Communicology

Tag: Social Media

D(r)eactivating Facebook: Taking Back Control

Last Tuesday I deactivated my Facebook (FB) account for one week as part of an experiment to see just how big a part of my life it has become.  As I said last week,

Often times we do not realize what role something plays in our life until we are forced to no longer have that in our life (this works with people too). Thus, I have decided to proactively eliminate Facebook from my life in order to analyze the role it plays in my daily routine.

For more information and background on my rationale for this experiment, read last week’s entry.

In this follow-up to the experiment I will discuss three items: A.) how it felt to be off FB, B.) three things I learned about FB and social media habits, and C.) how this will (hopefully) affect my future use of FB.

A.) How it Felt

They say “a picture is worth a thousand words” and since today’s entry is already long enough, here is a picture from our Australia trip last March that exemplifies how I’ve felt over the past week without FB in my life.

FREEDOM!

Freedom!

Liberation!

Dramatic words, I know, but that is exactly how this FB-less week has felt.

I have tried many times before to limit my FB logins but it has failed because there always remained a FB profile to log into. By deactivating my account, however, this urge to log in substantially decreased because there was nothing left to be missed; no messages, no event invites, no wall posts, and no photo tags because it became impossible for people to interact with my FB profile.

I mentioned last week that I would keep a daily journal of sorts to document how the experiment was going. While I did not write everyday (graduate school schedule of death), I still ended up with a total of four “journal entries”. Below is a quote from the first entry discussing how the initial action of disabling FB felt.

Wednesday September 28th 5:21PM

It felt very good to disable Facebook.  I think I got an adrenaline rush just doing it, and felt more ‘in control’ of my world! It’s funny that such a simple thing felt so good.

FB addiction...as presented by Comedy Central's South Park.

As noted last week, I had made it a habit to log into FB a lot and to make it a part of my daily routine. I also mentioned that I did not hate FB but that I hated my FB habits instead because I was wasting a lot of time on the website. I would not just log in, check my messages and posts, and then log out (as many of my much stronger willed friends successfully do). I would log in, check my messages and posts, and spend the other time mindlessly browsing FB and clicking other people’s profiles to “stalk” them (we all do it, some people just don’t like to admit it).

After I deactivated my account and stopped logging in on a daily basis, I realized just how silly this waste of time really was. Instead of mindlessly browsing other people’s self-created online identities, I could now do more productive things, such as classwork.

It felt really good to not know what hundreds of my acquaintances, excuse me, my “friends”, were doing every second of the day.

Believe it or not, it was still possible for me to have an enjoyable day even when I didn’t find out what hundreds of people thought about the weather or the latest football scores.

B.) Three things I Learned About Facebook and Social Media Habits

1. Facebook as a communication tool. I realized over the past week just how much my friends and I use FB as a tool for everyday communication that has nothing to do with the aforementioned mindless browsing of profiles. I learned this by finding myself in situations in which the other people wanted to use FB to communicate but could not since my profile was gone.

  • I got the following text message from a friend who wanted to send me a question about an upcoming trip to Chicago via FB just a few hours after “the deed” of deactivating it: “Did you get rid of Facebook?!” We ended up talking about the trip through text messaging instead.

  • Last Wednesday a friend from New York sent me an article link via email because she could not do so over FB and we had a back and forth email conversation about the article. Usually this would have happened through FB. Appropriately enough, the article was about FB!

  • Last Friday I asked a friend to send me a text message of his address so that I could enter it into my GPS. He told me he would send an address to me via FB because he had limited text messaging. He had to send the address via email instead.

  • Yesterday I got another text which said, “OMG ARE YOU NOT ON FACEBOOK ANYMORE!?!” from a friend I had seen the night before but didn’t tell about the experiment.

Obviously, all of these interactions were casual and not serious, thus it was not a big deal that I had to use email and text messaging instead of FB. Despite the lack of “seriousness” in these messages, an important point can still be taken away from my experiences with them. Facebook was seen as the first option to communicate; the other forms of communication were only used as “Plan B” after my friends found out that FB was not an option. This tells me that we have made FB an important communication tool for our daily lives.

