Apr 25, 2010
This week’s reading introduced the topic of Democracy on the internet and reasons why the internet is not fully democratized today. Both the Dahlberg and Papacharissi articles address a new concept dubbed the Virtual Sphere, a descendant of Habermas Public Sphere. The Public Sphere is the idea that people can get together in society and form a generalized public opinion on issues and use that to influence political decisions and legislation. The Virtual Sphere is the Public Sphere created through the internet. As a society that lacks political support and participation as a whole (decrease in the Public Sphere), the belief by many is that the internet can turn this around and be the avenue in which a “democratic utopia” can rise (379). However, there are many reasons why the internet is not fully democratized today that both articles discuss. Three of the main points addressed in the readings are information access (who has access to the internet? haves and have-nots), racism and prejudices, and commercialization.
Information access brings in an idea that we discussed and read about a few weeks ago – the digital divide. For the people that have access to the internet and technology, the web can be a very valuable resource for political participation. However, only a select few in the world get to experience the internet. As Dahlberg states,”the thousands of factory workers throughout the world, working long hours for low wages, producing the technological componentry of the net, are very unlikely to ever be part of the celebrated ‘global community’ (76). Therefore, it is tends to be mostly the middle-upper class that ever get the opportunity to voice their opinion on issues using the internet. According to Papcharissi, an experiment on this issue was conducted and the political debate posts were dominated by only a select few elites. So, while the internet can be open area for discussion, the fact that only a small portion of the population can use it makes the internet “exlusive, elitest, and far from ideal” (383). However, I believe that as the digital divide begins to shrink with cheaper technology and countries working to give as many people as possible internet, the web will become more democratic over time.
Another reason why the internet is not fully democratized yet is that race and ethnicity prejudices find their way online. The enthusiastic supporters of the web claim that the internet can connect people from all over the globe in one location instantly, but that does not take away that people hold prejudices against each other. In Public Education Network (PEN) and soc.culture.india, users frequently intimidate other people from joining in on a discussion based on cultural backgrounds (385). This shows that people will not necessarily be more understanding of backgrounds just because they are online and will potentially just use the internet to express ‘hasty opinions,’ rather than rational and focused discourse (385). As Papchaissi states, just because there is “greater participation in political discussion does not automatically result in discussion that promotes democratic ideals” (385). I believe that as people around the globe continue to be more receptive and understanding of each other in face-to-face contact, this issue online will disappear.
The last major reason that the internet is not fully democratized yet, and actually may never be, is commercialization. As stated by Dahlberg, “a private, commercial net means that certain types of information and communication, those which are most marketable, become privileged over others” (75). I completely agree with this statement. When something is commercialized, the main purpose is to make money. Therefore, the money-making information, etc. will be the most prevalent, even though it is not the most important. Banners and portals will be added to to websites to bring in advertising revenue (386). I think commercialization will therefore skew political information and decrease information regarding to public welfare in exchange for profitable media.
So while it appears that the internet has the potential to become democratized, the issues discussed above are holding it back. I believe that both the information access (digital divide) and cultural difference issues are ones that are beginning to be addressed and solved as cheaper technology becomes available and people become more understanding. I am more worried about the commercialization aspect because it is very hard for a corporation to do something against making money. Unless the information regarding to the social welfare is the biggest money maker, I feel as though the internet will never reach its full democratic potential.
Note: I found it very interesting that the Papacharissi used John McCain as an example of a politician who used the internet to his advantage. I know this was written before the 2008 presidential election, but I find it ironic because Barack Obama was able to reach so many young voters because of his extremely high use of facebook, twitter, and his own personal website. Younger voters could relate more to Obama using the internet because of his young age, but not as much McCain. I think this is why Obama’s internet use benefited him more on election day.