Digital Media and Conceptions of the Public Sphere


The appearance of a great variety of new information and communication technologies and their rapid spread in various layers of society have radically modified people’s communicative practices and their information-handling behaviours. Simultaneously, both scientific and lay representations of communications and communicative situations have also changed. The internet has not only challenged established conceptions about space, time, and access, but also about publicness, activity and interaction. Communication is no longer seen as just one sphere of social life; it is increasingly thought of by social scientists as a basic social category, a driving force of social integration (Habermas, 1981). Theories of information society (Bell, 1973; Masuda, 1980; Toffler, 1990; Webster, 1995; Castells, 1996–7) treat communication and the societal dimensions of its increased significance within a conceptual/methodological framework of either sociology or communication science. Within this framework of academic analysis, the interplay of changes brought about by the proliferation of digital media is clearly expressed in the idea of electronic public sphere, which itself depends heavily on the working of the dominant forms of communication.

The new form of communication – computer-mediated communication – which emerged after the birth of the internet, led to the evolution of important questions about its nature. Does it contribute to a higher degree of social integration? Does it enrich the interaction between the citizen, social groupings and their governments? In what manner, and on what level, does it connect and reintegrate individuals? Does it create an open space of free-floating discourse, or does it constitute a representative order linked to particular institutions that confine public discourse? In what manner, if at all, does it transform the institutional infrastructure of the public sphere and what impact does it have on the collective representation of the public? The present paper shows how attempts by leading social theorists at finding answers to these questions have led to a conceptual shift in understanding the public sphere.

The Public and the Public Sphere

With Rousseau and particularly Bentham, the concept of ‘the public’ as a sort of popular tribunal expressing opinions and representing the general will gained prominence in political-philosophical discourses. The concept of the public was also essential for theorizations of public opinion in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Early normative-political theories of public opinion may be defined as substantive, in contrast to what Francis G. Wilson later named adjective theories (1962). In adjective theories, the term ‘public’ is used as an adjective denoting the specific quality of an (individual or collective) opinion. In contrast, the conceptualization of public opinion as ‘opinion of the public’ stresses a firm, authoritative singleness of ‘the public’ as a (universal) collective subject expressing the public opinion—as opposed to the irrational, emotional, and even violent behavior of its antonyms—the crowd and the mass.

When public opinion – or public opinion tribunal as it used to be called—became the superior authority and replaced that position in the king, it was considered a process by which individuals incorporated into the public expressed approval or disapproval of any actions in particular places. In the eighteenth century, some references were made to authentic bearers of public opinion of the time. The concept of the public did not denote the people or citizenry at large but rather a small fraction of them, such as groups of erudite individuals critically discussing the matters of literature and art, and reading and occasionally contributing to newspapers. These were considered the men of letters, newspaper journalists and their editors who supposedly represented the new bourgeois class. When specific ‘tasks’ of public opinion were referred to, surveillance of the execution of power and formation of the unified will were in the limelight.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, two distinct theoretical paradigms had been established: (1) the normative-democratic paradigm linking the public and public opinion to political participation and democracy (represented by Tarde, Tönnies, and Dewey among others), and (2) the authoritarian paradigm emphasizing the repressive role of public opinion that hinders individuals’ freedom of expression (e.g. Tocqueville, Bryce, Ross, and Lippmann). Both paradigms nearly crumbled in the face of the polling industry, which challenged traditional theories of public opinion.

Gabriel Tarde conceived of the public as ‘a purely spiritual collectivity, a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental’ (Tarde, 1969: 277). For Tarde, the public could not exist without the press, since reading newspapers creates individuals’ ‘simultaneous conviction or passion and in their awareness of sharing at the same time an idea or a wish with a great number of other men’ regardless of his or her specific location (p. 278). No less important are private conversations among them, in which they discuss and interpret news that newspapers provide.

