The public sphere is the realm of communication and debate that came to life with the emergence of mass communication in the form of a relatively small-scale and independent press in the 18th and 19th century.
The public sphere
Media and the so-called salons and other public places created a forum in which the authority of the state and the powerful in general could be criticized and called upon to justify themselves before an informed and reasoning public (Thompson, 1990: 112). That public sphere, even though it was only in principle open to everybody, at least embodied the idea that citizens could come together as equals, in a forum distinct from the ‘the state’ and ‘the private realms’, according to Habermas. It is important to clarify that a public space is not necessarily a public sphere: a public space enhances discussion; a public sphere enhances democracy.
Today, the public sphere does not refer to one specific place anymore. It is mostly used as a metaphor to refer to a combination of offline places and more abstract environments embedded in social media. Even though the public sphere does not point to one concrete space or place, it is obvious that media are still crucial in this conception of the public sphere. Public opinion is still constructed vis-à-vis public discourse that is produced and reproduced through media.
Public sphere and public place
Whenever we think of the public sphere—as in a public space that fosters a deepening of democracy—we should understand that it only exists within concrete material infrastructures in very specific social, economic and political contexts. Media shape a public space, a public forum in which politicians, journalists and since the rise of digital media, 'common people' can have a voice. Newspapers, television, social media, the state and the rule of law all co-construct and organize the public space in which a public sphere can flourish or die.