2. The “urge” to know. As the FB-less week wore on, the initial feelings of freedom were accompanied by feelings of being out of the loop; I actually wanted to know what my closest friends were up to. Some more quotes from the journal entries are warranted here:

Thursday September 29th 1:17AM

I am actually still happy to be away from the ‘traffic jam’ of FB. I will admit though that I had urges to check up on friends and to log in when I was browsing the web, which tells me that I have formed somewhat of a habit on checking it.

Saturday October 1st 2:00AM

I do feel a little “out of touch” with a few people that I feel that I am usually more “in touch” with.

I have “urges” to share information with the world, and have been doing so more with Twitter and Google lately.

I had developed tendencies to check up on what my friends were doing on a daily basis. While I enjoyed not following hundreds of acquaintances on a daily basis, I began to miss “being in the loop” of my closest friends.

3. Other social media. The third thing I learned during the FB-less week was that FB is not the only social medium allowing us to effectively communicate and share information with our friends online. My usage of Twitter and Goolge + increased over the past week. The former was awesome, the latter not so much.

I’ve had a total of 48 tweets since deactivating my FB, which is an increase from the 40 tweets I had the week prior. For those who have not joined the awesome world of Twitter, a “tweet” is the equivalent of a FB status update.

I spent a lot more time in the past week checking my Twitter feed because the FB feed was not an option. Twitter was a much smaller time investment than FB because there were no extensive profiles to “stalk”; just 140 character statuses to read. These Twitter statuses were often links to interesting articles with brief commentary, so it felt like a more productive use of my time. These feelings led me to post the below “tweet” a few days ago:

I also spent more time on Google +, but it was not as good a replacement for FB as Twitter. Putting on my communication theory “thinking cap” while writing in the journal, I pondered about why Google + might be less exiting than FB and Twitter:

The “newsfeed” of FB and of other similar social media websites has created in us a need to be constantly updated. Even if these updates are absolutely pointless, its not about the content of the updates anyway, its about the updates themselves. We feel more connected if we see that other people are doing stuff, even if that “stuff” consists of “liking” an obscure comment from a friend we never know or commenting on a random photo. Google + also has a stream, but so few people are on this stream that it updates only about every half an hour. On FB, however, there are updates nearly every minute! So I feel that Google + is less exciting because I do not see the constant updates!

Psychologist William Schutz (1976) (as quoted by Pearson et al. (2011)) found that human beings have three basic interpersonal needs: inclusion, affection, and control.

It seems that social media websites such as FB have become popular in part because they satisfy these basic human needs. Particularly relevant for this topic are the constant status updates on our respective social media home pages.

It may not matter that these updates are pointless. What matters is that us seeing these updates everyday might lead to a feeling of being included in our social circles.

Assuming this educated assumption is true, I might have perceived Google+ as less exciting than FB and Twitter because there were no continuous updates from the social circles on Google+ and I felt less “included” in the overall discourse as a result.

Being away from FB definitely helped me to learn and realize a lot. It has also inspired me to take some practical actions related to my FB use from now on.

C.) How This Will (Hopefully) Affect my Future Use of FB.

Last week I said,

I want to use Facebook as a tool and I want to control Facebook. I do not want Facebook to use me as a tool and to control me.

As mentioned above by Schutz (1976), a sense of control is one of the basic interpersonal needs for humans. Using FB as a communication tool loses a lot of its luster when that tool takes control of our lives. When we feel “urges” and “needs” to log into FB and to mindlessly stalk others and endlessly update our own profiles, I believe that we have let FB take control.

However, if we use FB as a communication tool (as the first point above under the things I learned exemplifies), I believe it can still be very beneficial for our lives. It still does the best job of keeping us “in the loop” with what our friends/family from all over the world are up to.

In May I wrote about the predictable fear of new communication technologies. There have always been people who assert that technology is taking over our lives and that we have no control over it; examples include the people who feared the invention of the printing press in the 15th century and people who blame television (instead of social, economical, and familial factors) for increases in violence on American streets.