For Dewey, the public was more than a simple social category of individuals sharing the same information provided by newspapers and discussing them in small groups in the cafés, and more than people who think and judge similarly. He conceptualized the public as a large body of persons having a common interest in controlling the consequences of social transactions in which, for any reason, they did not participate. According to him, communication is a process of sharing experience till it becomes a common possession. Early normative theories such as Dewey’s considered publicness one of the fundamental principles of democratic governance and emphasized the principal role of the public as the fourth power or watchdog maintaining surveillance over the government.

The concept of the public sphere was introduced into English written works with the translation of Habermas’s book as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), and it rapidly and almost completely eliminated the traditional concept of ‘the public’ from critical-theoretical discourse. Ebscohost’s ‘Communications and Mass Media Complete’ database documents four scholarly journal articles referring to ‘the public sphere’ in their titles in the period from 1900-1984, 11 in the period 1985-89, and 343 in the period 1990-2005. Of 265 book titles that include the words ‘public sphere’ displayed at the website, seven were published before 1990 but none before 1984. The once prominent concept of ‘the public’ that dominated for two hundred years — think of Tarde, Tönnies, Dewey, Park, Lippmann, Blumer, Mills, not to speak of Bentham — almost disappeared from theories dazzled with the splendor of the new concept.

The public sphere is commonly understood as a specific sphere, domain, or ‘imagined space’ of social life existing between, and constituted by, the state and civil society, which represents an infrastructure for social integration through public discourse—a kind of ‘opinion market’—in contrast to political power in the sphere of politics and market mechanisms in the sphere of economy, both of which represent specific forms of social integration through competition. It is activated in the communicative interdependence and rational-critical discourse among citizens potentially affected by transactions in which they do (or did) not participate—thus creating the public as a social category—where the legislated laws of the state and the market laws of the economy are (or ought to be) suspended. Public sphere represents the locus where private citizens engage in ‘the public use of reason,’ as conceptualized by Kant.

The notion of public sphere necessarily relies on the existing communication processes and it may be said that it depends heavily on the working of the dominant forms of communication. The public sphere, which was in principle open to all citizens, was, according to Habermas (1989), constituted in every conversation in which private persons came together to form a public. The web of face-to-face dialogue, in which individual claims are measured by the criteria of rational argumentation, set up a complex and vivid framework of thoughts in which public life developed. Consequently, the lack of interpersonal dialogue and individual exchange was seen as contributing to the demise of the public sphere and its “refeudalisation” (Habermas, 1989).

The growing popularity of the concept ‘public sphere’ was given a strong impetus by rapidly growing computer-mediated communication of the Internet in the 1990s, which also brought about new puzzles about the public sphere concept. In contrast to the ‘mediated publicness’ based on the operation of traditional, non-interactive press and broadcast media, the Internet and intranets offer new opportunities for participatory communication. The Internet technology further expands the process of the transformation of an individual opinion into public opinion. With the new interactive networks it has created, the Internet substantially increased the feasibility of citizens’ participation in public discourse. It helped develop a deterritorialized (transnational) public sphere not bound to particular locality. In this way, the Internet had a constitutive role in the development of informal global communication networks of individuals, organizations and movements, which may help create an international civil society aspiring at a genuinely cosmopolitan public.

In its early period, the Internet was believed to radically challenge hierarchical, top-down mass communication model typical of traditional media, and to democratize not only communication but also political relations in general, irrespective of all other (former) impediments. It was thought to offer new possibilities for political participation leading to a kind of direct democracy not only locally but even at the national level: a genuine or ‘strong’ electronic democracy was expected to oust populist democracy dominated by traditional mass media, particularly television. Similar hopes are invested in digitization of television. While there is no doubt that new types of engagement are made possible by new communication technologies (in developed societies), it is much more questionable if they indeed stimulate and revive political participation and civic engagement, and the development of a genuine public sphere.

