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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Online Public Sphere in India

Biju P R,
Lecturer in Political Science,
Govt.Brennen College,
Thalassery

Synopsis

Introduction

The theme of the Internet and the public sphere now has a permanent place on research agendas and in intellectual inquiry.The internet, arguably the single most important communication break through the latter half of the last century, has revolutionised the way people, communicate, access information including the mass media reportage, and even how they respond to and comment of social and political issues. In this context it has been argued the internet has facilitated a phenomenon philosopher Jurgen Habermas has defined as the ‘public sphere’- a forum where public opinion is shaped.Both the theory of the public sphere and the utopian rhetoric surrounding the Internet have been the focus of scholars for some time. Given the ability of people to connect with others around the globe through the Internet, could the Internet give rise to online public spheres? If so, how would such spaces work? This proposal proposes that public spheres do exist on the Internet, and details how it functions.

With the popularity of the Internet and the Web growing daily, more and more people are turning to online media for news, information, and entertainment. Unlike traditional media, most online media sources offer their content via the Internet free of charge, which makes obtaining news online less costly than obtaining it from offline sources such as newspapers. Obtaining news from online sources is also faster, easier, and more convenient than from traditional media. Moreover, when people get their news from online sources, they often can also ask questions, offer comments, state their opinions, engage in political debates, or communicate with other readers, which are all features that make online media appealing to readers.
Scholars have made it clear that Habermas' original conception of the public sphere was incomplete. Their reconceptualizations have proven useful in that they acknowledge the complexities of the public sphere idea, and provide a useful starting point from which to examine online public spheres. Viewed from this broader perspective, online networking is a form of online public sphere, specifically a type of counterpublic or issue public, depending on the lens used. Recent work has taken new approaches to public sphere theory, and some work has expanded the theory so that it encompasses the Internet and online forms.

Problem Statement

The theoretical foundation for Habermas’ public sphere, which rests in Enlightenment assumptions of rationality, provides an appealing framework by which to examine public discourse. Yet applications of his theory have remained fixated primarily upon the offline world, and those who do delve into Internet studies assume that the behaviors between the two realms adhere to similar foundations–the Internet is viewed as an ideal version of Habermas’ public sphere because of the lack of physical cues traditionally associated with rationality. It is a place where language takes primacy. There are, however, flaws within this interpretation, as it implies 1) that social factors are not imbedded within language and hence that language is an ideal, objective vehicle of expression and 2) that the Internet is a reflection, a representation, of the offline world and should, therefore, reflect offline practices and norms. Using Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacra and applying this to chat room session logs, online social networking ,this proposal will examine the assumptions in both Habermas’ theory of the public sphere as well as those surrounding Internet discourse. This will show that the Internet is not analogous to its offline “companion”, and that the conception of the public sphere as a realm where ideas can be freely exchanged is troubled by the advent of the simulation. Indeed, the Internet as simulation ensures that public dialogue has collapsed and that the public sphere as traditionally conceived no longer has meaning.

A social network service focuses on building and reflecting of social networks or social relations among people, e.g., who share interests and/or activities. A social network service essentially consists of a representation of each user (often a profile), his/her social links, and a variety of additional services. Most social network services are web based and provide means for users to interact over the internet, such as e-mail and instant messaging. Although online community services are sometimes considered as a social network service in a broader sense, social network service usually means an individual-centered service whereas online community services are group-centered. Social networking sites allow users share ideas, activities, events, and interests within their individual networks.

The main types of social networking services are those which contain category places (such as former school-year or classmates), means to connect with friends (usually with self-description pages) and a recommendation system linked to trust. Popular methods now combine many of these, with Facebook, Bebo and Twitter widely used worldwide; MySpace and LinkedIn being the most widely used in North America;[1] Nexopia (mostly in Canada); Bebo, Hi5, StudiVZ (mostly in Germany), iWiW (mostly in Hungary), Tuenti (mostly in Spain), Decayenne, Tagged, XING; Badoo and Skyrock in parts of Europe; Orkut and Hi5 in South America and Central America; and Friendster, Mixi, Multiply, Orkut, Wretch, renren and Cyworld in Asia and the Pacific Islands and Orkut and Facebook in India.

