It's not all bad; Facebook, Google, Reddit, and Twitter also support positive communities

In cleaning up my desk this weekend, I chanced upon an old notebook and like many times before I began to transcribe the notes. It was short, so I got to the end within a couple of minutes. The last page was scribbled with the German term Öffentlichkeit (public sphere), a couple sentences on Hannah Arendt, and a paragraph about Norberto Bobbio’s view of public and private.

Then I remembered. Yep. This is the missing notebook from a class on democracy in the digital age.   

Serendipitously, a couple of hours later, William Freeland alerted me to Franklin Foer’s newest piece in The Atlantic titled “The Death of the Public Square.” Foer is the author of “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” and if you want a good take on that book, check out Adam Thierer’s review in Reason.

Much like the book, this Atlantic piece wades into techno ruin porn but focuses instead on the public sphere:

Nobody designed the public sphere from a dorm room or a Silicon Valley garage. It just started to organically accrete, as printed volumes began to pile up, as liberal ideas gained currency and made space for even more liberal ideas. Institutions grew, and then over the centuries acquired prestige and authority. Newspapers and journals evolved into what we call media. Book publishing emerged from the printing guilds, and eventually became taste-making, discourse-shaping enterprises.

In recent years, this has been eviscerated by Facebook and Google, Foer continues,  

It took centuries for the public sphere to develop—and the technology companies have eviscerated it in a flash. By radically remaking the advertising business and commandeering news distribution, Google and Facebook have damaged the economics of journalism. Amazon has thrashed the bookselling business in the U.S. They have shredded old ideas about intellectual property—which had provided the economic and philosophical basis for authorship.

Philosopher Jurgen Habermas, who is cited throughout the piece, coined the term Öffentlichkeit, which has been translated into English as public sphere. However, Habermas used the term to describe not only the “process by which people articulate the needs of society with the state” but also the “public opinion needed to legitimate authority in any functioning democracy.” So, the public bridges the practices of democracy with mass communication methods like broadcast television, newspapers, and magazines.  

While Foer doesn’t explore it fully, the public sphere forms a basis for legitimate authority, which in turn implicates political power. Nancy Fraser provided the classic critique of public sphere because even in Habermas’ own conception of the term, countless voices were excluded from the public sphere. “This network of clubs and associations – philanthropic, civic, professional, and cultural – was anything but accessible to everyone,” Fraser explained. “On the contrary, it was the arena, the training ground and eventually the power base of a stratum of bourgeois men who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’ and preparing to assert their fitness to govern.”

In parallel to the public sphere, Fraser observed that numerous counterpublics formed “where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” And it is through these oppositional interpretations that the public conversation around politics changed. Think about civil rights and the environmental movement, and even deregulation as examples.

Foer might be right to focus on the public sphere, but I’m not sure his analysis goes far enough. He explains:

This assault on the public sphere is an assault on free expression. In the West, free expression is a transcendent right only in theory—in practice its survival is contingent and tenuous. We’re witnessing the way in which public conversation is subverted by name-calling and harassment. We can convince ourselves that these are fringe characteristics of social media, but social media has implanted such tendencies at the core of the culture. They are in fact practiced by mainstream journalists, mobs of the well meaning, and the president of the United States. The toxicity of the environment shreds the quality of conversation and deters meaningful participation in it. In such an environment, it becomes harder and harder to cling to the idea of the rational individual, formulating opinions on the basis of conscience. And as we lose faith in that principle, the public will lose faith in the necessity of preserving the protections of free speech.

But Foer’s lament, if it is about the public sphere, is ultimately about the old friction, between the public sphere and counterpublics, in new form. Foer’s worries about theological zealots, demagogic populists, avowed racists, trollish misogynists, filter bubbles, the false prophets of disruption, and invisible manipulation, just to name a couple techno-golems, echoes the “counter discourses [that] formulate oppositional interpretations” of Fraser.

It is all quite inhumane, yes.

But let’s also remember that Facebook and Google and Reddit and Twitter also support humane counterpublics. Like when chronic pain sufferers find solace on Facebook. Or when widows vent, rage, laugh and cry without judgement through the Hot Young Widows Club. Let’s also not forgot that Reddit, while sometimes being a place of rage and spite, is also where a weight lifter with cerebral palsy became a hero and where those with addiction can find healing

Let’s also not forget that most Americans think these companies have on the whole been beneficial in their lives. And that most of us don’t post political content on either Facebook or Twitter. And that people are the least likely to get their news from social networking sites compared to every other source.

Focusing on democracy and on politics tightens the critical vision, causing us to miss the multiplicities of experiences online. Yet those experiences, those counterpublics are just as representative. They constitute a reality far more real than those constructed by critics.

First published Jul 11, 2018