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NMNA Week 2: Virtual Community & the Public Sphere

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Patrick Sharbaugh

on 19 September 2017

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Transcript of NMNA Week 2: Virtual Community & the Public Sphere

Traditionally a community has been defined as a group of interacting people interacting in a common location.
Benedict Anderson
"Imagined Communities" (1983)
An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity.
Howard Rheingold
"The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier" (1993)
e.g. nationhood
In the mediated world, it no longer matters where you are. The self is removed from space. We can be members of communities that have nothing to do with our physical location.
“Social aggregations that emerge from the Internet when enough people carry on public discussions long enough and with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace .”
Civil Society
The fundamental architecture of the Internet is inherently democratic – a tool for perfectly open, equal access to unfettered communication.
A democratic structure is not the same as a political democracy.
“Civil society is the arena in which people come together to pursue the interests they hold in common – not for profit or the exercise of political power, but because they care enough about something to take collective action." - The World Bank, 2000
Non-governmental and non-commercial activities and organizations.
Closely related to the idea of the ‘public sphere’
“The part of social life where citizens can exchange views on matters of importance to the common good, so that public opinion can be formed. This public sphere comes into being when people gather to discuss issues of social or political concern.”

Through acts of assembly and dialogue, the public sphere generates opinions and attitudes which serve to affirm or challenge - therefore, to guide - the affairs of state. 
Habermas defined the public sphere as a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space. 
Civil society includes organisations like charities, NGOs, community groups, women's organisations, religious and professional organisations, trade unions, grassroots associations, social movements, clubs, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.
The arena of voluntary collective action around shared interests, purposes and values separate from those of the state, family and commercial institutions.
Cyberspace is the new public sphere*
a vibrant public sphere and active civil society
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
(Lord Acton, 1887)
(Sound familiar?)
In this sense, the media is expected to serve as a critical part of the checks and balances that form a strong democracy.
In most democracies, the institution of Journalism and the media as a ‘Fourth Estate’ is predicated on the idea that a primary function of the press (i.e. the media) is to act as a guardian of the public interest and as a watchdog on the activities of government.
The public sphere is closely related to the notion of the “marketplace of ideas.”
Based upon John Milton’s central argument for freedom of expression, which was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. In order to be able to exercise this reason correctly, the individual must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in “a free and open encounter.” From Milton’s writings developed the concept of the open marketplace of ideas, the idea that when people argue against each other the better argument will prevail.
The concept of the “marketplace of ideas” holds that the truth or the best policy arises out of the competition of widely various ideas in free, transparent public discourse.
Most modern liberal democracies in the world are founded upon the Enlightenment principle that states: “That government is best which governs least.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1781)
What are the implications of that for Asian nations?
Democratic nations (like India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore) depend strongly upon...
The State
Civil Society
The Press & News Media
A Fourth Estate
It's even a challenge for Western nations.
The Three Estates
The simplest way to see civil society is as a "third sector," separate from government and business.
"intermediary institutions" that give voice to various groups in society and facilitate public participation in the affairs of state.
Jurgen Habermas: "The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere" (1962)
The Public Sphere
Habermas emphasizes the role of the public sphere as a way for citizens and groups within society to make their interests widely known.
The public sphere was 'transformed' by the rise of mass media?
Because mass media are no good at creating conversations
The free & open character of Internet was modeled upon the connection its creators saw between free, unrestricted speech and the democratic process
In democracies, citizens have a
to participate in the process of government - guiding the affairs of state by discussing social and political matters and policy.
They can only fulfill this obligation as citizens if they are:
And the millions of conversations that make up the public sphere are where 'public opinion' comes from in a society.
But without those conversations, public opinion is created from the top down (i.e. from mass media) instead of from the bottom up (i.e. from the people's discussions, i.e. the public sphere.)
Civil Society is all of the VOLUNTARY ORGANIZATIONS in society that exist independent of government and for-profit purposes -- as well as all of their activities, goals and objectives, and the means by which they communicate and organize themselves in society.
