A Rather Theoretical Look at Networked Counterpublics

This week we’ve been asked to think about the idea of “networked counterpublics” and whether this is a useful concept to consider in the realm of civic media. Having dived into this set of readings completely blind, with no possible clue as to what this term could mean, I have set out to understand the theoretical constructs that have formulated the term.

To fully define “networked counterpublics” we must begin by understanding what is meant when we are writing about the “public,” or rather, the “public sphere.” In “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” Nancy Fraser (1990) explains the concept according to Jurgen Habermas as “a conceptual resource” that “designates a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk.” The public sphere is then a domain that is “distinct from the state” through which the citizenry can consider, discuss, and debate “their common affairs.”

Habermas’s explanation focuses on the “bourgeois conception” of the public sphere, a view that touted that it had delegated an institutional tool to “rationaliz[e]” political authority by causing the state to be accountable to its citizens. This arena of critical public discourse was meant to be open to all: inequalities were to be bracketed and participants were to debate as peers. Habermas, however, idealizes the concept and fails to recognize the number of significant exclusions that resulted within this bourgeois public sphere. While status might have been bracketed, gender and race never were. And even though this was done with class status, it was a category that was never removed from the equation. In fact, the “protocols of style and decorum” that ruled the interactions within this arena starkly highlighted status inequalities. All of this resulted in unequal discourse amongst the public and a critique of the state that didn’t reflect the views of the whole population.

As a reaction to the systematic exclusion of gender, class and race, such subordinated social groups have discovered the benefits of “constitut[ing] alternative publics” where members are “invent[ing] and circulat[ing]” views and ideas that challenge those of the recognized public sphere. These counterpublics are then “parallel discursive arenas” that permit members of an excluded group to devise “oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.” While not always “virtuous” in the sense of supporting democratic and egalitarian principles, counterpublics are extremely important reactions to the dominant public(s) because “they help expand discursive space.” The tensions within the dominant sphere will now be debated in public instead of hidden within that arena.

Counterpublics may be “contestatory” but they aren’t separatist. Though they may be enclaved, this is not by choice, and these publics are actually jostling for a larger role. Members want to “interact discursively as a [part] of a public” and this necessarily means that they want to spread their “discourse into ever widening arenas.” Counterpublics are spaces of retreat and “regroupment,” and of attempts at expansion into the dominant public. This dialectic of contraction from and expansion into the more recognized public spheres provides the idea of the counterpublic the potential to blur lines of stratification, and ideally to equalize. They can ultimately come to “offset… the unjust participatory privileges” of members of a more powerful group.

What can increase the potential of these alternative publics is if they can be networked. More people are able to enter the discussion, either joining the dominant publics and existing counterpublics or creating their own. According to Yochai Benkler (2006) in “Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere,” becoming networked is important to the “self-perception of individuals in society” in terms of the type of participation they’ll take on. The potential to easily communicate within and possibly between the publics allows members to “reorient themselves from passive readers and listeners to potential speakers and participants in a conversation.” Through “networked counterpublics” subordinated discourses, that wouldn’t have been heard within the context of the one public sphere, can fulfill the call to expand into widening and differing arenas and engage other, possibly opposing, viewpoints.

The emergence of the Internet has allowed “the abundance and diversity of human expression to be available to anyone, anywhere.” Using this medium, anyone can publish content; anyone can begin to spark debate, especially members of counterpublics. Benkler goes on to offer us a number of tools that are seen as networking the public sphere and that can be used just as well by alternative publics. Mailing lists, web sites, blogs, and wikis are to him means of communication within the networked public that allow room for flexibility and debate:

1. Mailing lists spread information to a self-selected group with common interests.
2. Web sites allow organizations and groups from any end of the discursive spectrum greater visibility and global reach. With these you can create searchable information, observations and opinions available for “anyone to read and write into”
3. Blogs take this a step further by making the Internet “‘writable.’” Not only can individuals participate in the occurrences of the world by spreading their view “in journalism time,” but they can do so through a medium that opens to floor to reactions from others. Both readers and the author can comment on the finished product. This transforms the end product from a “finished good” into a “weighted conversation.”
4. Wikis create content collaboratively on larger scale than blogs. They are intended for larger groups as a tool to expedite conversation. The end result of collaborative texts can allow for flexibility in the discussion of an issue, views “must jostle for space and accommodate each other.” Ultimately, the end product is “recognizable as a collective output and a salient opinion or observation.”

To these tools, I would like to add the dominant social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter. While by now these have become over-talked about, they are extremely important in any conversation about networked counterpublics. Through social media platforms, alternative ideas can quickly disseminate principles, gather like-minded individuals, form itself into a group, and begin discussion amongst itself to finally challenge the status quo. A Facebook group can provide a virtual meeting place for members of counterpublics to inform themselves and discuss their ideas, and for non-members to understand the other side and debate issues. Take a look at Trivia: Voices of Feminism’s group for an example. Twitter profiles provide much the same benefits as a Facebook group, providing a space for the spreading of information alternative to mainstream discourse and gathering like-minded individuals who will follow their updates. The key differences are that updates fall directly into followers Twitter Feeds and debates between groups/individuals happen through @mentions. The first difference makes updates more easily accessible, the second, however, can make discussion hard to follow. For an example of a Twitter group taking up a counterpublic viewpoint look at Feminist Majority Foundation’s Feminist News Twitter.

Networked media platforms can provide allow for alternative discourses to find an audience through a means that is more accessible to more people (despite the issue of digital inequality, which is a subject for another time). Counterpublics can then disseminate discourse into a larger space because they are more visible to both potential members and the dominant public. Networked counterpublics remain an important concept in our current media landscape especially because of this characteristic expansion into bigger discursive arenas. The “emancipatory potential” of alternative discourse increases just by virtue of being networked.

Links to look at:

Trivia: Voices of Feminism- http://www.facebook.com/pages/Trivia-Voices-of-Feminism/274143499756#!/p…
Feminist News- http://twitter.com/#!/feministnews
Trafficking on Backpage Twitter Debate- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/02/ashton-kutcher-village-voice_n_…