I did a lecture last week for first and second year “Media Culture and Practice” and “Media and Journalism” students on the potentials and limitations of the internet as a public sphere, using #GamerGate as a case study. It was a fun session, and I had great engagement and feedback from both the students and the module leaders, so I thought I’d post some of the content up here. I took students through a 101 on the Habermasian public sphere and then a brief history of thinking around the impact of the internet and social media on the public sphere, before introducing them to the case study of #GamerGate and getting them to do some work.
(Caveats: At least half of the below is useful, simplified lies. They work as an introduction to the concepts but anyone with a strong interest in issues around the digital public sphere may want to dig deeper. The lecture also deliberately doesn’t cover the effects of ubiquitous surveillance on the public sphere. That may well be material for another lecture.)
Juergen Habermas and the Public Sphere
“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labour.”
In its essence, the public sphere is about power: about how private individuals can come together to influence structures of power such as the state.
The public sphere is a concept in a very specific historical and geographic setting: Habermas is looking at the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a social and political class distinct from and gradually replacing the feudal system as the wealthiest and most powerful section of society. He traces the public sphere to British coffee houses, French salons and German Tischgesellschaften of the 18th century – this is very much a Western European concept. In the particular historical context Habermas is examining, therefore, the public sphere is one of the ways in which the bourgeoisie can challenge the feudal order. In Habermas’ original vision, the outcome of discussions in the public sphere is consensus, or a “public opinion” which can then serve as a mandate to influence decisions of the state.
Habermas is a philosopher, not a historian, so what he describes is something of a Platonic ideal of the public sphere, not necessarily something that ever existed in this particular form. He does identify some key “institutional criteria” which describe the public sphere and lend it legitimacy:
- Disregard for status: the idea that your social status didn’t matter when it came to the value of your contribution or opinion within the public sphere. The idea here is not that everyone is equal but that inequality is checked at the door.
- Domain of common concern: The public sphere discussed issues which were mutually agreed on to be of “common concern” or “of concern to everyone”. This opened up a space for discussion, for instance, of economic matters which were previously dominated by the state, but it also has a lot of potential for excluding matters which have a disproportionate impact on minorities and marginalised people.
- Inclusivity: At least in theory the public sphere had to be accessible to all, as that is what differentiates it from the feudal order and gives the bourgeoisie the mandate to challenge feudal power.
Habermas does admit that these three “institutional criteria” may never have been fully realised in an actually existing public sphere, but he argues that they were an important part of the self-conception of the bourgeois public sphere and therefore had a tangible impact on how it functioned in practice.
By the time he was writing in the 1960s, Habermas himself felt that the bourgeois public sphere had declined and been captured by other interests. The capitalist economy, the shift from participation to consumerism, and particularly the commercial interests of the press and wider media were key contributing factors to the decline of the public sphere. The increasing reliance on advertising by the press was a particular blow: the press now no longer served as an enabler of public discussion by circulating important relevant information, but actively manipulated and manufactured public opinion to suit advertisers. (The recent resignation of Peter Oborne from the Telegraph is a good example of these mechanics playing out in the modern press.) With the emergence of mass media, the kind of face-to-face discussion that had characterised the bourgeois public sphere declined, and access to the public sphere became more difficult.
The Public Sphere 2.0?
With this story of democracy being captured by commercial interests, it is perhaps unsurprising that many saw new hope with the emergence of a new medium: the internet.
“Democracy involves democratic participation and debate as well as voting. In the Big Media Age, most people were kept out of democratic discussion and were rendered by broadcast technologies passive consumers of infotainment. (…) In the Internet Age, everyone with access to a computer, modem, and Internet service can participate in discussion and debate, empowering large numbers of individuals and groups kept out of the democratic dialogue during the Big Media Age.”
Those of us who remember the pre-internet world will remember that our social circles tended to be limited both by geography and our position in society. We knew a limited number of people and could therefore only get exposure to a limited set of views, first-hand accounts and lived experiences. And even if we did know people in other parts of the world, communicating with them was expensive. As a migrant, I had family in a different country, and I remember saving up all the change and calling them from a payphone, constantly feeding coins into it.
With the emergence of the internet, suddenly we could talk to people on the other side of the world, instantaneously and at vastly reduced cost. We no longer had to rely on mass media to understand important issues, and we had much better access to different points of view. (It is important to understand, however, that this happened gradually, over about a decade. It started with academics in universities and research institutions and slowly spread to other parts of the population at what we would now consider a glacial pace.)
