The concept of the public sphere is certainly not a new one. In 1962 Jürgen Habermas released The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), which discussed the rise and fall of the bourgeois public sphere in 18th century Europe (McGuigan 2005). The term public sphere is both dynamic and broad however it generally implies a spatial concept where meanings are articulated, distributed and negotiated. It is something of a social experience where public opinion can be formed and it is essentially accessible to ‘all’.
The public sphere is a very important tool within modern society. I mean it’s basically the key between media and democracy. However the public sphere is also subject to dramatic change, which makes it kind of hard to follow. In this digital age
online communication has certainly taken over from coffeehouse discourse (Boeder 2005). The traditional media of radio, television and especially the press, used to be the main source for disseminating information about society (Berkowitz 2009). Now, with the rise of the digital age, comes a new space for public discussion, the Internet. Online communities and social networking have produced new spaces for information, debate and especially participation. This has meant a drastic change for traditional journalism. The media audience has gained more and more control over the information it was once hand-fed through specific and measured media channels (yum?).
One of the interesting aspects of this new online public sphere is the many-to-many communication it allows. The ‘info-sphere’, ‘blogosphere’ and ‘twittersphere’ appear to be ideal spaces for initiating public debate and social change. Both like-minded and oppositional individuals can use these spaces to exchange views, knowledge and their opinions (Iosifidis 2011). In theory these spaces are now where a public-minded rational consensus can be developed… but what happens when these consensuses are not so rational?
Not only can news content and audience feedback become blurred to create false information (Berkowitz) but also anybody can have their say. This can result in conspiracy theories (Missing Malaysian Flight M370), an increase in ‘entertaining’ media content and overall something of a pseudo public sphere (McGuigan 2005). The media audience now has access to whatever media content they want. Meaning they can stuff themselves to the brim with stories that are fascinating rather than real. For example, think about how much media coverage and online support Ellen’s famous selfie received. Around the same date this was happening to Ukraine. Now which did you hear more about?
Another important note to remember is that an ideal public sphere means access from ALL citizens… more than a quarter of the world still doesn’t have access to electricity. Which means an online public sphere predominantly reflects the narrow view of the developed world. Without electricity, the idea of participating in a global online public sphere is an unrealisable dream…
Berkowitz, Dan, 2009, “Journalism in the broader Mediascape,” Journalism, Vol. 10(3): 290-292
Iosifidis, Petros ‘The Public Sphere, Social Networks and Public Service Media’, Information, Communication and Society, 31 Jan 2011
McGuigan, Jim, 2005, The cultural public sphere, Cultural Studies, 8:4, pp. 427-443.