The public sphere is the arena in which civil society informs itself and exchanges ideas and opinions with other social actors ‘representing’ the two remaining realms, those of the state and the economy. The concept of civil society is closely related and often confused with that of the public sphere, since the central part of civil society is occupied by associations that form opinions and serve as a hub for an autonomous public sphere.

The Internet and New Understandings of the Public Sphere

In a key text addressing the role of the Internet in transforming the nature of the public sphere, Mark Poster (1997, p. 217) claims that “contemporary social relations seem to be devoid of a basic level of interactive practice.” For Poster, the physical forums for ‘interactive practice’ such as the agora, the New England town hall, the village Church, the coffee house, the tavern, the public square, a convenient barn, a union hall, a park, a factory lunchroom, and even a street corner, are in decline. The central factor behind such a demise of embodied assembly is, according to Poster, the concomitant rise of broadcast media which “isolate citizens from one another and substitute themselves for older spaces of politics.”

Poster takes up John Hartley’s argument that, for all intents and purposes, broadcast media are the public sphere, “the place where the means by which the public is created has its being” (p. 217). In Hartley’s view, the media provide a spectral space which, although it lacks the possibility of direct interaction, allows participants to express public opinion through the act of consuming media as well as relating to a common culture of discourses. If it is true, as Hartley and perhaps the media theorist Jean Baudrillard (1983) would suggest, that the electronic media have eclipsed and displaced the public sphere, then a great deal of pressure is placed on understanding what kind of public sphere electronic media produce.

Since Habermas put forward his thesis of a unitary public sphere, many theorists have suggested alternative models such as Negt & Kluge’s (1993) idea of an ‘oppositional’ working class public sphere, Rita Felski’s idea of a feminist public sphere and Nancy Fraser’s (1990) notion of a ‘post-bourgeois’ public sphere. What is distinctive about these last mentioned models is that they each define themselves against a unified public sphere as pervaded by some version or other of a ‘dominant ideology’ – be it patriarchal or bourgeois or perhaps ‘logocentric’ and based too much on decision-making and questions of ‘consciousness.’ More recently, newer understandings of a public sphere have emerged which can be viewed as qualitatively different from traditional civic and media-extended accounts of ‘publicness.’ These newer theses take account of interactive media and ‘interactivity’ as considerations in the delimitation of alternative possibilities of civic integration.

Todd Gitlin (1998) has advanced the idea of ‘public sphericules,’ segmented spheres of assimilation which have their own dynamics and forms of constitution. He argues that “a single public sphere is unnecessary as long as segments constitute their own deliberative assemblies” (Gitlin, 1998, p. 173). Gitlin suggests that the segmented assembly constituted by computer-mediated communities do loosely interrelate, but more in their difference from each other. It is akin to the state generated public sphere implied by ‘multiculturalism,’ in which a citizen, such as in Australia or America, might adopt a national identity by embracing a much more unitary principle of publicness – liberal or communitarian pluralism.

Gitlin’s view accords with the thesis of Barbara Becker and Josef Wehner (1998), who argue that interactive media support the formation of ‘partial publics’ – “discourses characterised by context-specific argumentation strategies and special themes” (p. 1). Becker and Wehner still subscribe to the idea that traditional mass media have the central role of mobilizing and institutionalizing public opinion, but argue that interactive media is growing in significance as a space for the formation of ‘pre-institutional’ forms of public opinion. Interactive media enable alternative kinds of public opinion, but this ‘alternativeness’ does not come out of ideological reaction to dominant values in the media, but from the structure of interactive mediums themselves. Thus, they follow Neidhardt and Gerhards in arguing that different forums of public opinion – based on direct or extended interaction, on assemblies, or on the mass media -correspond to different ways of “selecting, clustering and spreading information” (Becker & Wehner, 1998, p. 2).