The Public Sphere is all of the CONVERSATIONS about issues important to society that ordinary people have as well as the SPACES (physical and virtual) in which those conversations take place.
The Internet has been crucial to the development of both of these phenomena in developed and developing nations.
(1) autonomous individuals and (2) civic associations in relation to the state, (3) engaged in organized activities in a (4) public sphere outside the immediate control of the state but not entirely contained within the private sphere of the family.
David Strand, 1993. ‘Civil society and public sphere in modern Chinese history’, in Roger V. des Forges, Luo Ning and Wu Yen-bo, eds, Chinese Democracy and the Crisis of 1989 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, p. 54.
These four elements are interrelated.
public sphere functions with a critical public willing and able to hold government accountable for its actions
social organizations function to protect or extend the interests of individual citizens, often in the form of organized protest or social movements;
Individual and organizational autonomy are the basic conditions of public sphere
The concept of civil society has four basic elements:
Why did Acton believe every class (i.e. everyone in a society) is unfit to govern?
The result of this process is what's commonly called 'public opinion'?
How does public opinion form?
Many-to-Many Communication
Virtual Community
makes possible
The Public Sphere
Empowers Citizens, Public Debate, and Civil Society Organizations
In your groups, examine the public sphere in an Asian nation of your choice:
Try to identify
One topic of conversation "relating to society" that's occurring in the public sphere right now
Would this have been possible before the Internet and the rise of virtual communities?
What possible outcomes might happen from the formation of public opinion on this issue? How might public opinion "guide the affairs of state"?
Where those conversations are happening online
Many-to-Many Communication
"The Internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time. Whereas the phone gave us the one-to-one pattern, and television, radio, magazines, books, gave us the one-to-many pattern, the Internet gives us the many-to-many pattern. For the first time, media is natively good at supporting these kinds of conversations."
Clay Shirky
The Internet
was created for Western purposes by people with very Western ideas.
Much of what we will study this semester is a direct result of this new phenomenon.
Virtual Community
The Online Public Sphere
The Public Sphere
Virtual Communities
Are far more powerful and influential than traditional communities
In his book
Remember: that wasn't an accident - it was by design
Virtual Communities are
limited to social networks
Discussion forums
Meme hubs
Online news media
All these are virtual communities, but not social networks.
But today we'll discuss how it has allowed the development of powerful new forms of
1) knowledgeable about all the possible ideas and opinions in society
2) can openly discuss and criticize government policy without fear.
Why? Because in democratic nations a government's legitimacy derives from the will of the citizens, not from its own power.
The Internet and digital technologies have empowered citizens and civil society organizations in those nations as well.
But unlike in democracies, that's not always considered a good thing.
But that
mean there's no public sphere in them.
Many Asian nations are not democracies.
How do
participate in the public sphere?
Sometimes as random virtual communities of people who don't really know each other, but share a common interest or concern.
But also commonly as organized groups that wish to actively influence public opinion and, therefore, government policy.
"Under the Dome"
Animals Asia Campaign
Coins for Australia
Public Debate of Social and Political Issues
Implications for Civil Society
They are much larger than traditional communities - and therefore their conversations are much larger
Those conversations are very often conducted in public view
1. All the conversations about a given issue
2. All the places where those conversations are happening
*There's LOTS of academic debate about whether this is in fact true, but we're going to accept it as true for now
Virtual Community:
Each Asian nation approaches this challenge in a different way
Spooked by overwhelming citizen reaction to a documentary about environmental pollution, in mid-2015 Chinese authorities threw their massive propaganda apparatus into reverse. Just days after its wide mainstream media release in 2015, a hard-hitting documentary about China’s deadly pollution, "Under the Dome," sparked a long-awaited national conversation about the bleak state of China’s environment. State media even seemed to support it, with one nationalist outlet labeling criticism of the film “unpatriotic.” But in a major and sudden about-face, Chinese authorities issued a directive ordering the end of coverage, and state media rushed to delete once-ubiquitous references to the film, in the process quashing a nascent but earnest national dialogue.
Find a recent example in Asia in which a virtual community of people, communicating among themselves about an issue they considered important, was able to influence the policies of their government (or bring about social change in another way) through the formation of public opinion.
It doesn’t have to be a 'political' example – any topic of discussion that had a large-scale social effect.
The Online Public Sphere in Action
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