Deleting FB without critically thinking about how to improve our experiences of it by changing how we use it would just be a continuation of the centuries old fear of new technologies. Instead of fighting against these new trends, we should embrace them (with a caution).

I encourage the reader to become more consciously aware of how they use FB on a daily basis and to take back control if they have given that control up, like I had.

I plan to dramatically reduce the amount of time I spend on FB. I will use it as a communication tool but I do not want it to become a time consuming daily routine. I have learned about my FB habits and will work on changing them.

Among the specific things that I will change include not re-downloading the iPhone application (for me, FB on the phone leads to over involvement) and forcing myself to not spend more than a few minutes a day logged into FB unless I am chatting with someone.

Hey, Facebook User…This post is not just about the author.  It’s about YOU. 

This experiment was not done just for my personal insights. I hope that these insights will inspire others out there to consciously evaluate their own uses of FB and other social media websites and to conduct “experiments” of their own. Many people have done what I have done (check out this ABC article) and I am certainly not the first to blog about deactivating FB: this person did it, this person talked about doing it, and I am sure there are countless more related articles on the Internet about this issue (I would die if I tried to give you all the links).

For some people doing what they are already doing is working just fine. My brother, for example, has never had a FB account and is completely content with life!  For many others, however, FB has taken control over your daily routines and you need to take that control back!

I encourage you to do so in whichever way is best for you. When it’s all said and done, FB and other social media are just accessories to communication, while the best form of communication is still good old face-to-face! The Internet has forever changed how we communicate, but we have a say in this change because we can (as of now) choose to take advantage of FB and to not let FB take advantage of us.

(Digital) Life After Death Creates Modern Day Ghosts

This week I hope to inspire you to think about something that’s most likely going to become a big dilemma for you and/or your loved ones in the future. If you are active on social media and you continue to be active on social media this situation will come up eventually. Many of you have probably already had experience with it.

By ‘active’ I do not mean having Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Google+, and MySpace accounts that you check every two hours. You are active even if you only have a Facebook page and you check it twice a month. I also assume that most people who ended up reading this blog entry are fairly involved on the Internet and have at least one social media type website (blogs count).

And now the topic…

DEATH.

Such a scary looking word, isn’t it?

I could write pages and pages about the abstract nature of symbols (such as the written languages we use) and the amazing phenomenon of people being affected in potentially dramatic ways only because five abstract and human created symbols (a,h,e,t,d) are arranged in a certain order (d,e,a,t,h).

However, for today let’s just accept the fact that death is a scary word and that the majority of people don’t like thinking about it. Due to the intimidating “finality” of death, humanity has been fascinated by the idea of an after life and other notions of defeating death for thousands of years. We may have finally found an answer and it comes in the form of your Facebook status.

Digital Ghosts

If you have an Internet identity it will not die with you when you die. It will remain online for the world to see. I’ve had a few Facebook friends pass away in the past few years and I am always fascinated by how people interact with their pages after the fact, as if they were interacting with the person who passed.

This topic is on my mind because I found the below Ted Talk this morning and also because I am working on a project in class and we are looking at how people respond to the death of others on Facebook. My partner has already done research on the topic and we had a good conversation about it during class last week.

Most of the time people use the online identities of those who have passed to send messages of condolences to the family and to express their sadness at the loss (I’ve done so). As different forms of media continue to converge and as our lives become indisputably more linked with technology, the possibilities of using technology to deal with traditional concepts of death will become endless.

For example, right now you can go to www.ifidie.net and create a Facebook video which would only be shown after you die. It is also possible to create an endless amount of blogs and to have those automatically published years from now. Someone who is dying from cancer might do this and in a sense they would still “be alive” to their loved ones because a weekly blog post from them could continue for years and years after their death.

If we can do these things today just imagine what we will be able to accomplish generations from now as the exponential growth of technology continues. For example, it will be possible for us to have virtual conversations with the dead (see video below for more). In a sense, online identities will become ghosts of those who have passed.