Technologically-extended interactive environments are distinguished from mass media by the fact that they are unable to constitute a ‘mass’ in which individuals are related together as spectral ‘citizens.’ The Internet promotes differentiation rather than homogenization by “generating polycontextual communication structures” in which there is no citizen who is discussing with other citizens on the net. Rather, there are simply individuals – such as experts, old people, homosexuals, women, men, children, youngsters – who debate their particular interests on the net” (Becker & Wehner, 1998, p. 2). Becker and Wehner echo many of the advances made by that of the ‘second media age’ theorists. However, they add two important observations which challenge the characterisation of the Internet as a free decentralized structure. First, they point out that the Internet is characterized by numerous submedia which are ‘thematically restricted domains’ – a point to which I will return. Second, less and less information on the Net can be regarded as ‘public’ and universally accessible as, increasingly, the bulk of Internet content becomes colonized by contextless fragmented information (advertising, spam, unverified messages) while a significant volume of ‘bandwith’ is used ‘privately’ – accessible by institutional and private elites.

The success of any argument claiming a special role for the Internet in the constitution of a new public sphere rests on its ability to establish an imaginary unity in which all participants have equal opportunity for ‘observation’ and communication. This postulated imaginary unity, most well known in the phrase ‘virtual community,’ seldom reconciles itself with the fact that ‘the Internet’ is not at all technically homogenous and is segmented into quite a range of properties and capabilities, each of which carry different sociological and communicative potentials and effects.

It is true that, unlike television, the Internet is a network as well as ‘dialogical’ capable of a two-way dialogue, and for this reason is applauded as a universalizing structure of communication. But its network properties are rarely realized in communication directly, rarely do they become meaningful quanetwork because, as Becker and Wehner point out, individuals only ever ‘use’ the Internet within well-defined sub-mediums. Trevor Barr usefully breaks down the different kinds of interaction on the Internet into six categories:

  1. one-to-one messaging (such as email);
  2. one-to-many messaging (such as ‘listserv’);
  3. distributed message databases (such as USENET news groups);
  4. real-time communication (such as ‘Internet Relay Chat’);
  5. real-time remote computer utilisation (such as ‘telnet’); and
  6. remote information retrieval (such as ‘ftp’, ‘gopher’ and the World Wide Web’) (Barr, 2000)

It can be seen from this list that the Internet provides a generic environment for a number of different modes of interaction which can vary according to real-time/stored time, symmetrical versus asymmetrical dialogue, broadcast sending and receiving and information posting and retrieval.

But each of these modes of interaction relates very differently to the possible constitution of an ‘electronic public sphere.’ Moreover, the information and communication possibilities of the Internet are more often than not parasitic of broadcast-mediated communication. The growth of companion websites which accompany media organizations, newspapers, consumer products, sporting events, etc., provide an astonishing array of reasons why information retrieval, listserv, and interactive databases available on the Internet are turned to. When CMC is broken down into specific sub-media rather than reduced to the indeterminacy of ‘the Internet’ as a communication environment, a more sophisticated appreciation of the technological transformations of the public sphere is enabled, and the advancement of new accounts of context-specific partial publics is one outcome. However, at the same time, the global reach and mobility of all forms of Internet communication, regardless of the specificities of their sub-media, also needs to be accounted for. The reason for this is because it is impossible to separate the significance of contemporary CMC from its antecedent and wider context of broadcast communication culture.

This is significant because, whereas broadcast generates an instant ‘international context’ of social connection, there are few ways in which individuals can achieve meaningful interaction to make tangible these global connections. There are telephones and other ‘narrowband’ ways of communicating, but none of these is quite able to provide a multi-media context for any given interaction. The Internet, it is argued by its promoters, changes all of that.