Online social networking meets certain requirements of the public sphere(1) it is a space of discourse; (2) it opens a space for a wide range people to come together and discuss many issues, and it is meta-topical as what Charles Taylor described-large space of non-assembly(3) including many political ones; and (4) ideas are judged by their merit. These criteria have mostly been applied to offline publics, but online publics should not have a form that is radically different from their real-world counterparts.

The utopian rhetoric associated with the Internet has a long history, going back to the telegraph. Carey (1989) has labeled it "the rhetoric of the technological sublime."Primarily, this rhetoric focuses on the potential to connect previously unconnected people, so they may discuss ideas and reach new understandings, often involving democracy. The concept of the public sphere, originally detailed by Habermas (1962/1989), also concerns the coming together of peoples and the discussion of ideas, again often related to governance and democratic ideals. Given this connection, the question naturally arises: Could the Internet allow for an online public sphere or spheres? If so, how might such a sphere function?

Unlike offline social movements that use the Internet for organization, however, online networking and as the Internet and computer technology have spread, networking users base has grown and the areas it covers have expanded. Despite this growth, no one offline group or coalition claims online networking as its online forum. The main cultural force behind online networking is open source software. The idea behind open source is very similar to the idea of the public sphere.This proposal analyzes working of web based communications and social networking tools as an online public sphere.

The Public Sphere

Habermas (1962/1989) originally described the public sphere as a new opening in the social and political fabric of Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Formed around discourse through meetings in salons in France and coffee shops in England, as well as in newspapers and other printed forms, the public sphere gave a voice to members of the public who were previously not included in issues of governance. The public sphere was a new, budding form of democracy. Eventually the public sphere would be corrupted and co-opted in part by the commercialization of the press through advertising and entertainment.

This sphere, as described by Habermas, was strictly a "bourgeois" public sphere. Many discuss "the public sphere" without the qualifier, as a more generalized form. Although it represented a new avenue for some people, it was restricted in terms of class and gender, in that only bourgeois men could participate (Fraser, 1992). Habermas's original conception includes three important elements. One is that the public sphere was formed through discussion, often mediated. Second, it represented a new space of discussion for many who had previously been excluded. Last, ideas presented in the public sphere were considered on the basis of their merits, and not on the social standing of the speaker.

These three elements of a public sphere are important to the present analysis for the following reasons.Discussion of ideas, often in mediated form, is characteristic of web based communications and social networking tools as a mediated discussion space. It is difficult to imagine the public sphere without discussion of ideas, because it was such discussion that brought the sphere into existence. This new space of discussion also allowed those who had been excluded from issues of governance to have a voice, much as web based communications and social networking tools itself is a space that allows many who could not have done so easily before to discuss political (and other) issues. That ideas were evaluated on their merits flattened the political hierarchy into a more equal, democratic arena.Social networking has a system for judging users' comments that is primarily based on the comment itself, and not the identity of the commenter, and it could be described as a space of rational-critical debate.

The "public" of the public sphere represents the idea that the people taking part in such discussions are acting not as private citizens, but in a public role by speaking in public and discussing issues of relevance to the wider public, issues of governance. They have the potential to affect public opinion and public policy. The "sphere" of the public sphere denotes that it is a space, often a mix of formal and informal institutions and organizations.

The Public Sphere Online

Based on the assumptions it can be taken to a useful definition of a public sphere that may be applied to the Internet, and that may allow to identify a space for analysis. Drawing from Habermas's original conception (as noted above), we have the four following criteria:

1. Public spheres are spaces of discourse, often mediated.
2. Public spheres often allow for new, previously excluded, discussants.
3. Issues discussed are often political in nature.
4. Ideas are judged by their merit, not by the standing of the speaker.