In a 2010 Newsweek article entitled ‘R.I.P. on Facebook’,  Lisa Miller (2010) discussed Facebook profiles of those who are deceased. She states,

Here is a real gathering place, where friends can grieve together–and where the deceased continues, in some sense, to exist (p. 24).

Miller also mentions the fact that today the average Facebook user is 33 years old and this means in about two generations a lot of people who are active on Facebook today will be dead and only their profiles will remain.

Creepy and somewhat morbid to think about, but nonetheless something we will all have to deal with in the future.

If you have the time I strongly encourage you to check out the video (it’s only about five minutes) in which journalist and new media entrepreneur Adam Ostrow discusses this topic further and asks some very intriguing questions.

How do you want your online identity to be “dealt with” after your passing?

How Many Facebook Friends Would Jesus Have had?

Social media has become ridiculously ubiquitous in our world today.

If somebody would have told me a few years ago that I would actually feel an urge to check certain websites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) on a daily basis I probably would not have believed them.

Like a lot of other people, I have a hard time stepping back and appreciating how different my life is today compared to what it was just a few years ago.

When I do step back, I realize that social media has steadily but surely become a big part of my routine. I check Facebook almost daily and actually feel like something is missing if I have not ‘caught up’ with my social networks. Checking up on the ‘statuses’ of my online connections has become as much a daily ritual as eating and sleeping. And I will argue this is the case for many of my readers as well. If you disagree, but got to this blog entry as a result of a link that was posted on a social media website, think again about disagreeing!

Are you on the bandwagon? Photo from engagingtalk.wordpress.com.

It has gotten so bad for me that I’ve made a goal to only check Facebook three times a day because I have caught myself wasting a lot of time mindlessly browsing the site. In other words, I have put myself on an online social networking diet. Like all diets, I have good days and bad days.

I am optimistic that I can change my habits and begin to view sites such as Facebook more as communication tools equivalent to the telephone rather than as life necessities equivalent to eating and sleeping. If you have read some of my other posts, you know that I am actually a proponent of social media because I think that it has a greater potential to help people from all over the world to diversify their perspectives than any other medium in modern history has had before.

However, I believe that social media use, like everything else, should come in moderation. Too much of a good thing will quickly turn into a bad thing.

And now, the Jesus part.

‘I came here for the Jesus part!’

I know, I know, you probably only clicked on this link because of the title of the blog post. To be honest, I kind of knew that a link with the name Jesus in it would get more people to click. In addition to that blatant self-promotional reasoning, there is another justification for my title as well.

I do not want to start a discussion (this time) about social media and Jesus, social media and Christianity, or even social media and religion. The main reason for my title is to reference the video that I present at the end of this post. The video has to do with Christianity, and that’s why I ask that specific question with reference to Jesus in my title. However, I could have also easily asked the same question about other religious figures (such as Muhammad from Islam) or historical figures (such as Gandhi).

No matter what you believe or don’t believe, the existence of the man Jesus in history has been well documented and the fact that he influenced other people with his sermons while he was alive has also been documented.

Thus, I think it is kind of fun to think about whether or not Jesus (or Muhammad, or any other religious/historical figure) would have taken advantage of social media if it existed while they were preaching. It seems rational that they would have, because their aim was to get the word out to as many people as possible. I think people might agree with this notion, because some have actually created social media profiles of religious figures (see photo one inch below).

Somebody on Twitter did actually create a 'Jesus' profile....

As described above, social media is becoming a daily routine for many of us, and there would be no better way today to get the word out to a lot of people than through social media. In fact, marketing techniques are starting to dramatically change because big companies are realizing the power social media has in getting the message out to a lot of people.

This leads me to the video below. It was created by Portuguese digital marketing firm Excentric as a Christmas card for their clients.

The video presents how the nativity scene might have played out if it had happened in modern times. I hope you enjoy it, and I hope that it gets you thinking about the role that social media plays in your daily life.

Also, if you can think of other religious/historical figures who probably would have taken advantage of social media if they could have, comment and let me know who you are thinking of!

“The Pen is a Virgin, the Printing Press a Whore”

My blog focuses partly on how social media is affecting the way that we share information on the Internet.

