Recent news from the Center for Civic Media | MIT Center for Civic Media

Recent news from the Center for Civic Media

Speaking, versus being heard, in a democracy

The public sphere is this mental concept we hold dear, where champions of competing ideas battle it out like town criers in some romanticized New England town square, probably from atop soap boxes. I wrote that sentence before seeing that Yochai Benkler indeed invokes all of these things by page 2 of our reading. Of course, anyone who’s read or even heard of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (or even watched Good Will Hunting, for that matter) is familiar with the fact that most groups of people have been, at some point, excluded from this utopia of ideological debate.

After a string of civil rights victories, US history can now be taught as a long march towards progress and the expansion of citizenship. Except that those who hold any power in the public sphere, whether you measure by who holds office or who owns media, as it remains primarily old white men.

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.”

The Counterpublic is Dead: Long Live the Counterpublic!

Before I get into my post let me describe my experience with these readings so far as a quick stream of consciousness:

  • Civic media? Easy peasy I know that stuff.
  • Woah, There’s a lot of insight in these papers. I knew nothing before. Now my power level is going to be over 9000!
  • Wait, what the face is an interlocutor?
  • Maybe I get it now... thanks Google!
  • Oh right, blog post.

So you see, the academic works on public spheres and digital divides have been enlightening, frustrating, exciting, overwhelming, and confusing all at once! It’s been fun.

Networked Counterpublics

What might this mean, why might it be (or not be) a useful concept? Provide 3-5 linked examples to illustrate your argument.

The term 'networked counterpublics' can be most accurately defined by focusing on the individual terminology of 'networked' and 'counter publics.' