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.
What is 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, commercialization and the virtual sphere
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.
The commercialization of mainstream media, for instance, altered the character of the public sphere in a fundamental way. The once privileged forum of rational-critical debate became a domain of cultural consumption, organized along economic, not democratic goals. Bourdieu (1996) made abundantly clear how the commercialization of mass media and the quest for the highest ratings, created a stage for extreme-right antidemocratic politicians, promoting hatred and racism. The public space embedded in mainstream media became hostile to a public sphere.
These changes in mainstream media were one of the reasons why digital media were hailed as a revitalization of the public sphere and democracy. Blogs and micromedia like Indymedia all contributed to the idea that digital media inherently helped achieve a deepening of democracy. The new technologies would enable citizens to have a voice in the public debate. Political participation would grow and this would facilitate a democratic utopia. At last, there would be a true public sphere based on equal access to the public domain.
Reality turned out more dystopian. The virtual space has been used more to share trivial stuff and to passively consume than to actively engage in a rational democratic debate. Even when people engage in political discussions, we see that it rarely facilitates a deepening of democracy. Trolling, flaming, shitposting and hacking, next to surveillance, tracking and targetting have become key ingredients of the virtual space.
Bourdieu, P. (1996). Television.
Thompson, J.B. (1990). Ideology and modern culture. Cambridge, Polity Press.