The Social Media Public Sphere

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Abstract

This paper aims to explore how the public sphere has made a shift into the online world via social media. Due to the countless social media apps and platforms, I decided to specifically focus on using Facebook as the platform to analyze and use for examples. The paper will be divided into three sections. The first section will compare the original Public Sphere with, what I call, the ‘Social Media Public Sphere’. I will outline the differences and similarities between the two. The second section will integrate theories stemming from Social Network Analysis and explore how they compliment and help frame the aspects of the social media public sphere. For this section, I will typically refer to an article by Charles Kadushin, “Introduction to Social Network Theory”. The third section of the paper will analyze the role of globalization in integrating peoples tastes, concerns, interests, hobbies and etc. Consequently, leading to people from different parts of the globe sharing more commonalities than ever before. For this section, I will mostly refer to an article by George Ritzer, “Globalization Essentials”. Furthermore, I will use a few Facebook groups and pages as examples of what a social media public sphere is, and I will highlight a few capabilities. Finally, I will also shed some light on the limitations of the social media public sphere.

Introduction

Introducing a new type of the public sphere requires a breakdown. “Public” isn’t a physical entity, it isn’t locatable, and it isn’t marked. “The public” is an imaginary group of people, and the public sphere is an imaginary place. It is a space that exists between the state (government) and the private sphere of citizens (households). Ultimately, it is a communicative infrastructure, which in this case would be social media platform, specifically Facebook. This infrastructure, Facebook, allows for the free flow of information and ideas, deliberation on issues of public concern, the formation of public opinion, and the transmission of public opinion to official authorities. Authorities then have to be accountable for their actions, and make changes according to the consensus of the public.

In modern day, communication depends on advances in technology. If people recognize that a democratic public sphere is pivotal to good governance, the social media public sphere can become very effective. Two-way communications between citizens and public officials constitute the public sphere, therefore we need free and independent systems that facilitate this two-way flow of communication. Social media platforms can fill this void in modern age. For example, www.change.org took an early step, by being the first website to host online petitions, which can either be global or local. This website exemplifies a social media public sphere where citizens can actually influence political or corporate change. However, it does not host a space for deliberation or assembly. In the future, I can see Facebook hosting petitions and even political elections via online voting.

The Public Sphere

In contemporary society, social media outlets have allowed for the emergence of new ‘social media public spheres’. Coined by Jurgen Habermas in 1962, a ‘Public Sphere’ is an area of social life, such as a café or salon, where individuals can assemble freely to discuss and identify societal problems, and thus, through discussion and deliberation, they hope to influence political action (Habermas, 1962). Originally, the public sphere referred to a physical setting where individuals belonging to a community can come together and form public opinion. It was also a place for the community to challenge major corporations and the government’s social and economic power. The community was traditionally determined by geographic location and proximity to others. However, with the rise of the Internet, people can now assemble in ‘user communities’ online that are not based on colocation, but rather based on common hobbies, interests, concerns, or tastes. These online communities can be considered virtual public spheres where individuals from around the globe can gather, discuss, deliberate, establish NGO’s, and ultimately influence political change. For example, there is a page on Facebook called “Stop Global Warming”. The page has over 1 million likes and it provides a great setting for people from all across the world to come together and present or discuss ways to tackle climate change and global warming.

Not only do people not need to be in the same location to participate in social media public spheres, but also with major advances in telecommunications, people can stay connected through their mobile devices anytime and anywhere across the globe. Smartphones give us the capability to connect with others through text message, voice call, or video messaging. They also provide us with another device where which we can access social media platforms on the go by downloading their apps. Furthermore, smartphones also grant us access to the Internet, meaning we always have access to a limitless amount of information at our fingertips. According to Digital Trend’s Andy Boxall, 2 billion people worldwide own a smartphone, a number that is expected to rise to 6.1 billion users by 2020 (Boxall 2015). This means more people than ever will be participating in communication and interaction via social media, and thus, simultaneously participating in various social media public spheres.