Thus, I wanted to do a post about the debate which exists in the Social Informatics discipline about the influence of new communication technology on society in general, with a particular focus on the Internet. I owe the idea for this post to a Social Informatics class that I am in right now.

A debate in academia?  What a surprise!

One of the most intriguing aspects of the growth of the Internet has been a debate on whether or not the Internet has power over us, or if we have power of it. This post will provide a very brief and admittedly oversimplified review of that debate.

Those who assert that new technology (such as the Internet) changes us without our consent are technological determinants, while those who assert that we have power over how new technology influences us are social constructionists of technology.

A quick review of these two perspectives follows, and then I’ll tell you where I stand. And then, I encourage you to comment to tell me where you stand.

Beware of the (Evil)net, it will change you! (Technological Determinist).

Anytime that you hear somebody say that Social Media is “making us” do something against our will, they are looking at things from a technologically deterministic viewpoint. A comment such as, “Facebook is ruining our ability to be social in real life”, for example, assumes that Facebook has an inherent power over us.

In Personal Connections In The Digital Age (2010), Nancy Baym describes technological determinism as a perspective “in which technology is conceptualized as an external agent that acts upon and changes society” [1].  Thus, from this perspective, new technology influences society, whether or not society wants it to.

Technology has a mind of it’s own.

An example of a deterministic viewpoint is that the growth of TV in the 20th century has demoralized our society because people spend less time reading and more time watching television. This argument illogically assumes that people have been over powered by television, and that they have had no agency in deciding how their television viewing habits would influence their other habits (such as reading).

While the technological determinist give all of the credit of power to the technologies, the next perspective gives all the credit to the users of the technologies.

The Internet can be a godsend, if we use it as one! (Social Constructionist).

This perspective asserts that the developments of new technologies are the result of social processes and needs that arise over time. Baym (2011) says that “rather than viewing social change as a consequence of new media,” the social constructionist perspective  “views new technologies and their uses as consequences of social factors” [2].

Baym (2011) uses a quote from Nye (1997) to exemplify how followers of the social constructionist viewpoint perceive the technological deterministic viewpoint that I discussed above. The social constructions think that the technologically deterministic perspectives are,

“inadequate as explanations and dangerously misleading [because] human beings, not machines, are the agents of change, as men and women introduce new systems of machines that alter their life world” [3].

Thus, according to this constructionist viewpoint, the Internet and TV only have as much power over society as we give to them. We invented these technologies, and thus we control how much we let them influence us.

This debate between whether new technology controls us or if we control it is not a new one.

“The pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore” [4]

The above quote comes from Nick Bilton’s I Live In The Future & Here’s How It Works (2010), an excellent book about how the growth of the Internet and Social Media is affecting our daily interactions with each other and with media. The quote comes from a 16th century Venetian judge, who was describing a viewpoint of the printing press.

Before the invention of the printing press in 1452 by Gutenberg, books were handmade by monks, sometimes weighed more than fifty pounds, and were as wide as modern day newspapers.[5]  As a result, they were highly treasured, and few and far between. In fact, Bilton points out that before the printing press, one of the biggest libraries in Europe was housed at the University of Cambridge, with a total of 122 books.[6] He goes on to say that today, the same university has a collection of over seven million books.

Gutenberg Printing Press. The machine that changed the world!

As pointed out by the library example, the invention of the printing press eventually led to the mass production of books.

Just as some people today might fear the development of new technologies such as the Internet, people such as the Venetian judge feared the printing press because it meant that more people would now have the power to share their ideas without the approval of monks (who used to hand write the Bibles). The printing press is not the only technological innovation in history that has been feared.

Bilton brings up the example of the telephone and points out that the invention of the telephone was also feared because some thought it would lead to people going out less and not going to concerts and churches, because they could now listen to those services over the telephone. He points to a New York Times article from 1876, which stated that “the telephone, by bringing music and ministers into every home, will empty the concert halls and the churches” [7].

