Apr 25, 2010 Comments Off
The readings this week discuss the democratic potential of the Internet and its effects on the future of politics. The article by Papacharissi first examines the concept of the public sphere. The author notes that the Internet has created a new public space, but “a new public space is not synonymous with a new public sphere” (380). While the Internet functions as a public space in that it provides users a place to actively discuss, it does not directly enhance democracy, a key characteristic of public spheres. The author then looks at the issue of the digital divide in relation to the ability to access information, the possibility for miscommunication, and the commercialization of the Net to further support the idea that the Internet is not yet a public sphere.
The second article by Dahlberg discusses Habermas’ idea of the idealized public sphere to be found on the Internet, which allows fractional deliberation by individuals and is free of state and corporate interests. However, the author then presents three potential aspects that could undermine the democratic Net; corporate control and censorship, access restrictions, and the privatization of interactions. While he notes many positive attributes of the Net in relation to a democratized environment, he also notes that many interactions and services online are created with the priority of maximizing profits rather than enhancing democracy. Additionally, he proposes that the services provided by the Internet in relation to politics really only reach a small percentage of individuals, and therefore are only aiding those who have traditionally benefited by political and economic programs.
While I do understand and agree with most of the arguments presented by the authors, I feel that they fail to acknowledge three implications of the Internet as a form of virtual democracy: the ability of the Net to bring a group of individuals together, the impact it has had on youth culture, and the fact that the “digital divide” is theoretically not a new concept in politics.
As stated by Papacharissi, the Internet has the ability to “bring individuals together and help them overcome geographical and other boundaries” (381). However, the author then counters the previous point by noting that online discourse oftentimes ends in miscommunication, with certain individuals using free speech without a second thought due to the anonymous nature of online communications. Many individuals simply post hasty opinions rather than well-developed thoughts (385). This idea made me think of the articles we read a few weeks ago about virtual ethnicity, and the implications of the existence of sites strictly dominated by one ethnic group. However, in this case, it is political rather than ethnic groups that oftentimes dominate threads. In the article by McLelland, the author addresses 2-channeru and the implications of having such an exclusive, and oftentimes derogatory, site. Individuals who identify as native Japanese use the site in such a way that is offensive to other users, especially Koreans. And while this type of virtual identification can become hostile, I believe that it certainly helps the Japanese users further their sense of identity. I feel like the same pattern is visible in online political spaces. In doing a simple Google search of either conservative or democratic political forums, I was presented with a multitude of sites strictly dedicated towards one political party, allowing users to comment on recent news stories or even discuss past elections. I feel that these types of sites are definitely beneficial to the political user, allowing him/her to interact with others with similar beliefs while finding a place to express his/her opinions. Especially if the individual is, politically speaking, a minority in his/her geographic area, he/she has the ability to connect with others across physical boundaries who share common ideas. And while Papacharissi is correct in proposing that while political discussion has the capability of being transferred online it is not always going to do so, I feel that she doesn’t give enough credit to the Internet in its ability to facilitate discussion. The Internet can be used for a huge variety of tasks, however not all of them will ever be used simultaneously by all users. Instead, they choose what they want to do in their time online, and those who are politically minded may choose to use the easily accessible spaces set up online.
Two sites I found in doing my Google search:
Democratic Political Forum
Conservative Political Forum
Another aspect of the Internet as a democratic space that I find important is the effect that it has on younger individuals. My generation has been brought up on technology, and therefore the Internet is taken as part of our daily lives. It only seems natural, then, that politics become part of our online world. While I do not think that it is something to be proud of, I very rarely read the newspaper or watch the news at school. However, since so much political information is available online, I feel that it is the most convenient way for me to stay up-to-date with the latest happenings. I have my homepage set to a news site and therefore am updated on current events every time that I go online. And though I am not actively discussing politics, I still feel somewhat involved. Both articles discuss the increased commercialization of the Net and the ways in which that interferes with true democratic intentions. As Dahlberg notes, “the virtual environment is now marketed and metered out to network consumers” (74). While this is certainly evident of the capitalistic components of our society, I feel that it supports the idea that the Net has many components geared towards younger individuals. I think this is especially evident in the ways in which younger individuals take an interest in celebrity culture. Young adults pay attention to celebrities and want to buy many of the same brands that they endorse. Many celebrities now use their Twitter and Facebook accounts to share their political viewpoints and support certain candidates. And when individuals see their favorite celebrities supporting a candidate, they will most likely want to at least learn about that candidate’s viewpoint. Additionally, both Obama and McCain took advantage of such sites, allowing them to reach out to younger citizens while promoting their platforms.
Finally, while the two articles cite the digital divide as a reason why the Internet cannot be seen as a democratic sphere, they fail to recognize that this divide is not very different from what normally occurs in politics. As Dahlberg notes, the “commercial, privatized Net adds weight to fears that new classes are developing, based upon inequalities in the distribution of information and communications resources, that reinforce the structural inequalities of global capitalism” (76). And while both sources note that the emergence of politics on the Internet can lead to domination by the elite, this is not necessarily very different from what normally occurs in everyday life. While there certainly are exceptions, I feel that many of the individuals who do not have access to the Internet also do not have the time or resources to stay actively involved in politics. Therefore, they would not be very involved in political events regardless of whether or not they are connected. The Internet serves as a convenient method for many individuals who are already actively involved in political occurrences. Papacharissi notes, “the virtual sphere is politically divided in a manner that echoes traditional politics” (383). While the Internet is not necessarily going to radically change the way in which individuals interact with politics, it is still serving a purpose and providing a useful service for many involved individuals.
The Internet is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent in the lives of many individuals. And as Norris notes in the article about the digital divide, the cost of technology is staying the same while technological capabilities are rapidly improving. While these changes could certainly lead to an increased digital divide, they could also provide more opportunities for political interaction in cyberspace, possibly changing the ways in which individuals view and interact with politics.