Social Network Theory: Propinquity and Homophily

A Public Sphere can be considered a form of a network because of it capacity to facilitate the flow of communication. Therefore, the social network theory/analysis provides a great theoretical frame to use. The Social Network Theory gets most of its theoretical roots from sociologists such as George Simmell and Emile Durkheim. Specifically, the concepts of homophily and propinquity are most relevant to the social media public sphere. In social network analysis, propinquity explains that, “nodes are more likely to be connected to one another if they are geographically near to one another” (Kadushin 4, 2012). Meaning that people are more likely to connect and interact with others who are in their proximity or location. For example, people are more likely to form relationships with those at their school, in their neighbourhoods, and (in a bigger scope) in their city.

On the other hand, homophily is defined as “a tendency of individuals to associate and bond with similar others” (Kadushin 5, 2012). Therefore, meaning that we are more likely to connect with people who we share common grounds with. Kadushin identifies two main types of homophilical connection. The first is; we connect with those who we share common norms, values, attitudes, beliefs and tastes with (Kadushin 6, 2012). These are all things that can change or alter throughout our lives; therefore as we change so do those who we connect with. For example, a young man supports the conservative party and therefore he finds himself engaging with many other conservative thinkers. As time passes the young man begins to develop a more liberal ideology and therefore, he beings to engage with more liberal supporters. The second type of homophily is when we tend to connect with others who we share characteristics that are unchangeable, such as race, class, sex and religion (Kadushin 6, 2012). Obviously, it is more likely that two males become friends, rather than a male and female. The social media public sphere limits homophily that is based on this second type of homophilical connection, since social media platforms don’t discriminate on who can use them based on traits such as sex, class and religion. Therefore, you can say that the social media public sphere facilitates unlikely interactions, which are more based on the first type of homophilical connections.

Traditionally, assembly in Habermas’ original public sphere relied on propinquity first, followed by homophily second. People looking to assemble to discuss and deliberate issues were limited to gathering only with those around them. From those around them, individuals can then choose whom to assemble with based on homophily. The original public sphere was useful for tackling local issues that affected the immediate community. Today, especially via social media, we are capable of connecting with people from all across the globe based on homophily; common characteristics, attributes, and interests. Social media public spheres provide a space for citizens of the world to tackle global issues. In some cases, online interaction can lead to meeting and assembling in person. This feature of the social media public sphere is opposite to the traditional Habermas sphere, since interaction is influenced by homophily first and propinquity second. For example, an individual concerned with animal cruelty joins a Facebook page advocating for a stop to violence against animals. The individual begins to converse with other members of the group, from different parts of the world, who share his/her passion for animals. As the group grows in numbers, they decide to plan a protest against animal cruelty where they hope they can draw enough attention to influence political action against animal cruelty.

The role of Globalization

Simplifying George Ritzer’s definition, Globalization is the increasing liquidity and growing multidirectional flows across international borders. These flows include flows of people (migration), commodities, services, information, knowledge, norms, culture, policies, and finances etc. (Ritzer 2, 2011). Social media has been a great contributor to globalization because it facilitates flows of information, knowledge, and interaction between individuals almost instantaneously and regardless of where they are located. Marshall McLuhan theorized the “global village” phenomenon, which compares the world to a village. As globalization continues to occur the world becomes more like a village where it feels smaller than it is, and information tends to spread faster, getting to more people than ever before. Consequently, people worldwide begin to become exposed to the same information, leading them to develop concerns for common issues.