Besides being hailed as a technology which can deliver the ‘global village,’ the Internet is also promoted as a singular medium which allows for democratized processes which were not previously possible in the era of broadcast. But what kinds of democracy are being postulated here? Traditionally, and more than ever now, democracy is heavily aligned with the nation-state. Because of this, nonsense is made of the claim that the Internet enables universal participation in democratic process. The point here is that practices of communication afforded by CMC may be able to substitute some of the functions of the mass media – for example in the formation of pre-institutional public opinion – but do not necessarily exert pressure on the institutional apparatus of politics. Of course the mass media, as a means of electronically mediated communication, can never replace the institutional apparatus of politics and, as numerous studies have shown, has been just as much used by politicians as it has influenced them. Secondly, the Internet can properly be classified as a ‘global’ technology, which enables connections with individuals and institutions overseas just as easily as is does nationally, regionally or locally. If there is an imagined community (Anderson, 1982) on the Internet, it is definitely not the nation-state. State-bounded kinds of citizenship cannot be considered coterminous with the kinds of citizenship which are achieved on the Internet. However, this is not to argue that a global sense of citizenship, even if it too is an ‘imagined one,’ cannot exist. Recent protests against international financial institutions such as the World Bank were organized almost entirely through Internet media – a case of not so visible electronic assemblies producing very visible embodied assemblies.

Democracy and Interaction

In his book The Media and Modernity, John B. Thompson (1995) argues that it is not possible to arrive a satisfactory understanding of the nature of public life in the modern world with a conception of ‘publicness’ which is spatial and dialogical. By seeing the public sphere in only these terms we are invariably obliged to “interpret the ever growing role of mediated communication as an historical fall from grace” (p. 132). Thompson argues that this is so because the widespread conception of publicness used by political and communication theorists alike is one based on mutual face-to-face relations. To problematise this, Thompson takes issue with Habermas’ model of the public sphere which is criticised for being metaphysically flawed: “In adhering to the traditional notion of publicness as co-presence, Habermas has deprived himself of the means understanding the new forms of publicness created by the media: he views them through the lens of the traditional model, whereas it is precisely this traditional model that has been displaced.” (Thompson, 1995, p. 132)

Thompson’s critique of ‘political science’ accounts of the public sphere, even those which try to accommodate the significance of media, is that they are invariably modelled on a theoretically inflexible yardstick of mutual presence. The deficiencies of such a framework begin to reveal themselves when we start to differentiate between different socio-technical bases of interaction.

The value of Thompson’s classification is that it is able to distinguish between the social dynamics of the different sub-media of the Internet. On the Internet some forms of communication are clearly produced for an indefinite range of recipients, while others are produced for one or a few others. Some forms of information retrieval and transmission are one-way and not dialogical. What is most instructive, however, is the fact that mediated interaction, be it the Internet or television, depart from the face-to-face, or ‘mutual presence’ insofar as it involves a definite narrowing of the range of symbolic cues. Thompson’s commentary on this is to suggest that communicative acts do not require their own in-built contexts in order to be meaningful or provide information.

In the Habermasian model, on the other hand, all communication involves: (i) the transmission of a message that is intelligible within the inventory of meanings common to a culture; (ii) an agreement over its meaning according to legitimate norms; and (iii) a disclosure of the subjectivity and speaking position of the speakers. This model does not allow for the fact that reciprocity can be a function of technological constitution that may or may not be dialogical. As Nancy Baym (1995) explains, “Because computer-mediated communicators are unable to see, hear, and feel one another, they cannot use the usual contextualization cues conveyed by the appearance, nonverbal signals, and features of the physical context. With these cues to social context removed, the discourse is left in a social vacuum quite different from face-to-face interaction.” (pp. 139-40). However, when cues are ‘filtered-out’ because the context is removed, so too is the fragmentation which derives from the fact that all cues-based communication is always localized and incapable of universalization. Thus, paradoxically the more there is a narrowing of cues by way of the constraints of a technical medium, the greater the prospect for semantic standardization, by which communicative competence and consensus can be achieved.


The merit of a model like John. B Thompson’s, of specifying levels of interaction according to a range of communicative qualities, is that it reveals the folly of putting forward a theory of a unitary public sphere based purely on technological possibility. The almost theological status of the Internet as a redemptive agent of ‘civil society’ is exemplary of this tendency as is the earlier view of some thinkers like Jean Baudrillard that the mass media had replaced the public sphere in post-industrial societies.

