Weerwoord.nl as a Digital Public Sphere

On: November 1, 2009
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About Gwen Keupe
Gwen Keupe is a New Media Master student at the University of Amsterdam. She graduated her Bachelors degree with a thesis titled 'One Million Strong for Barack - Openness and involvement through online deliberation'. Her research interests lie within online social networks and the way people use them to accomplish real things offline.

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Weerwoord.nl is a Dutch website that functions as a political en social forum where people can deliberate. The subjects that people deliberate on are various and their viewpoints are often contradictory, making Weerwoord.nl a divers and interesting website to visit.

Critical discourse surrounding the Internet as a place for political debate is two folded. On the one hand people see the Internet as a medium that allows people to filter out opposing views (as opposed to the more direct physical life). Thanks to these filtering practices, people are engaged into political discussions within what Cass Sunstein defines as deliberative enclaves. Within these deliberative enclaves, Sunstein argues, people hear louder echoes of their own voices and therefore tend to move to more extreme viewpoints.

The other critical discourse surrounding the Internet as a place for political debate questions whether people can engage in ideological free and rational dialogue within normalized discussion forums. Political discussion forums like Weerwoord.nl often have group rules. Not complying to these group rules can result in a discussion post being removed or a group member being excluded from the discussions group by the moderators of the forum.

These two critical discourses are embedded within the question if the Internet can function as a public sphere. The public sphere, as once coined by Jürgen Habermas, is not a place, but an abstract forum where people can engage into an ideologically free and rational debate on multiple levels in a society (which implies a more open and involved form of democracy).

Applying these discourses to the political and social forum Weerwoorld.nl, I would like to argue that the forum does function as a digital public sphere. The debate on Weerwoord.nl is held within multiple levels within society. When one looks at the discussion posts of the group members the tone is left sided as well as right sided. Furthermore is membership to the discussion group open to anybody that wants to participate. And although the debate on the forum is normalized by the group moderators, members themselves are also encouraged to help within the normalization. Members of Weerwoord.nl can suggest inappropriate behavior of other participants to the moderators, making normalization an empowering practice.

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