To explain this phenomenon in post-modern terms, Ritzer describes the ‘globalization of the market’. The rise of the Internet and advancement in transportation technologies have facilitated and increased the volume and speed of multidirectional flows (Ritzer 109, 2011). With things such as free trade, online shopping and advertising, cheap shipping and transport, and social media, separate national economies slowly begin to integrate into one world economy/market (Ritzer 111, 2011). Large multinational corporations can target any population in the world as an audience for advertising their products and brand, since everyone can be reached instantly. These multinational corporations have taken the power from national governments since they can operate in multiple nations simultaneously, and carry out business that transcends the borders of the home country. Therefore, we begin to see a convergence in tastes, preferences, consumption habits, and concern for issues. Particularly, these are issues that transcend national borders and require attention from multiple nations, or in some cases all nations (Ritzer 112, 2011). Social media public spheres provide a setting where people can assemble virtually and discuss these transcending issues (ex. Climate change). The social media public sphere has allowed for people to socially engage in what is happening in other parts of the world. The traditional public sphere was more useful for tackling issues that affected the local community.

Facebook as a Social Media Public Sphere

Facebook is an ideal example of a social media public sphere. Facebook has 1.59 billion monthly active users, the largest number of monthly active users for any social media platform (Macloughlin 17, 2010). Facebook brings people together regardless of race, age, class, and gender (Macloughlin 20, 2010). As a public sphere should, Facebook provides a space for those people to engage in discussion and deliberation. They give users, the ability to create and manage pages and groups addressing any issue or concern. In their mission statement, they state that, “Facebook…It allows users to trade ideas, stay informed with local or global developments, and unite people with common interests and/or beliefs through groups and other pages” (Facebook, 2014).

Facebook pages and groups can be compared to the café’s and salon’s Habermas referred to as when defining the public sphere. Anyone can create a group or start a page on Facebook addressing anything. Members of the group can discuss and debate on the blog-style discussion wall, along with the capability of sharing hyperlinks to external websites, articles, forums, pictures, music, and videos that could be of relation to what the group is addressing (Macloughlin 22, 2010). Users are also capable of liking, sharing, and commenting on these hyperlinks. Members of the group or page can also upload content from their hard drives, for example, a word document, pdf file, mp3 file, etc. By accessing the group information, members also have access to all of the members of the group. They can proceed to add them as a friend, or message them privately (Macloughlin 22, 2010).

A real example of a Facebook public sphere is the page “Stop Global Warming”. This page was created to address an issue of climate change; global warming. The page’s goal is to, “highlight news, causes, and nonprofits doing great work to stop global warming”, through which they hope to see political change/action. The page has over 370,000 likes worldwide. This page is a great example of a social media public sphere because it allows for people from all around the world to cooperatively tackle an issue that transcends their nation’s borders and governments. According to the World Public Opinion Org., climate change is a common concern for more than 80% of the world’s population, and social media (ex. Facebook) has become the perfect platform for people worldwide to assemble and figure out how to resolve or deplete it.

Another example is the Egyptian revolution. Egyptian citizens used Facebook as the main means of communication to organize and manage the protests and demonstrations against the Dictator Mubarak. The movement resulted in the overthrowing of Mubarak and the democratization of Egypt. So here, we see Facebook being a direct facilitator of public engagement leading to political change.

Negative Aspects of the Social Media Public Sphere

Along with its benefits, the social media public sphere also has its limitations. First, the social media public sphere is threatened by the mass media and its attempts to commercialize the Internet. For example, Facebook uses complex algorithms that track interactions on the platform making them traceable, calculable, and manipulable for profit. The data is then sold to advertisers, who then can create more intimate and efficient advertising that is geared towards the specific individual based on their interactions and information (Couldry et al. 5, 2015). Bombarding users with advertisements on Facebook constantly invades the pubic sphere, which should be a democratic space free of advertiser influence. It is turning Facebook into an online magazine, rather than a space for people to come together and interact.

One credential of Habermas’ original public sphere is that all citizens have access. However, not everyone affected by an issue has access to a social media platform, or even the Internet, in order to participate in online discussions. This is what is referred to as the digital divide. Billions of people around the world, mainly those who are poor, do not have access to a computer or the Internet (Macloughlin 14, 2010). For example, statistics show that only 7 in 100 Africans have access to the internet (Macloughlin 14, 2010). Therefore, a social media public sphere mainly facilitates citizens of first world nations, but fails to include the voices of citizens of developing nations, who are in more dire need of being able to voice their adversaries, and assemble with others around them to find solutions. Especially because they often have problems that need immediate attention, such as lack of fresh water, lack of food, and lack of electricity. Research by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has also shown that income, race, gender, education, and class all make a difference to who has Internet access (Macloughlin 15, 2010).