Given that there are multiple public spheres, there are potentially multiple choices available for study on the Internet. Online social networking meets those four criteria, as will be shown. But that the four criteria do not make allowances for a radically different form of public merely because the public is online. An online public sphere is still a form of public sphere, online or not, and so must meet basic public sphere criteria.

In a multiple sphere framework, people can be divided along identity-based or interest-based lines. Common high-level delimiters are race, ethnicity, class, gender, language, nationality, and religion. These are, in Dahlgren's (2001) terminology, "issue publics," public spheres formed around issues of interest, much as Habermas's bourgeois public sphere was an issue public formed around issues of interest to the bourgeois in Europe at the time, primarily trade and politics. Within this public sphere framework, online social netwoking can be viewed as an issue public where networking is formed on the basis of socio-economic and political concerns.

Objectives

Seen against this background, there are some broad objectives in this study .At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is timely to address the status of the “public sphere” in both theoretical and practical terms with respect to public sphere

• As a central notion of political and philosophical debate that was introduced at a specific moment in time, the 1960s, and that has become a cultural trope since then, it is imperative to ask whether the “public sphere” can still be a valuable explanatory model within a completely different historical, political, and technological setting.
• The inflationary use of the “public sphere” among historians and social scientists alike has loosened its epistemological content to such an extent that it has become questionable whether this concept itself is able to describe the complex interactions at the heart of modernity.
• The fundamental changes at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century—from altered conceptions of political sovereignty and the rights of the individual to the impact of science and technology on the political—make it necessary to investigate the “public sphere” itself from an interdisciplinary angle that brings together experts in a variety of fields.
• The role of new media and specifically the online network in shaping the public sphere at crucial historical junctures.

Hypotheses

1.The online public sphere meets the criteria setout to offline public sphere in India..
2.Online public sphere offers vibrant and significant civic and protest politics similar to offline civic movements in India.
3.Emerging participatory digital techonologies provide outstanding opportunities to improve the quality of civic discourses in India.
4.Techonologies doesn’t liberate democratic public behaviours and that open techonologies tends to expand the opportunities of already privileged as there is a problem of inclusion.
5.Online public is not inclusive.
6.Using Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacra and applying this to online social networking will show that the Internet is not analogous to its offline “companion”, and that the conception of the public sphere as a realm where ideas can be freely exchanged is troubled by the advent of the simulation. Indeed, the Internet as simulation ensures that public dialogue has collapsed and that the public sphere as traditionally conceived no longer has meaning.

Research Methodology

Online public sphere in India is a new and as yet unresearched area. This fact underpinned the eagerness of this researcher to discover as much as possible about it. For this reason the researcher did not start with a specific research question. To achieve this purpose, selected content from the research site was observed, analyzed, and assessed against the criteria of the online public sphere discussed.
Specific social networking sites are identified and at times created so as to disseminate primary data in the proposed research.Orkut and Facebook communities are identified with a special concern for political communities and active interaction with such community members are maintained.
Identification of discussion forums are a thrust are in the proposed research and online polls in the communities will be taken for consideration as a primary data.Political party communities,social activist communities,communities created for online protest poliutics will be identified as a thrust area.

Literature review

Since Habermas's original work, there have been various reformulations of and additions to the idea of the public sphere (Calhoun, 1992), and in fact the literature on the public sphere has become quite large.One important addition to the public sphere theory is the notion of multiple publics, rather than of one overarching public sphere (Asen & Brouwer, 2001; Dahlgren, 2001b; Fraser, 1992). The possibility for multiple public spheres is relevant here, given the large number of people who use the Internet. It is doubtful that a single public sphere could consist of millions of people and still function, since deliberation would be difficult. Allowing for multiple publics, with different interests, allows for smaller and thus workable, yet still global, public spheres through the Internet.