Bilton also goes on to discuss the fear that people had of the phonograph, the early record player and precursor to the CD. Another Times article is quoted as saying “There is a good reason to believe that if the phonograph proves to be what its inventor claims that it is, both book-making and reading will fall into disuse” [8].

Obviously, the telephone did not stop people from attending concerts and churches, and the phonograph did not stop us from reading books.

However, these seemingly ridiculous fears about the telephone and the phonograph were as real to the people back then as modern day fears are about the Internet to some people.

The only thing to fear, is fear of the Internet itself. (Where I stand).

If I have learned anything so far in life, it’s that history repeats itself. Because of this, I am confident in saying that I am definitely not a technological determinist.

As I see it, the fear of new media has been proven as being irrational in the past, so it is safe to assume that the fear that some people today have concerning the growth of the Internets’ influence on us is also an irrational one which will eventually be proven wrong.

I lean more towards the social construction of technology perspective than I do towards the technological determinist perspective.  As I mentioned above, I think that history proves that fear of technology has been irrational every time before (we always seem to over-emphasize the negative impact that a new technology will have on us), so it would be silly to assume that the modern day fear of the Internet will somehow become justified in the future.

Baym quotes  several people who have the same viewpoint as I do, one of them says that

“The problem with people and the Internet is not the Internet but what people do with it. The same is true of a knife. I was under the knife having lifesaving surgery the same day someone across town was murdered by one” [9].

While I lean towards the social constructionist viewpoint, I don’t think that is correct 100% of the time either. Thus, I am putting my faith in a third perspective…

We have more than two sides to choose from? That seems anti-American!

Unlike the democratic system in the USA (I had to insert this fun connection!), there are more than two realistic options when looking at this debate on technology.

The third option represents the ‘independents’ of the debate, if you will, and focuses on a combination of the first two perspectives.

It makes no sense to fight against the power of the Internet.

Baym states that this third perspective is known as social shaping, and that this perspective tells us that “we need to consider how societal circumstances give rise to technology, what specific possibilities and constraints technologies offer, and actual practices of use as those possibilities and constraints are taken up, rejected, and reworked in everyday life”. [10] This perspective admits that technology can be helpful towards society at times, and also hurtful at other times.

Where do YOU stand?

If you are reading this blog right now, you are most likely a frequent user of the Internet, and thus are someone whose opinion on this debate matters.

Furthermore, you probably should have an opinion on this debate, because the Internet and Social Media are not going away. Even if you choose to not use Social Media, for example, there is a good chance that people whom you interact with still do, thus it is very hard to get away from it and from people talking about it.

If for no other reason but to out-smart your friends the next time the topic of the Internet comes up, you should have an opinion on this topic!

So, where do you stand?



[1] Baym, 2010, p. 25.

[2] Baym, 2010, p. 44.

[3] Baym, 2010, p.39.

[4] Bilton, 2010, p. 53.

[5] Bilton, 2010, pp. 50-52.

[6] Bilton, 2010, p. 51.

[7] Bilton, 2010, p. 46.

[8]Bilton, 2010, p. 47.

[9] Baym, 2011. P.46.

[10] Baym, 2011. P.45.

What the Internet is Hiding From You

A very interesting, and at the same time, a very scary, talk. He discusses how the Internet is becoming increasingly more personalized to our individual needs. Which sounds cool.

However, when does personalization go to far?

I think that it goes too far when it keeps you away from finding out information that you would have found out if the specific website or search engine was not ‘personalizing’ the content from you.

I can’t believe that two different people can actually get different search results on Google, for example, when searching the exact same thing!

That is some scary stuff, because the Internet is becoming increasingly more important to how we seek out information. Imagine if a book showed different information for every reader, for example. That would cause a lot of problems, because we would assume that we are looking at the same information as everyone else, when in reality we are not.

Thoughts on this?

The Virtual Public Sphere

The spring semester is quickly coming to an end. It seems that only a few days ago a brand new semester was ahead of me, with brand new hopes of increased productivity and decreased ‘night before’ homework sessions. Alas, time has flown at a ridiculously fast pace while my productivity has barely increased, and the last second homework sessions have only slight decreased!