Internet Users (2012) Wikipedia 2016

Lastly, social media can contribute to slacktivism. For example, we are exposed to so much news and issues on Facebook that we can become desensitized to world issues that are not directly affecting us. On the other hand, we can become absorbed by social media and end up spending ample amount of time online discussing and deliberating that we forget to contribute, through actions, in our own local communities (Macloughlin 19, 2010). If slacktivism occurs, then the social media public sphere will never reach its ultimate goal of creating or influencing political change.

Conclusion

As the world continues to experience advances in communications and technology, Habermas’ notion of the Public Sphere from the 1960’s has been able to evolve and adapt to post-modern times. Today we see the emergence of the ‘social media public sphere’, which is the capability of social media platforms to provide virtual spaces that resemble and portray Habermas’ ideas of assemblage, discussion, deliberation, and advocating for political action or change. People assembling online, via social media, form what is known as “user communities”. Unlike local communities, connection in online user communities is based on homophily; things you have in common with others, rather than propinquity; connecting with others based on proximity. Globalization plays a role in integrating separate national economies and markets into one world market, which facilitates the merging of people’s tastes, consumption habits, interests, and concerns. With more and more people sharing common concerns for issues, social media platforms such as Facebook provide a great space for people from across the world to assemble virtually and discuss, debate, and exchange information and knowledge through text, music, picture, and video. Furthermore, social media public spheres allow for people to confront major world issues that transcend government jurisdiction and power. These are issues such as climate change, hydro politics, drug trade, polluting of water, migration, poverty, and others issues relating to human rights and ethics.

Of course, the social media public sphere also has its limitations. It is more and more being invaded by advertising. The public sphere is meant to be free of advertiser influence in order to preserve an equal and comfortable space for discussion and deliberation, and not a space for market activities. However selling information and ad space to advertisers is how these platforms make their money. Also, not everyone has access to the internet, and therefore the social media public sphere is only exclusive to those with internet access, who tend to be citizens of first world countries in the west. This means that the problems and issues of the poor developing nations often go under the radar and remain unaddressed in the media. Furthermore, It is a fear of some that the more we are exposed to content containing violence, unjust inequality, abuse and so on, we become desensitized to these acts. This leads to a slacktivism where we begin to ignore these issues unless they are directly affecting our lives. It can also lead to people focusing more on their online participation, but forgetting to engage in making their local communities a better place.

The social media public sphere is an evolved and adapted version of Habermas’ original public sphere, except in a virtual setting. They both have the same capabilities and limitations. The main differences are that the social media public sphere facilitates engagement and interaction based on homophily first rather than propinquity. Also, the social media public sphere can be applied to the entire world, while the original public sphere is mainly applied to the direct local community.

References

Ritzer, G. (2011). Globalization — the Essentials. Wiley-Blackwell, pp: 1–23.

Habermas, J. (1996) “The Transformation of the Public Sphere’s Political Function” in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (translated by Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence). USA, Mass: MIT Press. pp. 181–235

Kadushin, Charles. Understanding Social Networks: Theories, Concepts, and Findings. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print

Macloughlin, Ben. Academia (2010): 1–40. Print. To What Extent Does Facebook Function as a Public Sphere? Academia. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.

Boxall, Andy. “The Number of Smartphone Users in the World Is Expected to Reach a Giant 6.1 Billion by 2020.” Digital Trends. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2016.

Van Dijck, José. “Facebook as a tool for producing sociality and connectivity” Television & New Media. (2012)

Couldry, Nick and van Dijck, José (2015) “Researching social media as if the social mattered.” Social Media and Society, 1(2). pp. 1–7

Conroy, C. (2014). Smartphones and Social Media: Identity and Interaction.