Apr 23, 2010
This week’s reading marked both a transition to a new idea and a return to a previous one. Both the Dahlberg and Papacharissi articles were about the realities of democratic participation in the public space on the Internet. Before this week, we have been discussing how users try to maintain their privacy on the Internet, but now we are moving on to a topic that is inherently public. We are also returning to a theme that has been discussed in great lengths: digital divides. There are a range of opinions as to whether democratic participation online is bridging divides or creating new ones, and both articles took a stance on the issue. The Dahlberg and Papacharissi articles demonstrated that the Internet has a lot of potential as a democratic space, but the nature of the Internet does prevent the translation of traditional aspects of democracy.
The Dahlberg article covered the opinions of “net enthusiasts” who strongly believe in the benefits of the Internet. One important point they have made is that the Internet has allowed information to become more readily available: “The enormous information storage and dissemination capacity of computer networks is seen by net enthusiasts as enabling the development of a more informed citizenry. Public bodies such as governments, city councils, libraries and universities are beginning to move public information into cyberspace” (Dahlberg 1998, p.73). I know that I have certainly become a more informed citizen thanks to the Internet. If I have a question about government branch or political process, I can immediately Google it and get my answer. I would never consider tracking down an Encyclopedia and searching for the answer there. The convenience of the Internet allows a greater percentage of the population to educate themselves about politics and take part in political discussions.
I can see why a person’s pride in having a good foundation of political knowledge would encourage them to join these discussions, but I am a bit skeptical. From what I have seen, politics is a very divisive subject: you’re either on “my” side, or you’re the enemy. Political discussions can easily turn into shouting matches that may temporarily or permanently alter a relationship. Tocqueville believes that individual’s gain a sense of existence and self-respect by participating in democracy (Papacharissi 2002, p. 380), but I think a person can also wind up feeling alienated and defeated.
The Internet has paved the way for all sorts of new inventions and applications, but its most important accomplishment is providing another way for users to express themselves. People like to have options, and the Internet has its own communication faults and benefits. Papacharissi states that “cyberspace extends our channels for communication, without radically afflicting the nature of communication itself” (2002, p. 388). I agree that cyberspace extends our channels, but I don’t agree that the nature of communication is not radically affected. If you look at forum posts or comments on blogs or videos, it seems like people are using a whole different language. Their sentences are filled with grammatical mistakes, misspelled words, creative capitalization and crude slang. The Internet allows for a certain amount of laziness because of its informality. If one were having a face-to-face or even more formal e-mail discussion, he or she would be more conscious of not wanting to sound like an idiot. The Internet allows more people to join group discussions on a variety of subjects, but it does not always encourage them to act intelligently.
Theoretically, anyone can join a discussion on the Internet and express their opinions. This is one of the opinions mentioned in the Dahlberg article: “Net enthusiasts also argue that cyberspace enables all citizens to be heard and treated equally. Social hierarchies and power relations are said to be undercut by the ‘blindness’ of cyberspace to identify, allowing people to interact as if they were equals” (1998, p. 72). However, this opinion is proved flawed by the Papacharissi article. The author mentions the important point that those with an opportunity don’t always take it: “Those who do have access to the internet do not necessarily pursue political discussion, and online discussion are frequently dominated by a few” (2002, p. 384). The Internet is not so equal after all: you must gain a reputation as a political correspondent in order to be taken seriously in online political discussion groups. The opinion mentioned in the Dahlberg article is also unrealistic because of the types of discussions commonly held on the Internet. The Internet is an informal place, and users are not always willing to dive deep into their intellect and share that with the world: “Often, online communication is about venting emotion and expressing…’hasty opinions’, rather than rational and focused discourse” (Papacharissi 2002, p. 385). If users would rather join a discussion to rant about what they deem is the greatest failure of this country, then nothing will be democratically accomplished. The Internet is all about oneself, and users are not always willing to form a bridge and try to interact in a goal-oriented way.
The Internet definitely have some political ambitions: it provides a political education and keeps the public informed, and it allows those who do want to have serious political discussions to find like-minded participants. However, it does not always weed out those who are searching for something meaningful from those who just want to get attention, and as always there are divides between education levels, Internet accessibility and political leanings. The Internet is continuously becoming more and more engrained in our culture, so I am looking forward to observing how online democracy and politics change later on.