Since Jürgen Habermas’ 1962 study of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, the world of media and politics has changed. Reason enough to assess what the public used to be, what it currently is, and what it could be.
For a tl;dr summary, scroll down.
For all others: This essay arms you with powerful arguments for why Europeans need to figure out how to make our public great again!
I. WHAT THE PUBLIC USED TO BE
Radio had been around for several decades, but given the problematic history of monopolized use of radio for propaganda purposes by the Nazis, Habermas was still skeptical of the emerging mass media in his native Germany.
Television was still in its infancy. Only in the 1950s, it emerged as a relevant factor in the media mix. Newspapers already had longstanding tradition and were still the preferred medium for many, and included commercial outlets from private newspaper corporations.
Even this pre-digital mediascape had its controversies. One, for Habermas, was the question whether private actors should be allowed to distribute content at all through public broadcasting or newspaper licenses. He later conceded that society benefited from privately funded quality journalism.
The controversy flared up again decades later. While the US had licensed private radio since the 1920s and private television since the 40s, it took many European countries until the 1980s to allow private media into their strictly regulated broadcasting systems.
A similar reluctance to incorporate social media into their journalism in the early 2000s confirms how careful the institutional broadcasting systems in Europe have been about professional standards and the gatekeeper function they had monopolized for so long.
All pre-digital media are essentially one-to-many broadcasting technologies. Newspapers, radio, television — they all send out information packets curated by an elite group of professional editors.
This socio-cultural consensus prevailed until late in the 20th century, when amateur blogs and early versions of interactive digital media started puncturing the professional publishing conventions.
Once digital devices and high-speed internet became cheap enough to take entire populations by storm and made connectivity radical and ubiquitous, the gradual transformation accelerated into a full-blown digital revolution.
II. WHAT THE PUBLIC CURRENTLY IS
Where in the old world of media professional editors broadcast curated programs into a largely voiceless mass of consumers, the new world of media became dominated by the vocal opinion dynamics of proactively posting, sharing, commenting producer-consumers.
This flips most of the traditional media wisdom on its head. What used to make programs trustworthy — polish, perfection, studios, staging, etc. — is now inspiring mistrust. “Why is this all so perfectly impersonal? Are they trying to hide something from me? What’s happening behind the scene? Something must be up.”
Amateur video, comment, perspective is now celebrated as authentic. While this does make it easier for marginalized voices to get attention in the mainstream, it paradoxically makes it harder as well, because the sheer amount of content put out requires algorithms sorting out individual pieces of content into highly personalized timelines.
Curation algorithms like Facebook’s News Feed have created the perfect fragmentation of the public. The Habermasian world of mass media public is all but dead.
Now consider the European continent: Its media environment is already fragmented through the language barriers across the content. Most European nationals know things about other European nations and cultures only through the lens of their own national, mostly mono-lingual media elites.
What do the Yellow Vests in France think? How does the 5 Star Movement in Italy work? Why did people vote for Brexit? The only answers Europeans get to these questions is shaped, and sometimes vexed, by the correspondents and journalists of national media outlets.
Niklas Luhmann has observed that everything we know, we know through the media, but we know enough about our media that we cannot trust them. This creates an epic dilemma, which makes us at once dependent on and resentful of our media outlets.
III. WHAT THE PUBLIC COULD BE
The current process of learning about other perspectives in Europe through national, mono-lingual journalism turns out to be highly precarious.
We want to see the original video, not the translated interpretation. We want to see what happens behind the scenes, not an informal press release. We want to hear from the protagonists directly, not the edited version of the media elites.
But we all lack time, knowledge, language skills and connections to receive such immediate and direct access to current events. So how can power direct access, while strengthening journalism in the process?
Because of the fragmentation of the public sphere, we cannot rely on a single broadcast medium of the olden days. It will only ever reach one specific target group and never reliably reach through the existing curation algorithms on Facebook and others. We also cannot just through all kinds of contents on one platform without solving the language barrier.
We need to envision a new kind of platform for a new kind of public sphere. I call it: The Intercontextual Public.
Such an intercontextual public is defined by original perspectives from the various different contexts in Europe and celebrates the contextual media landscapes, while working hard to build seamless points of interconnection between the different language-based media spheres.
The only way to build such an intercontextual public on a multilingual continent is to build a platform for national media outlets that solves the hard problem of translation between those language-specific media bubbles.
The hard part of building the intercontextual European public is not the idea. Anyone with good knowledge of digital media, a basic understanding of cultural anthropology and the platform economy can come up with it.
The hard part is the execution of this idea. If it were easy, it would have been done successfully already.
The European search engine Quaero backed with money from France and Germany failed (close to) completely. And none of the European social media platforms have managed to make a lasting transnational impact.
So while the idea of a European media platform with social media functionalities and curation algorithms with a public-service logic is becoming more popular, the path to its implementation and success is murky.
Solving the technological, socio-cultural and product design problem of The Intercontextual Public is the defining challenge for young European media entrepreneurs of this generation!
That conviction is what the mission of Forum.eu is built on. And its success or failure will be the answer to this fundamental question:
Will Europe be able to reinvent its media system quick enough to save its public-service ethos and the freedoms, fundings and protections for quality journalism to check powerful institutions through a truly public discourse?
- The media world described by Habermas in 1962 has changed from one-to-many mass broadcasting to fragmented algorithmic sub-publics.
- Social Media has made us expect direct access without filter and interpretation. But we lack time, knowledge and language to study and consume all European perspectives in their original contexts.
- Hence: We need to build a platform that gives direct access, but solves the problem of translation and curation with a public-service mindset.
- The hard part is not the idea, but the execution. If it were easy, it would have been done successfully already.
- The goal of building The Interconcextual Public in Europe is the defining challenge for this generation’s young media entrepreneurs in Europe.