The internet not only made it easier to acquire information – it also made it easier to spread information. If you wanted to get your message across about an issue you cared about, you were no longer solely dependent on mass media picking it up: there were things you could do to spread information yourself. (Of course mass media would still vastly increase your reach, and even today one of the primary aims of a lot of online campaigns is to get the attention of mainstream mass media.) If you’re interested in some early uses of the internet for protest and activism, there are a number of case studies about the Zapatista movement and their involvement with online protests against the World Bank.
Early cyberutopians thought that certain features of the internet were particularly relevant to some of the institutional criteria of the public sphere. Disregard for status was made easier – in theory – by the fact that you simply didn’t know the status of the person you were communicating with. This may seem strange to people used to modern social networking platforms like Facebook with its emphasis on images and real names, but in the days of Bulletin Boards and Usenet, all you saw of your interlocutor was, effectively, a username and a block of text. They may be of a different class, race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, or religion to you, they may be disabled, or have a different educational attainment to you, but all you have to judge them on is their contribution to the discussion.
In terms of accessibility and inclusivity, the internet was seen as enabling people to talk to each other again, person-to-person, similarly to the bourgeois public sphere, albeit not face-to-face. As the Douglas Kellner quote above shows, this was felt to be a much more inclusive and empowering way of accessing the public sphere than through consumption of mass media content.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple, and there are challenges for the internet in terms of both inclusivity and the disregard for status. Groups who are marginalised away from the keyboard can be just as marginalised in cyberspace. Cost remains a barrier to entry into the digital public sphere. In the UK, 70% of people who live in social housing aren’t online, and 38% of people not online are also unemployed. The lack of digital skills, often correlated with age is also an issue, as 39% of people without internet access are over the age of 65.
Online environments are often also not terribly welcoming to marginalised groups. Chat users with female-sounding usernames get 25 times more malicious and abusive messages than those with gender-neutral or male-sounding usernames. And then there is the question of how desirable it actually is to check our differences at the log-in screen.
“The anonymity of the Internet can work both ways. True, no one can see what color I am, but no one has to see what color I am. Therefore, the touchy subject of race can be brushed under the mousepad.”
Differences matter: We all bring our backgrounds and experiences with us into online spaces. They shape the way we see the world, and the contributions we can make to the public sphere. There are many social issues the we simply cannot address by disregarding status and bracketing our difference. In order to deal with racism, sexism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, ableism, and a whole host of other issues, we have to first of acknowledge they exist, and listen to the lived experiences of those affected.
The final nail in the coffin of Cyberutopia – and therefore potentially the digital revitalisation of the public sphere – came in the early 2000s with Web 2.0. On the face of it, Web 2.0 should be good news for the public sphere: it does, after all, allow users with minimal technical skills to publish content online. However, the main driver behind Web 2.0 is the desire to commodify and monetise user-generated content, generally through advertising. So if advertisers want to place their products on sites perceived as family-friendly, and the image of breastfeeding mothers (somewhat ironically perhaps) are not perceived as family-friendly, then public debate about issues like breastfeeding is stifled. And suddenly, it looks like we’re almost back to square one, where advertisers’ interests can and do determine whose voice gets heard in the public sphere.
And yet there are plenty of case studies of the internet successfully serving as a public sphere, opening up debates and allowing marginalised voices to be heard. So how can we account for that? I went back to a 1990 paper by Nancy Fraser, which doesn’t deal with the internet at all but does reconstruct some of the basic underlying assumptions of the public sphere, for a possible explanation.
Fraser recognises and critiques some of the shortcomings of the Habermasian public sphere, particularly the impossibility of bracketing differences, limits to access and inclusivity, and – crucially – questions over who gets to define what are “domains of common concern”. She argues that marginalisation makes it very difficult to get certain issues on the table. A good example is the issue of domestic abuse which for a long time was seen as a private concern, a matter between (it was thought) a man and his wife which the public had no right or interest to intervene in. It was feminist campaigners in the 1970s who first brought this issue to public attention and successfully argue that this was indeed a domain of common concern. This led to legislation changes and the provision of domestic abuse services like shelters.
