of information? (Jones, 1997). Organizing, tracking, and going through
information may be a task that requires skill and time that several do not
possess. Access to information does not automatically render us better informed
and more active citizens. In fact, Hart (1994) 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" (p. 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 meaning
through the code that order the flux and allow its meanings to be read" (p.
102). And finally, some even argue that increased on-line participation would
broaden and democratize 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 (e.g., Hill & Hughes, 1998). Still, this discourse is not less
In conclusion, access to on-line information is not universal and equal to all.
Those who can access on-line 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 on-line conversation between
residents, and helped several homeless people get jobs and shelter (Schmitz,
1997). Groups like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the Center for a New
Democracy, Civic Networking, Democracy Net, the Democracy Resource Center,
Interacta, and the Voter's telecommunication Watch are a few examples of
thriving on-line political stops. Still, on-line technologies render
participation in the political sphere more convenient, but do not guarantee it.
While the Internet has the potential to extend the public sphere, at least in
terms of the information that is available to citizens, not all of us are able
or willing to take on the challenge.
Globalization or Tribalization?
Yet another reason why there is a lot of enthusiasm regarding the future of the
Internet as a public sphere has to do with its ability to connect people from
multiple backgrounds and provide a forum for political discussion. While many
praise the possibility of people from diverse backgrounds discussing political
issues rationally on-line, others are skeptical about the prospect of diverse
groups getting along. These technologies carry the promise of bringing people
together, but also bear the possibility of spinning them in separate directions.
Utopian views of the Internet would put forth 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 be fostered (Pavlik, 1994). Anonymity on-line assists one to
overcome real life identity boundaries and communicate more freely and openly
on-line, thus promoting a more enlightened exchange of ideas. The Indian
newsgroup soc.culture.india is one of many on-line groups that foster critical
political discourse among participants that might not even meet in real space
and time. For several years this group has harbored lively political discussion
on issues pertinent to political future of India (Mitra, 1997).
Still, the existence of a virtual space does not guarantee democratic and
rational discourse. Flaming and conflict beyond reasonable boundaries is evident
both in PEN and soc.culture.india, and frequently deters or intimidates
participants from joining on-line discussions (Mitra, 1997; Schmitz, 1997). Hill
and Hughes (1998) emphasized that the technological potential for global
communication does not mean that people from different cultural backgrounds will
also be more understanding of each other, and they cite several examples of
miscommunication. However, they did find that when conversation was focused on
political issues, instead of general, it tended to be more toned down (Hill &
Hughes, 1998). Often on-line communication is about venting emotion and
expressing what Abramson et al. (1988) refer to as "hasty opinions," rather than
rational and focused discourse.
Miscommunication set aside, however, what about communication? What impact do
our words actually have on-line? Jones (1997) suggested that perhaps the
Internet allows us to "shout more loudly, but whether other fellows listen,
beyond the few individuals who may reply, or the occasional lurker, is
questionable, and whether our words will make a difference is even more in
doubt" (p. 30). The same anonymity and absence of face-to-face interaction that
expands our freedom of expression keeps us from assessing the impact and social
value of our words.
The number of people our virtual opinions can reach may become more diverse,
but may also become smaller as the Internet becomes more fragmented. Special
interest groups attract users who want to focus the discussion on certain
topics, providing opportunities for specialized discussion with people who have
a few things in common. As the virtual mass gets subdivided into smaller and
smaller discussion groups, the ideal of a public sphere that connects many
people on-line eludes us. On the other hand, the creation of special interest
groups fosters the development of several on-line publics which, as Fraser
noted, reflect the collective ideologies of their members. After all, Habermas'
vision was one of "coffee-house" small group discussions.
Furthermore, some contend that the disembodied exchange of text is no
substitute for face-to-face meeting, and should not be compared to that. Poster
(1995), for example, argued that rational argument, reminiscent of a public
sphere, can rarely prevail and consensus achievement is not possible on-line,
specifically because identity is defined very differently on-line. Because
identities are fluid and mobile on-line, the conditions which encourage
compromise are lacking in virtual discourse. Dissent is encouraged, and status
markers are absent. Poster concluded that the Internet actually decentralizes
communication but ultimately enhances democracy. This brings to mind Lyotard's
argument that social movements and democracy are strengthened by dissent and
anarchy in communication.
