THE INTERNET AS PUBLIC SPHERE: CONTESTING SOCIAL NETWORKS
The concept of the “public sphere” – a network for influencing political action through the communication of information and points of view – has its roots in the work of Jürgen Habermas. InThe Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1995), Habermas defines and discusses the rise and fall of the bourgeois public sphere, noting the problematic effects of commercialization, capitalism, and the rise of mass media on rational-critical debate. Although undoubtedly influential, Habermas’ argument has been subject to many critiques, particularly since his idealized conception of the public sphere centers on the principle of universal access (which, as we shall see later, is also a notable limitation to the Internet's potential as a public sphere). Indeed, since even the bourgeois public sphere Habermas champions requires education and property ownership, thereby restricting access to those who are in positions of some degree of privilege, it may be that the public sphere never existed at all, or at least not in the form presented by Habermas.
In response, some scholars have attempted to extend or reimagine this concept of the public sphere. In Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres, Gerard Hauser (1999) offers a uniquely rhetorical take on the public sphere by “explor[ing] the discursive dimensions of publics, public spheres, and public opinions” (p. 11), the result being a model of the public sphere that is discourse-based. Rhetoric, then, is central to this concept of the public sphere, and, in contrast to the idealized public sphere posited by Habermas, Hauser suggests a “vernacular rhetorical model” that allows for partisan rhetoric. This model does not attempt to conceal multiple publics and marginalized voices.
In recent decades, scholars have begun to consider the extent to which online spaces may reinvigorate an agonistic, partisan, “vernacular” public sphere. Craig Calhoun (2004) has called for more research into the implications of new media technologies for the global public sphere (p. 249), and other scholars have begun to consider the extent to which Internet spaces may foster rational-critical debate and decision-making. Barbara Warnick (2007), Diana Carlin et al. (2005), Victor Pickard (2006), Steffen Albrecht (2006), and Richard Khan & Douglas Kellner (2004) are just some of the scholars who have researched the use of the Internet for activism and deliberation – political activities which have increased significantly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (Khan & Kellner, 2004, p. 88).
The majority of this scholarship focuses on sites articulating overt political agendas, such as Indymedia and MoveOn.org; however, a few scholars, like Matthew Barton (2005), are beginning to see the need for evaluating the political possibilities of more “neutral” sites of discursive practice. Social networking sites like YouTube, for example, typically do not assert a distinct political agenda or affiliation, but individuals may nevertheless use these sites for exchanging information and perspectives in an effort to influence public opinion and, by extension, provide an important “check” on the state and other systems of power. Like Calhoun, Barton recognizes the democratic spirit of open-source initiatives and the potential for these technologies to enact a sense of agency in the minds of citizens. Further, Barton acknowledges the danger of corporate interests, which, as discussed above, continues to be an important cautionary note when attempting to actualize a truly democratic space: “The Internet is losing its democraticizing features and is becoming everyday more like our newspapers and television, controlled from above by powerful multinational corporations, who demand passivity from an audience of total consumers” (p. 177). While Web 2.0 applications such as blogs continue to give users the power to publish their thoughts for a large audience with minimal financial resources and technological training, some arenas of the Internet that initially embraced the Web 2.0 ethos – such as social networking sites – are installing more gatekeeping features that mimic the editorial and publishing control typical of traditional media. The CNN-YouTube Debates, which I discuss in the next section, reflect this movement away from the true democratization of a digital public sphere and instead mark significant attempts by political stakeholders to install gatekeeping mechanisms that interfere with the democratizing features of Web 2.0. As we shall also see, however, users may find irreverent approaches to “acceptable” modes of participating to be a powerful way of expressing dissent and resistance to this colonization.
In the past, politicians have been reluctant to take full advantage of the interactive potential of web technologies, for fear of losing control of their discourse. The goal of this discourse, as scholars like Jennifer Stromer-Galley (2000) and Barbara Warnick (2007) have noted, is typically to get the candidate elected, not necessarily to invigorate democracy. A true democracy would require that citizens have input in the agenda-setting process (Stromer-Galley, 2000, p. 128-9), but the current climate of strategic ambiguity leads most politicians to avoid interacting with audiences that may compromise their ability to stay on message. With this in mind, the simple fact that the CNN-YouTube Debates took place at all is noteworthy, as candidates were voluntarily giving up their control of the campaign discourse to some extent in order to show their willingness to dialogue with members with the public. In the first debate (held July 23, 2007), eight presidential hopefuls from the Democratic Party fielded video questions submitted by YouTube users, and more than 2.6 million viewers tuned in (Seelye, 2007). Despite some initial reluctance, Republican candidates agreed to participate in their own CNN-YouTube debate a few months later (November 28, 2007), generating even more public response and international publicity. The weeks leading up to the first debate were filled with optimism about the event, with some predicting it would be the “most democratic presidential debate ever” (O’Brien, 2007). However, the degree to which users were actually setting the agenda of the event has been routinely questioned.
In fact, a major theme emerging from the discourse surrounding the CNN-YouTube debates is one of distrust. Specifically, discussions leading up to, during, and following the debate illustrate the tension between pervasive distrust of the public opinion on one hand and rising distrust of big media corporations on the other. Much of this discussion has centered on the editorial processes utilized to select roughly 40 questions from the several thousand submitted by YouTube users. Instead of airing the most viewed or most highly rated video questions (which would be more consistent with the values of Web 2.0), CNN officials sifted through thousands of video submissions and decided which ones would be presented to the candidates during the debate. On the eve of the Republican debate, CNN senior vice president David Bohrman justified his decision to leave selection processes in the hands of journalists by arguing that “the web is still too immature a medium to set an agenda for a national debate” (Stirland, 2007). Bohrman went on to express his distrust of popular opinion, a sentiment shared throughout blogs, discussion boards, and news articles: “If you would have taken the most-viewed questions [for the first debate], the top question would have been whether Arnold Schwarzenegger was a cyborg sent to save the planet Earth. The second-most-viewed video question was: Will you convene a national meeting on UFOs?” For an event that claimed to be a revolutionary moment for democracy, the agenda-setting was placed almost exclusively in the hands of CNN – a large, mainstream news source owned by Time Warner – which, as Habermas and others would surely note, is itself a threat to the Internet as a public sphere.
In fact, not only were YouTube users unable to decide which questions were used, but also they were also refused a means for rating or offering feedback to questions at all, thereby cutting popular opinion out of the editorial process entirely. As Bohrman’s comment above highlights, debate officials – like the candidates themselves – were set on maintaining the appearance of a democratic process by virtue of presenting the event in a different media format, while also taking steps to remove the very functions of the social networking space that empower individual users to participate in collective decisions on matters of public importance. CNN's assertions reflect a dominant ideology that tries to convince the public that ordinary people are unable to make informed editorial decisions, which may have come as a shock to the thousands of people who took the time to craft video questions for the candidates on issues of collective importance. This attitude toward citizens is consistent with observations made by Michelle Simmons and Jeffrey Grabill (2007), who note that “citizen participants at a public meeting are often characterized (by government officials, industry representatives, and university researchers) as people who often know nothing and who rant emotionally about irrelevant issues” (p. 422). Instead of claiming a privileged position within the process, citizen participants in the CNN-YouTube Debates were being used as mere gimmicks to sell the event.