Fraser (1992) and many others (e.g., Palczewski, 2001; Squires, 2002) discuss counter-publics, which are identity-based groups that are in opposition to the public sphere. Even if there is one primary public sphere, in this light there are possibly many counter-publics. Garnham (1992) holds the view that there is one overarching public sphere, but notes there may be other public spheres within it, "each organized around its own political structure, media systems, and sets of norms and interests" (p. 371).

Dahlgren (2001a) describes publics as "issue publics," where, similar to Garnham (1992), publics are organized around various issues. For instance, Squires (2002) details several types of counter-publics, focusing on African-Americans. These publics are organized around the issue of identity (race or ethnicity). Anderson (2003) studied the Islamic public sphere, in which identity is based on religion.

Erimbayer and Sheller (1998) detail a schema for approaching different types of publics, and take account of three different dimensions of a public sphere. They do not study one particular sphere, but instead allow for the possibility of many different kinds of spheres. Given the work of these scholars and others, using a multiple public sphere framework is appropriate.
Other scholars have studied specific issue publics on the Internet, such as right-to-die advocates (McDorman, 2001), and various non-governmental organizations (Mater, 2001). Others have investigated the relationship between the Internet and different concepts of the public sphere, and have raised important questions about its functionality (Dahlberg, 2001; Palczewski, 2001; Papacharissi, 2002; Poster, 1999). Overall, their findings are mixed. One common refrain is that the Internet has the potential to form a public sphere or to assist the public sphere, depending on the scholar's approach, but that this is no guarantee that such an outcome will occur.

Papacharissi (2002) identifies three contradictory issues for the Internet and the public sphere. One is that although the Internet allows for great amounts of information storage, access and literacy are likely to be unequal. Second, although people around the world can communicate with each other far more easily with Internet technologies than with previous technologies, there may be audience fragmenting. This would be similar to strict issue publics, or Sunstein's (2001) "daily me" newspaper. The third issue, essentially, is that any online public spheres will face the problems of Habermas's bourgeois public sphere, and become corrupted by commercialism.
Dahlberg (2001) finds that "the Internet is facilitating discourse that replicates the basic structure of rational-critical debate and that in various ways approximates the requirements of the public sphere." Yet, he feels that this discourse falls short of the requirements of the public sphere.

The work of these scholars suggests that there is a clear connection between the Internet and the public sphere. However, the Internet is a network of networks, and over its history has continually changed in terms of technology, both underlying and on the user end. To say that "the Internet" is like a public sphere may be an intuitive statement, but it must be empirically grounded. Currently the Internet is a combination of chat, Usenet, the World Wide Web, email, and other protocols. How the Internet or spaces on the Internet actually function as a public sphere remains to be seen.

Dahlberg (2001) has proposed six criteria that an online space must meet in order to be considered a public sphere. They are: autonomy from state and economic power; exchange and critique of criticizable moral-practical validity claims; reflexivity; ideal role-taking; sincerity; and discursive inclusion and equality. However, Dahlberg focuses more on an overarching, single public sphere and less on one sphere within a multiple public sphere framework. In as much as the present study examines an issue public or counterpublic (in the context of multiple publics), an alternate set of criteria is proposed. Dahlberg does, however, point out that, even with the difficulty of generalizability from specific cases, further research such as case studies are invaluable. By not just characterizing Slashdot as a public sphere, but by further analyzing the mechanisms that make it so, this study hopes to contribute to the conversation about the Internet and the public sphere.

Plan of Work.

Chapter I-Online and offline publics as an arena of larger space for non-assembly.

Chapter II-Powershift-agrarian,industrial and information societies

Chapter III-Internet-a short history of online social networking

Chapter IV-Mechanisms for protest politics online

Chapter V-Online social networking in India :the history of Orkut and Facebook

Chapter VI-Selected case studies from Orkut and Facebook

Chapter VII-Research Findings and Conclusion.

References

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