To conclude, the Internet may actually enhance the public sphere, but it does
so in a way that is not comparable to our past experiences of public discourse.
Perhaps the Internet will not become the new public sphere, but something
radically different, that will enhance democracy and dialogue, but not in a way
that we would expect it to, or that we have experienced in the past. For
example, Internet activist/hacker groups practice a reappropriated form of
terrorism on the Internet, by breaking into and closing down big corporations'
web sites, or "bombing" them, so that no more users can enter them. This is a
new form of activism, more effective than marching outside a corporation's
headquarters, and definitely less innocuous than actually bombing a location.
One could argue that the virtual sphere holds a lot of promise as a political
medium, as long as it is not trying to measure up to real life standards. It is
obvious that when people use the Internet to communicate in a language and in a
manner similar to real life, a lot of the conflict and discussion that occurs in
real life simply carries over. People from different backgrounds may come
together, but discussion often leads to miscommunication, and is frequently
reduced to the exchange of insults. However, when not confined by real life
mindframes and expectations, the true potential of the Internet emerges.
Despite all the hype surrounding the innovative uses of the net as a public
medium, the Internet is still a medium constructed in a capitalist era. It is
part and parcel of a social and political world (Jones, 1997). As such it is
susceptible to the same forces that, according to Carey (1995), originally
transformed the public sphere. The same forces defined the nature of radio and
television, media once hailed for providing innovative ways of communication.
Douglas (1987) detailed how radio broadcasting revolutionized the way that
people conceived of communication, and she documented how it built up hope for
the extension of public communication and the improvement of democracy. In a
similar manner, television inspired similar optimism about televised
communication plowing new ground for democracy (Abramson et al., 1988).
Nowadays, both media have transformed and produce commercial, formulaic
programming, for the most part. Advertising revenue has more impact on
programming than democratic ideals do. The concentration of ownership and
standardization of programming have been documented by several scholars (e.g.,
Bagdikian, 1983; Ettema & Whitney, 1994).
For a vast majority of corporations the Internet is viewed as another money
making machine; its widespread and cheap access being a small, but not
insurmountable obstacle to profit making. On-line technologies, such as banners
and portals, are being added to a growing number of web locations to create
advertising revenue. 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).
Even so, advertising is not necessarily a bad addition to the Internet, because
it can provide small groups with the funds to spread their opinions and broaden
public debate. To this point, some add that the "very architecture of the net
will work against the type of content control these folks (corporate monopolies)
have over mass media" (Newhagen, 1995, as cited in McChesney, 1995). McChesney
(1995) agreed that the Internet will open the door to a cultural and political
renaissance, despite the fact the big corporations will take up a fraction of it
to launch their cyberventures. He argued that cyberspace may provide "a
supercharged, information packed, and psychedelic version of ham radio"
McChesney (1995) 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" (p.10). He maintained that
there are several barriers to the Internet reforming democracy, such as
universal access and computer literacy. Computers are not affordable for a large
section of the population. I would extend this to a global basis, and add that
for several countries still struggling to keep up with technological changes
brought along by the industrial era, the Internet is a remote possibility.
McChesney concluded that "bulletin boards, and the information highway more
generally, do not have the power to produce political culture when it does not
exist in the society at large," and that "given the dominant patterns of global
capitalism, it is far more likely that the Internet and the new technologies
will adapt themselves to the existing political culture rather than create a new
one" (p. 13). It seems that the discussion of information access, Internet
fragmentation, and commercialization leads back to a main point: How do we
recreate something on-line, when it did not exist in real life to begin with?
Having reviewed the conditions that both extend and limit the potential of the
Internet as a public sphere, I address this question and discuss the nature of
the virtual sphere in the following section.
A virtual sphere
Cyberspace is public and private space (Fernback, 1997). It is because of this
that it appeals to those who want to reinvent their private and their public
lives. Cyberspace provides new terrain for the playing out of the age old
friction between personal and collective identity; the individual and a
community. Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1985) argued that
individuals can overcome individualistic and selfish tendencies in favor of
realizing the benefits of acting responsibly within a moralistic, transcendent
social order. Is it possible to do so in cyberspace?