To explain this renegotiation of the boundary between private and public, as well as address other issues around accessibility, inclusivity and the disregard for status, Fraser introduces the concept of the subaltern counterpublic. Subaltern counterpublics are groups marginalised by the wider public sphere due to status, difference, lack of access or lack of recognition for the publicness of their issues. Not all such groups form counterpublics, but for those that do, subaltern counterpublics play a dual role:
“The points is that, in stratified societies, subaltern counterpublics have a dual character. On the one hand, they function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; on the other hand, they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed toward wider publics.”
And thinking about some of the things that internet is thought to be particularly good at, they do look a little bit like the structures that might create and sustain a subaltern counterpublic:
- Bringing people together – particularly isolated people from marginalised communities.
- Allowing concerns to be aired within safe spaces and issues to be verbalised and articulated.
- Allowing lived experiences to be shared.
There is something very powerful about coming together with a group of people who have similar experiences and realising that issues we may have thought of as personal problems are actually wider social and political issues that can and need to be addressed on a larger scale.
One example is the lack of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in offline spaces. One in four LGB young people have no adult they can talk to about their sexuality, either at home or at school (figures are from Stonewall, so I don’t have access to figures for trans young people, but suspect they’re higher). Many of them will therefore turn to the internet for information and support. For many LGBT+ kids today, the first space where they will feel safe being themselves will be online.
Effectively, despite all its shortcomings, the internet can actually be quite good at hosting and nurturing (at least some) subaltern counterpublics. Barriers to access still apply to many marginalised groups, commercial interests still dominate the space, and the nature of the internet as a public space is still hotly contested, but at least some subaltern counterpublics are leveraging something that looks at least partly like a digital public sphere to get their voices heard.
#GamerGate and the digital public sphere in practice
At the heart of the set of events that has become known as #GamerGate is a text-based game by indie developer Zoe Quinn, called “Depression Quest”. The game is intended to give players an idea of what living with depression is like, and it had positive reviews after its original release in 2013. Leading up to the Steam release of the game, Quinn was harassed online, mostly through hate mail and offensive comments on online forums, including parts of Steam.
Shortly after the Steam release in August 2014, Quinn’s ex partner wrote a blog post claiming that the reason Depression Quest got positive reviews was that Quinn had had a sexual relationship with a Kotaku games journalist. The harassment campaign against Quinn increased in intensity and now included doxing, hacking of several of her social media account and threats of violence made against her personally and her family. Harassment was also extended to game developer Brianna Wu and feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian. The Twitter hashtag #GamerGate was coined.
Supporters of GamerGate present the controversy not as one over misogyny in gaming but over ethics in games journalism. They contend that there is an unethical conspiracy among games developers and journalists to focus on progressive social issues in games. They see this as a threat to the “Gamer identity” – which is traditionally conceptualised as straight, white, young and male.
I gave students examples of posts from both sides of the #GamerGate controversy and then asked them to write a short Wikipedia article about #GamerGate. I then asked different groups to swap and edit each other’s articles, and led a discussion on what #GamerGate could tell us about the potential and limitations of the internet as a space of public discourse. Here are a few of the points that emerged from the discussion:
- There is obviously no neutral or objective way to explain what #GamerGate is about and how it arose. I asked students to think about whose voices they had privileged or marginalised in their accounts – and whose voices I have privileged in mine.
- Students discussed to what extent it mattered whether Quinn had had a relationship with Kotaku journalist Nathan Grayson. The consensus was that this was largely irrelevant to the wider controversy and in any case impossible to ascertain.
- Students also wondered to what extent the anonymity of online spaces and the impersonality of online communication created a sense of lack of accountability which in turn contributed to the online harassment generated by #GamerGate. We talked about whether regulation or technological solutions where posts could always be linked to a specific individual would be desirable. On balance (and with some prompting) we reached the conclusion that that would not be conducive to open public debate online.
A final vote showed that students felt that technology couldn’t fully revitalise the public sphere on its own, but neither was the potential of the internet as a space of public discourse to be completely discounted.
- Fraser, N. (1990) “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy”, Social Text 26
- Habermas, J. (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society
- Kellner, D. (1998) “Techno-politics, new technologies, and the new public spheres”, Illuminations
- McLaine, S. (2003) “Ethnic Online Communities: Between Profit and Purpose”, Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice
- Rheingold, H. (2000) The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier
- Salter, L. (2003) “Democracy, New Social Movements, and the Internet: A Habermasian Analysis”, Cyberactivism: Online activism in theory and practice
(Personally, I would particularly recommend Fraser and McLaine from the above list.)
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