This has led to me to today; only a few weeks left to work on two big papers. However, all hope is not lost, because there is some good news.

The good news?

Both papers have similar topics and themes. I am writing about how blogging has influenced and will continue to influence traditional mass news media for one of the papers, and about how a virtual public sphere (the topic of this entry) is being created through the interactive features of social media and traditional media websites on the Internet for the other paper.

What in the world is a public sphere?

It’s a fairly straightforward idea, which was initially conceptualized by German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas.

Jürgen Habermas

According to a review by Crossley and Roberts (2004), Habermas’ original work on the public sphere, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989), claims that societal changes in Western Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries created an atmosphere which allowed middle class men to come out of their private roles and become increasingly more ‘public’ by joining other men in conversations about their mutual interests and desires. This sharing of mutual concerns allowed for the creation of new ideas that could be shared with the government, and thus created the radical concept  (at the time) of a public opinion.

Unfortunately, the ‘white men’ part of the equation is true; women and minorities did not have the ability to be a part of the initial sphere.  However, this has slowly changed for the better and we live in a society today that is more equal than it was in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there is still a lot of work to be done. For now, though, I will discuss the public sphere concept itself, without focusing on the inequality of the demographics that were allowed to participate when it first came about.

These public discussions initially occurred in cafés of the big urban centers of Germany, France, and Great Britain. Also, places like town squares and town halls were popular areas for people to meet and create public spheres as well. The most common topic of these conversations soon became politics.

European coffee houses were among the first gathering places that served as public spheres.

The public sphere was theoretically located between the ‘top’ and the ‘base’ of society (because it was made up of the growing middle class), and thus served as a bridge as it shared the opinions of those who were not in power with those who were.

Just imagine a lively bar with a bunch of people in serious political debates, and you have an idea of the public sphere!

How does this relate to media?

Almost from the very beginning, the public sphere has been associated with mass media. As state powers across Europe become more centralized (with the growth of industrialization) and trade between different nations increased, the need to share information along longer distances became necessary.  This information was shared through the earliest forms of mass media.

Improvements in printing technology during the 18th and 19th centuries allowed for the creation of popular newsletters and journals which served as a platform for people to share their opinions and arguments (Roberts & Crossley, 2004).

In discussing the role that mass media plays in society, McQuail (2010) explains why the incorporation of the public sphere into the mass media is logical.

He states that media,

“can be considered one of the most important intermediary institutions of the civil society”

because it can provide an important space that keeps check on government by helping to create informed public opinions.

McQuail (2010) continues by listing six ways in which the mass media can support the creation of a public sphere:

  1. Enlarging the space for debate
  2. Circulating ideas as a basis for public opinion
  3. Interconnecting citizens and governments
  4. Providing mobilizing information
  5. Challenging the monopoly of government
  6. Extending freedom and the diversity of publication

How the Internet has improved the historically unfair public sphere.

To make a long story short, in the past two centuries the public sphere moved from the local cafés to the mass media (first the printing press, then newsletters, then newspapers, then radio, and then TV).

This has resulted in the mass media controlling the public sphere, because they have had the power to set the agenda for what is and what is not important for the audience to talk about. The fact that the mass media has traditionally controlled the public sphere is bad because it means that the audience (us) has had very little say in what the most important political debates of the day should be. (If anybody doubts the power of the media in setting our primary political agendas, let me know and I will do a blog entry on the agenda setting theory and prove you wrong!)

Anyway, the mass media has controlled the public sphere until the recent development of the Internet. This is very encouraging. The Internet is helping the public sphere to achieve the six aforementioned objectives better than any other medium has before.

The Internet is slowly but surely putting the power of the public sphere back into the hands of the public (what a concept!) Blogs (such as this one) and interactive features on websites are giving the audience more say than we have ever had before when it comes to the information that is presented to us.

Thus, the ‘online public sphere’ that I am referring to is created by YOU.

The Internet is helping to keep traditional mass media honest by giving the audience power to create the public sphere.

We are the ones who are creating an online public sphere, and thus slowly changing the role of traditional mass media for the better. No longer can a big newspaper define political debates for us. If we do not like what the newspaper has to say, we can go online and talk about it with others, and we can create a new agenda (through something as simple as making a Facebook group and organizing a town hall protest!)

There are a plethora of  other examples out there other than Facebook. CNN’s iReport, for instance, allows anybody who has an Internet connection and a way to take a photo to report on the news. Twitter has been used by individuals to report news from the street during historic events (such as the Egypt revolution and the Japan earthquake.) Another example is Wikipedia (a site that is created by the audience and for the audience.)

Another very common example is the ‘comments’ section underneath many news articles that are posted on the Internet. After reading any given article, the audience is given an opportunity to respond to the article and to interact with one another.

This type of immediate reaction and interaction from the audience was simply unfathomable before the Internet. The only way that the audiences could respond to a newspaper article, for example, was to write a letter to the editor. The only way to interact with many other people about that newspaper article was to go to the local coffee shops and to discuss them. This discussion was only for the sake of discussion though, because the newspaper editors would not be involved. Today, they are involved.

Social Media websites played an important role in organizing the Egyptian protests.

The power of the Internet fascinates me, and the potential that the Internet has for positive improvements in how we interact with the world around us and how we are politically involved is seemingly endless!

Consider the recent Egyptian protests. The Egyptian government-owned media relentlessly attempted to portray an image of peace and tranquility to the people. However, the people went online and organized; they debated with each other, they discussed what should be done with each other, and they used the Internet as one of the tools to start a successful revolution.

Protesters in Egypt used the Internet (as a weapon) to create a virtual public sphere.

The Egyptian protesters of January 2011 who discussed issues through Facebook and Twitter are no different from the folks of the 18th and 19th century who met in coffee shops to discuss how their government can be better.

Blah, blah. How does this does affect me??

Have you taken advantage of the public sphere to impact change in your world?

This is where our personal agency comes in.

Many people who have access to the Internet do not take advantage of the exponential amount of sources that are available which can help us to diversify our viewpoints and to educate ourselves about the world. Have you ever read Al Jazeera, for example? It is a very popular Middle Eastern news source (equivalent to CNN and the BBC.) I like to read it, because it tells me how the Western world is portrayed to the Middle Eastern audience, and thus allows me to understand their viewpoints better.

Furthermore, most people use social networking for personal reasons. There is nothing wrong with using social networking for personal reasons (I do it daily), but I am here to argue that more of us need to take advantage of the amazing potential that we have to influence the public political discourse by using the Internet as a public sphere to discuss how we can make our world a better place!

I will be the first to admit that I do not use the Internet as a public sphere as much as I could, but I hope to become better at it in the future. We are the future, and the Internet will be a part of our lives forever. We must develop good habits that will allow us to use the Internet for positive reasons (even for only ten minutes a day!) that might help to create public discourse about the world that we live in.

I will end with a video created by Professor Michael Wesch and one of his classes four years ago. The video exemplifies how much our world has changed today because of the Internet, and asks the question of how the learning environment has been affected.

A university classroom is another example of a traditional public sphere. The video shows us how the reluctance by American universities to ‘get with the times’ of the Internet has resulted in diminishing the effect of classrooms.

Why are so many college students today so unproductive? Perhaps we are used to the Internet, and the classroom style of today simply does not excite us. I am not excusing lazy students at all, but I am suggesting that the ‘old school’ way that our universities are ran has something to do with the apathy that exists among many undergraduate university students in America.

Hopefully, those students (and everybody reading this) will help to make the Internet a more useful tool for our future by embracing the public sphere.

How the Internet has Affected Sharing of Information

Although this video was uploaded to YouTube more than three years ago by Dr. Michael Wesch (and thus it is old by Internet standards), it still provides a really cool perspective on the exponential growth of information sharing that has happened in the past few years. The power of the Internet cannot be overstated! It has fundamentally altered how we learn about and perceive the world around us.

Can you think of ways that the Internet has helped you to share information with others, and to learn about others and about world events? More importantly, can you think of how your life would be different if the mass information sharing or the Internet had never been invented?

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