How does each kind of civic media project work in relation with the public sphere? How can we understand the relationship between civic media projects and the public sphere? I would like to address these questions by classifying the civic media functions inside the public sphere model. It’s true that there are some different understandings about this concept and its operationalization, but for this post I am just going to use a basic model inspired by the Habermas’ concept.
First of all, we need to remember some key points about the public sphere and its relationship with society and the state. The public sphere is a process that happens when common citizens (citizens without state power; people from society) come together to know and discuss public issues. Thereby this isn’t a formal institution, it isn’t the public space or an even is just a specific time when citizens are together deliberating. Instead, it is the whole process. The public sphere is the constant process of public deliberation between citizens over time at public spaces.
According to Habermas, the public sphere does the intermediation between the society and state. The public sphere is the historically legitimated strategy by which citizens can influence the decisions inside the state. This is a communicative process in which common citizens exchange (and sometimes change) arguments, build opinions and positions, and draw strategies to influence the sphere of decisions (government, parliament and courts).
To summarize, we need to keep in mind that the public sphere is the mediating instance between society with its interests (sometimes divergent) and the state institutions that make political decisions.
Now I am going to speak about the civic media functions related to the public sphere. As you can see in the picture, I think it is possible to identify at least three types of functions. First, the red vector indicates the relationship between society and the public sphere. Citizens can create civic media to strengthen the public sphere, which in turn can motivate others to engage in the public sphere. This engagement strengthens the relations (we could say social capital) inside the public sphere and, at the same time, other social relations outside public sphere.
In fact, there is a lot of software and many platforms to support citizens interacting with others about public issues. These platforms can be appropriated by users for public debate (like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube) or they can be made already to host public debate (like DemocracyOS). The common goal is to facilitate the communicative flow between citizens. This type of civic media wants to improve the variety of information available inside the public sphere and support public discussion. The democratic relevance of these projects comes from the capacity to support a rational, open and equalitarian discussion between citizens.
Second, the green vector indicates the communicative flow between the public sphere and state. Generally, the public sphere’s goal is to push the government toward citizens’ interests. This relationship is a big challenge, because state agencies and the public sphere are circumstantially distant. In modern democracies, citizens can vote for the most important positions inside the state, but there are few opportunities to address questions.
Nevertheless, many civic media have been created to support the public sphere in its communicative job with each part of the state. As an example, we can cite petition platforms (like Avaaz.org), but also some cases of citizen journalism and online activism that looks for attention and actions from state agencies. At the same time, there are some initiatives created by government to receive inputs from citizens (like We the People and Regulations.org). The democratic value comes from the impact on the policy making process. I don’t mean that all demands from the public sphere have to become policies, but that channels and mechanisms should exist to hear what people think about topics which the government cares about. This connection is so important to democratic life because it recognizes the citizens’ opinion and the public sphere importance.
Third, the blue vector indicates the communicative flow from the state to the public sphere. Especially, in the last few years, there is a lot of initiatives to keep citizens better informed about public resources and what the government is doing. One could say that this is a good way to improve citizen control over government and thus increase the public’s confidence in the public actors and institutions. The democratic value of this kind of initiative comes from the increase of transparency in the state sphere. For example, we can cite initiatives to open data (Data.gov) and reports from public’ agencies.
There is an expectation that to know about state business motivates citizens to participate more in the public sphere and address claims to the state. When this happens, I hope so that both green and blue vectors feed both ways throughout a civic cycle.
Finally, I would like to say some words about the purpose of this classification. This is not to explain the real practice of civic media projects. Instead, the goal is to help us to identify civic media functions inside the public sphere model. Sometimes, complex cases have at the same time more than one function. This is not a problem, once the aim is to classify the functions of civic media projects instead of the cases.