The Habermasian implications of the Twittersphere

Blogosphere’, ‘Twittersphere’, ‘Afrosphere’. We’re gradually getting used to a new media terminology whereby we quickly refer to new communication spaces and specified fields as ‘spheres’. As the Twittersphere is still rapidly growing, we might want to look back at Habermas’ classic concept of the ‘public sphere’, which was one of the earliest common ‘spheres’ to refer to.

Twitter, the insanely popular micro-blogging service, which makes it possible to reach every other user in real time with short message of 140 characters, can be seen as a new powerful way of many-to-many communication. It promptly sends out your message to the world, you’re given a voice, others can ‘raise’ your voice by ‘retweeting’, in other words repeating your message in their own user-network  and your messages can reach anyone who enters corresponding words in their Twitter-search query. Twitter is part public, and part private. What does it imply, when we compare the Twittersphere to Habermas’ public sphere?

Public sphere
Jürgen Habermas, is a German philosopher and sociologist that’s well known for his work on the concept of the public sphere in ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’, which was originally written in 1962. Habermas defined the public sphere itself as a place where the private bourgeoisies come together and form a public to discuss, engage in critical-rational-debate and form a public opinion[1]. In the eighteenth century economical developments had a lot of influence on the (reading) bourgeoisies in Great Britain, France and Germany. They started to come together in coffee houses and salons to reason in rational-critical-debate and moved discussions about literature and art from their private environments to public places. This revealed their importance to the decision making of power state in the eighteenth century, while in the nineteenth century their separate discussions and debates became institutionalized within the European bourgeois constitutional states. The public sphere was important to generate critical discourse that influenced political actions of the state [2].

“In its clash with the arcane and bureaucratic practices of the absolutist state, the emergent bourgeoisie gradually replaced a public sphere in which the ruler’s power was merely represented before the people with a sphere in which state authority was publicly monitored through informed and critical discourse by the people” [3].

Contempory relevance
Although the bourgeois public sphere in its contemporary form wasn’t everlasting, as the state and society became more merged over time [4], the concept of the public sphere still remains a relevant paradigm when looking at new digital spheres were people come together. The twittersphere, for that matter has some interesting similarities to Habermas’ concept of the public sphere. Twitter is a public place that’s outside of the control by the state, it allows individuals to exchange views and knowledge, also allow individuals to share critical points of view, and finally is a space were public-minded rational consensus can be developed.

A very recent example is the quick response to a new policy plan from Buma/Stemra. On the 1st of October Buma/Stemra, two Dutch private organizations that collect and distribute remunerations for Dutch music artist, revealed their plan for fining Dutch bloggers who embed copyrighted music(videos). As a result a lot of users on Twitter started posting furious reactions, which later resulted in a petition, a crowd-sourced letter and ultimately a statement against Buma/Stemra’s plan by the political party CDA [5]. This example shows that the Twittersphere can act as a public sphere where contemporary critical discourse can rapidly emerge and influence political action. However, no final decision to reject or refine the plan has been made.

It’s also important to note that Habermas’ concept of the public sphere also received a lot of criticism. There are people who argue that the public sphere, a place for pure rational independent debate, never really existed [4]. The ‘public’ will never be accessible to ‘everyone’. In that respect, Twitter doesn’t come close. There are still people who don’t use Twitter, people who cannot use it because of the digital divide, and people who keep their tweets private. Then again, the Twittersphere is a unique sphere that surely can remotely influence political actions by users who elaborate their view and knowledge to a large public, and form a public opinion. But is the Twittersphere really a suitable place for debating?

Twitter might quickly pick up public discourses, for example in the Buma/Stemra case, but in terms of debating, Buma/Stemra’s absence on Twitter shows that the real debate on the subject is going to take place elsewhere. Twitter is probably more suited to amplify discourses by any individual who can make aphoristic statements about particular themes: Short original subjective or observational thoughts which are easy to remember [6]. These aphorisms can be retweeted a lot and thereby reach a greater amount of people. This can lead to a community with the same opinion. However, I’d argue that the Twittersphere is actually limited for critical independent debate because of its swift, short messages, which don’t allow greater reasoning. Besides, when a public opinion is formed, it’s fragmented (on Twitter itself) which makes it more difficult to respond centrally if you don’t agree with it.

Twitter marks the digital era where we can all use our voices to reach the (Twitter) public with our views and knowledge and thereby engage in contemporary discourses, which might eventually influence political action. However, not everyone is on Twitter or committed to such endeavors; Twitter obviously can be used in many ways. Then again Twitter does bring together a large amount of people with the same interests and therefore makes it possible to generate a group of people surrounding a particular concern. However, Twitter is more suitable to amplify public debate then hosting the debate itself. The concept of Habermas’ public sphere may seem outdated, but it surely has left its traces in new media spheres like the Twittersphere. It’ll be interesting to keep track of the influence of Twittersphere on contemporary discourses in society and political actions. In the (near) future it might be possible that this spherical influence of Twitter will be applied in a more fixed way.

[3] The structural transformation of the public sphere, Jürgen Habermas, 1991

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