Some have argued that it is not. Cyberspace extends our channels for
communication, without radically affecting the nature of communication itself.
There is ample evidence to support this in the discussion of political
newsgroups, often dominated by arguments and conflicts that mirror those of the
real world. Hill and Hughes (1998) concluded that "people will mold the Internet
to fit traditional politics. The Net 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
characterized the Internet as a public sphere 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 net 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, although it does not acknowledge the occasionally
liberating features of new technologies. On the other hand, it is the existing
structure of social relations that drives people to repurpose these technologies
and create spaces for private and public expression. The Internet does possess
the potential to change how we conceive of ourselves, the political system and
the world surrounding us, but I do not think it will do so in a manner that
strictly adheres to the democratic ideals of the public sphere. The reason for
this lies in the fact that we transcend physical space and bodily boundaries
upon entering cyberspace. This has a fundamental impact on how we carry
ourselves on-line, and is simply different from how we conduct ourselves
A virtual sphere does exist, in the tradition of, but radically different from
the public sphere. This virtual sphere is dominated by the bourgeois computer
holders, much as the one traced by Habermas consisted of bourgeois property
holders. In this virtual sphere, several special interest publics coexist and
flaunt their collective identities of dissent, thus reflecting the social
dynamics of the real world, as Fraser (1992) noted. The vision of the true
virtual sphere consists of several spheres of counterpublics that have been
excluded from mainstream political discourse, yet employ virtual communication
to restructure the mainstream that ousted them. It is difficult to determine
how this structure will affect democracy and political change. Breslow (1997)
argued that the net promotes a sense of sociality, but it remains to be seen
whether this translates into solidarity. Social and physical solidarity is what
spawned political and social change over the course of the century, and the
net's anonymity and lack of spatiality and density may actually be
counterproductive to solidarity. Ultimately, Breslow (1997) concluded: "How
should I know who is at the other end, and when the chips are down, will people
actually strip off their electronic guises to stand and be counted?" (p. 255).
The lack of a mechanism of firm commitment negates the true potential of the
Internet as a public sphere.
Melucci's (1996) approach to new social movements makes more sense in an age
when individuals use machines to protest the things that movements like the May
'68 movements used the streets for. His main argument is that the social
movements no longer require collective action that reflects the interest of a
social group; they revolve more around personal identity and making sense of
cultural information. Melucci contended that in the last thirty years, emerging
social conflicts in complex societies have raised cultural challenges to the
dominant language, rather than expressed themselves through political action.
Although Melucci implies that such language shifts are ineffectual, the point is
that collective action can no longer be overtly measured, but is still present
in the creative proclamation of cultural codes. 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 towards the cultural ground.
Culturally fragmented cyber-spheres make out the future of the public sphere.
Groups of netizens (those who frequently access and discuss issues over the net)
brought together by common interests will debate and perhaps strive for the
attainment of cultural goals. Much of the political discussion taking place on
the net 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,
too. Still, people who under real life circumstances would never be able to come
together to discuss political matters are able to do so. The fact that people
from different cultural backgrounds, states, or countries involve themselves in
virtual political discussions in the 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, and 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" (in interview w/ Ogilvy, 1998, p. 188). The virtual sphere
reflects the dynamics of new social movements that struggle on a cultural,
rather than a traditionally political terrain. In this manner, it will play a
key part in future political systems that may be radically different from
Therefore, future research should document the ways in which computer mediated
communication presents a unique alternative to more conventional methods of
political communication. Research should describe the unique nature of political
on-line discussion, and determine how it differs from face-to-face interactions.
Some researchers have already focused on these tasks, but more conclusive
information is needed before we determine the true potential of the Internet as
a new public sphere. We should also focus on the impact that political talk and
actions on-line have in the real world. We may debate issues aggressively with
people all over the world, but is this influencing government politics, and
ultimately, is it leading to some type of social reform? In this paper, I
outlined some of the ways in which the Internet may transform politics or may be
transformed by politics. I also listed and deliberated several of the limits and
advantages to the Internet becoming a virtual sphere. Our task as researchers,
is to determine whether the virtual sphere will remain an unattainable utopia,
or will actually contribute to the improvement of our public lives.
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