who is actually participating?

Respond to this quote from last week’s reading: “It seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by [computer–mediated communication] will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation.”

The public sphere is supposed to a place where citizens can come together and discuss issues they have with public policy. Public sphere is intended to be a place where every voice can be heard with equal amount of influence as all other members of society. Since the growth of technology and social media, the public sphere has been transformed much like the other societal institutions. For an environment to be considered a public sphere, it must:

  • Disregard of status: Preservation of “a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether. […] Not that this idea of the public was actually realized in earnest in the coffee houses, salons, and the societies; but as an idea it had become institutionalized and thereby stated as an objective claim. If not realized, it was at least consequential.” (loc. cit.)
  • Domain of common concern: “… discussion within such a public presupposed the problematization of areas that until then had not been questioned. The domain of ‘common concern’ which was the object of public critical attention remained a preserve in which church and state authorities had the monopoly of interpretation. […] The private people for whom the cultural product became available as a commodity profaned it inasmuch as they had to determine its meaning on their own (by way of rational communication with one another), verbalize it, and thus state explicitly what precisely in its implicitness for so long could assert its authority.” (loc. cit.)
  • Inclusivity: However exclusive the public might be in any given instance, it could never close itself off entirely and become consolidated as a clique; for it always understood and found itself immersed within a more inclusive public of all private people, persons who – insofar as they were propertied and educated – as readers, listeners, and spectators could avail themselves via the market of the objects that were subject to discussion. The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate. […] Wherever the public established itself institutionally as a stable group of discussants, it did not equate itself with the public but at most claimed to act as its mouthpiece, in its name, perhaps even as its educator – the new form of bourgeois representation” (loc. cit.).


But, in my opinion, public sphere depends on the means of open communication. Today’s technology and social media networks afford us with an open line of communication with basically everyone in the world. This affordance has advanced our lives to where we are today by transporting valuable life changing information instantaneously.

However, because the ability to participate in public debate has become so easy, people assume online participation is enough and never act on their support. Participating and congregating online has proven to be a powerful tool, but without physical action, it is mostly just words on a screen. Feeling appeased by online participation lowers the number of people who traditionally participate. This ease has harmed the public levels of participation and I only see it getting worse. By participating online, people feel included and needed which appeases a vital part of our human nature. People who feel included are less angered by whatever the outcome because they feel as if they have done their part. This is a dangerous path for the public to follow. During the President Obama’s election campaign, I remember the amount of people hoping he would get elected, but were not planning to vote. This is not a direct correlation with the subject matter, but it demonstrates how people are slow to act when it comes to public policy, even when they support the cause. I think modern technology has elevated this even further, but hopefully, the policy makers will adjust and implement more technology in their communication and research methods.