A Criteria for the Net-public Sphere

Posted on Saturday, February 21st, 2009 at 8:16 am by Jeremy in process, research | 1 Comment

At this stage in our research, I think it’s important to revisit my initial rationale for the project, excerpted below at length:

The connectivity and interactivity engendered by social media and networked technologies are often cited as the catalyst for a quantifiable increase in sociability and community among individuals, and, as a matter of proximity, suggest an expansion of ideas, information, resources, and public discourse that may be synonymous with democratic practices. In particular, the early days of the Web were replete with utopian claims about the liberating and revolutionary power of the medium to bolster new forms of participation in public life, even if the nature of that participation on the surface was radically different from previous models of community. With the increasingly widespread use of mobile phones and handheld computing devices along with the eruption of social networking heralded by second generation Web platforms (so-called Web 2.0), it would seem as if we users of this technology are communicating with each other more than at any other time in human history. Yet, what are we talking about? The medium is only one part of the holistic message; the content of our exchanges and the purposes to which we employ these exchanges matters greatly when performed in the public domain.

Another complicated narrative concerning the loss of genuinely public spaces in civic life intersects this technological one and reminds us that the fate of democratic spaces is no longer just a matter of physical space but also involves the virtual spaces that we create and inhabit via social media and networked technologies. The level of discourse and debate required by civil societies has depended on and flourished in open, accessible, and guaranteed public spaces where the populace can assemble to share and discuss information and ideas. At their best, these town squares and city plazas welcome the full range of citizenry to commune with each other; rich and poor, blue-collar and white-collar, young and old, right and left share a civic space where difference and diversity are inherently of value. Conversely, our virtual spaces tend to coalesce more around people of like minds, the tendency being for individuals to seek out comfortable communities based on shared affinities. The future of civil society will be in part determined by how conventional, physical communities are augmented, re-imagined, and redesigned in the creation of an open, accessible, and guaranteed digital public spaces; and it will be essential to build into this digital terrain a framework that accepts and encourages civil debate, disagreement, and divergent perspectives.

I reiterate this because in our recent conversations I’ve discerned a slightly pessimistic trajectory in our assumptions about the nature of online discourse and the potential for meaningful, authentic debate via such social media. Granted, there is plenty of evidence, both quantifiable and experiential, to suggest that the quality of discussion online is less than constructive, but we must also acknowledge that this networked technology has profoundly opened up the field of democratic participation and civil discourse on an operational level. Again, our goal for this project is to deconstruct the structures of interaction inherent in social media in order to rethink (on a very basic level) how these tools and media might be used for more meaningful political discourse.

Towards this end of formulating a more nuanced view of online discourse, “Online Forums and Deliberative Democracy:
Hypotheses, Variables and Methodologies”
by Davy Janssen (University of Antwerp) and Raphaël Kies (European Universiy Institute) (from 2004) has been helpful. While the stated goal of this paper is to develop a methodology for measuring deliberation in online forums, it does provide a useful framework for a richer understanding of online discussions in particular and social media and democratic discourse in general.

To begin, Janssen and Kies remind us that:

Compared to informal public spaces (i.e. face-to-face public square; informal political reunions etc.), i) online spaces allow for a non centralized communication of many-to-many: each participant is normally equally entitled to make comment or raise new question; ii) online spaces are open public spaces. In fact they are even more open than informal discussion spaces since there are generally no geographical or temporal limitations; iii) online spaces are places where participants are free to express their opinions. There is, in general, no censure and limits to expressing opinions.

Acknowledging that there are exceptions and complications to the above in practice, I think it is important to be reminded of the incredible potential for expanded participation and civic discourse that is created by social media and networked technologies. And it is with this potential in mind that we undertake our work.

The authors make an interesting distinction between so-called “major” and “minor” discussion spaces, whereby “major” designates those instances when the participants believe that their discussion will result in concrete political outcomes; this perception may be do to the relative visibility of the debate (a forum hosted by The New York Times), its explicit aim (a forum organized by a governmental agency for the purpose of informing policy), or the status and power of those participating (opinion-makers, politicians, etc). Conversely, “minor” refers to those discussions in which no concrete political outcomes are likely to result. (It appears that the major/minor designation is dependent upon the perceptions of the participants, rather than the actual measured outcomes of the discussions.) The authors reach this conclusion:

These initial findings suggest that our minor versus major distinction has an impact on the dynamic of the debates, but also that the deliberative values of the debates could be affected. They suggest that in contexts where participants think that their voices can have an impact on decisions they are ready and willing to spend more time to elaborate and to justify their opinions. They also suggest that major spaces tend to be more respectful and constructive.

Lastly, Janssen and Kies propose a methodology for measuring online debate that is derived from Lincoln Dahlberg’s criteria of the idealized public sphere (following from Habermas):

  • Reciprocity and Justification: the conversation is truly a discussion, a back-and-forth exchange; and claims made in the discussion are validated by reasoned justifications
  • Reflexivity: “participants critically examine their values, assumptions, and interests, as well as the larger social context” (Dahlberg)
  • Respectful Listening and Ongoing Engagement: participants acknowledge and consider all positions affected by the question under consideration; and participants commit time and energy to a sustained, ongoing debate
  • Sincerity: participants make known “all relevant information and their true intentions, interests, needs, and desires” (Dahlberg)
  • Inclusion and Discursive Equality: all those affected by the issue(s) are able to participate; and each participant is able to freely express their opinions
  • Autonomy from State and Economic Power: grass-roots initiated participation, that is “communicative rationality that should drive deliberation in online forums, and not the ‘instrumental’ rationality of the systems world [state and economic power]“

I think these “net-public sphere” criteria are useful because they can both help us answer the question of exactly what constitutes meaningful civic discourse as well as inform the quality of discursive experiences we wish to design. These idealizations act as a goal to which our design work can aspire.

One Response to “A Criteria for the Net-public Sphere”

  1. # On February 21st, 2009 at 2:45 pm Nick wrote:

    Janssen and Kies’ criteria could be very useful in coming up with some models to test – maybe we should concentrate on one or a few of them, and use that as the basis for measuring how different modes of communication affect the quality of conversation? My guess is that different modes will be better or worse at different criteria, and that might give us some insight into what fosters a healthy commons.

    As usual, the second thing that comes to mind is to turn the problem on its head. The process of figuring out how to measure some of these criteria might point to a useful topic or set of rules or even a limited vocabulary that we could use for these trials.