To privilege either ‘broadcast’ or interactive mediums like CMC as one-dimensional domains which can deliver a universal public sphere is fraught with methodological problems. Perspectives on media epochs – ‘the video age’, the ‘age of the Internet’ (Turkle) or the ‘second media age’ (Poster), are too simplistic and read as much too technologically determinist insofar as they neglect the sub-media and sub-cultures which are internal to the apparatus of electronic media, both broadcast and interactive. Such models tend to be one-dimensional in that they view forms of public association, be they by images and broadcast or by information and interactivity, as mutually exclusive.

At the same time however, the ‘public-sphericules’ or ‘partial publics’ theses of Gitlin, as well as Becker and Wehner, purvey another kind of technological determinism, which moves from the grand historical grounding of social life on one or other over-arching technology, to differentiating forms of association in specialized ‘spheres’ on the basis of more particular technological media as the context for particular civic sub-divisions. These new understandings of the public sphere unfold opportunities for new media technologies to further empower the public through greater appreciation of the potential of such public sphericules in a transnational public sphere, and thus further empower the public and strengthen the democratization process.

The amount of information available is growing, information access is becoming easier—but at the same time, the gap between the amounts of produced and consumed information is deepening. The media supply is also growing, but it often does not imply a greater diversity; rather, homogenization of the supply seems to be a natural consequence of media concentration and competition for audiences. A large number of Web communities have been formed both locally (nationally) and globally to enable people who share common interests and activities to communicate and share information. Yet the Web communities do not significantly enhance democracy because they are just as narrowly defined as traditional public factions defined by racial, gender, age, ideological, religious, professional, and other identities and interests, and they rarely transcend group particularism. The democratic merit of computer mediated communication is mostly limited to the successful overturn of political suppression and censorship of authoritarian regimes that tried to control and repress (mass) communication and public opinion. In some cases, they may have contributed to the transgression of fragmented cultural and political interests, but they also may have deepened the fragmentation. The boom of millions of more or less specialized websites, blogs, chat rooms, forums, and networks of friends across the world do not lead to an inter- or supra-national public (sphere) but more likely to ‘the fragmentation of large but politically focused mass audiences into a huge number of isolated issue publics’ (Habermas, 2006: 423).

The global advance of information and communication technologies makes—at least from the technological point of view—access to communication means much easier than any technological solution in the past. However, instead of providing only passive access to the consumption sphere, democratization implies primarily the development of conditions for active participation, that is, a direct and indirect incorporation of citizens into the production and exchange of messages in different forms of communication from interpersonal to mass communication in which the individual can realize his/her interests and meet his/her needs in collaboration with others. The actual democratization is defined by whether not only the number of active participants in the communication processes, but also the social basis of communication expands, that is, whether the new forms of communication and democracy contribute to the incorporation of, until then, excluded social categories and groups, for example, the young, women, socially, economically, or politically deprived groups, national, ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities, and so on. In other words, democratization should eliminate the major sources of distorted communications and external sources of inequalities, e.g., class and ownership privileges, gender and racial discrimination, age grade exclusion, and political or professional elitism.


  • Becker, B Wehner, J, ‘Electronic media and civil society’ available at, 1998.
  • Gitlin, T., ‘Public sphere or public sphericules?’ in T. Liebes & J. Curran (Eds.), Media, Ritual, Identity (pp. 168-175). London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Habermas, J., ‘The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into bourgeois society’ trans. T. Burger and F. Lawrence, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.
  • Splichal, Slavko, ‘Public Opinion: Developments and Controversies in the Twentieth Century’, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.
  • Thompson, J., ‘The media and modernity: A social theory of the media’, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.

About sadianasr

Road safety x digital, social, policy, media at SaveLife. AIR, Urban Justice, CAIR, ICGC, UNDP alum.

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