Twitter: Public Space or Public Sphere?

On: October 6, 2009
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About ellen sluis
I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media. After graduating in Communication and Information Sciences from the Utrecht University I worked during one year in Brazil (São Paulo) as a web designer and, after that, at a NGO, developing the website and PR.


Internet kills writing? According to Andrea Lunsford, researcher at the Stanford University, it is totally the other way around. There is an immense increase of people starting to write and digital writing is the biggest revolution in writing since the Greek era; bigger than the shift from the oral- to the writing era. Internet improves our writing skills[1]!

Five years of research (examination of 15000 written texts by 189 students) has proved that 38 percent of the student’s writings was ‘self-sponsored’ work; for personal purposes. Different than in the print era, people now start to blog, interactively participate on fora, post updates and scraps on their social networks and write endless twitter-streams. Increasing grammatical and type errors and poor formulated texts are not a caused by the Internet itself, but by the fact that today everyone writes; not only intellectuals, but also the plumber and the construction worker.” Hans Bennis, head of the Meertens Instituut, doesn’t seem to care too much about the quality of the writings on the Internet, and is actually very happy that people can write whatever and whenever they want. ‘We shouldn’t measure language comprehensibility by the amount of errors, but to the extend one can express his thoughts’.[1]

Let’s take Twitter as an example here. Although it’s a micro blog that only allows people to post a mini writing (140 characters), people use it to express their thoughts through writing. Because the Internet, and more specifically Twitter, offers the possibility to quickly and spontaneously write something, it is oftentimes very instant, temporary. Therefore, it is much easier than it was before. Sharing something with others in print isn’t even possible in such way.

But why is this good? Why do people have to write? Here Jurgen Habermas, social theorist and philosopher of the Frankfurt School, and this idea of a public sphere come into play. A public sphere for Habermas, is a democratic political culture where people can, outside the state’s supervision, have critical debates and can reason freely. He saw this happening in the eighteenth- and mid nineteenth century where the bourgeoisie came together in coffee houses for public political reasoning and without being disturbed by political and social power[2]. In his book ‘the structural transformation of the public sphere’ he argues how the mass media in the mid twentieth century had replaced the earlier healthy public sphere of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth century with entertainment and spectacle[3]. On the contrary, the pre-web Internet could be a potential for the come back of Habermas’ idealized public sphere, as its participatory nature answers his earlier critique on the mass media. The Internet would offer active engagement and democratize the means of media (news) production so that people are encouraged to actively take part in the debate and are able to ‘respond’ to the media[4].

Although Habermas’ idea of a democratizing public sphere has been criticized for not being very democratic at all, as it excludes ‘participation of everyone but white bourgeois males’ (Garnham, 1992)[4], today’s Internet and its social networks and virtual communities can function as a new formulated public sphere. One that could be more democratic than its predecessor[4]. Anybody, whatever his sexuality, gender or politics, can write. And, according to the above research, many people actually do that.

To my opinion, Twitter is not the ultimate space for critical debate and discussion. Firstly, it is limited in text space (140 characters). Also, it isn’t possible to get in touch with anybody you would like to (because of the ‘following and being followed’) and because direct responses (interaction) as in face to face discussions are not possible.

Therefore, I find it particularly interesting to look at the means of media production, ‘talking back’ to the media and freedom of speech. How can we place this idea of democratizing the means of media production in our contemporary context, when focusing on micro blogs? I think this is twofold. On the one hand, Twitter is mostly used as a space to share your thoughts and emotions. The topics don’t seem to be so serious, and people do not always comment on each other (discuss, or debate). For this it is to say that Twitter is basically used for entertaining, personal purposes. Also, Twitter is often used for marketing and announcements. Job vacancies, parties, events, it all passes by. This hasn’t so much to do with journalism and news production. But on the other hand, many organizations and also people also use the micro blog for journalistic purposes by tweeting about incidents (events, catastrophes) in the world. When an Turkish airplane crashed on the Dutch airport Schiphol in February this year, a twitterer posted the first photos[5].

The latter exemplifies what Habermas meant with a ‘revivification of the public sphere role of the press’. Through the use of new media, the public can communicate and interact with the journalists instead of being a passive consumer. And besides of knowing what your friends are up to, you can also be updated about news posted by others than ‘the media’, what offers you different insights[5].  An item in another Dutch newspaper discusses this phenomenon: does using Twitter make you a journalist? Although the roles seem to be changing – the public already takes part in the production process of news by blogging and tweeting real time information, unfortunately the traditional media do not seem to accept this yet. It’s mostly the public reacting on things that happen in the world, reacting on journalists, instead of journalists reacting on the public’s writings. The news is still mainly distributed by the multinational corporations[5].

Habermas’ theory of the public sphere has not only been used in humanities, but also in political liberation movements in for example Eastern Europe, Africa and China[2]. Today, blogs and micro blogs often function for net-activism; people can express their thoughts and opinions freely. For example; the world following the Iranian revolt last summer on Twitter. And in Cuba is rising a blogosphere of young Cubans and journalists expressing their critical opinions on blogs hosted outside the island, on Facebook and on Twitter[6]. Also, there are many organizations and activists that post about their activities on Twitter. Through new media people can reach their public without barriers of time and space. They can ‘talk’ to international media and people can respond to them.

Concluding, people have started to write increasingly, sharing feelings, thoughts, news and opinions. On Twitter, we see a mixture of entertainment, commercialism and news production, but neither of this is what Habermas envisioned as the Internet being the ultimate public sphere. According to the later critics and their formulation of a new public sphere, we can say that Twitter does offer chances for interaction, active participation, response to the media and possibilities for activism without barriers of space and time. But then other obstacles like equal access, determined by social, political and economical power, stand in the way of this new democracy[3]. And of course you can’t reach everybody on Twitter as you first have to follow and get followers. According Zizi Papacharissi, the Internet could be seen as a public space where people can freely write and discuss what they want. ‘Whether this public space transcends to a public sphere is not up to the technology itself’.[7] For Twitter, the technology is already there, but its function depends on our way of using it. I think Twitter gives hope and help to many, but only when we use it the ‘right’ way it can prove its power.


[1] Internet vermoordt schrijven, NRC Next, 28/09/09
[2] Gestrich, A., ‘The Public Sphere and the Habermas Debate’, Trier University; 2006
[3] Habermas, J. ‘the structural transformation of the public sphere’, 1989
[4] Lister, M., Dovey, J., Giddings, S., Grant, I. & Kelly, K., ‘New Media, A Critical Introduction’, Routledge; 2002.
[5] Twitteraar, Journalist of niet? Volkskrant 29/09/09
[6] Cuba’s Next Revolution
[7] Papacharissi, Z., ‘The Virtual Sphere’; SAGE publications, 2002

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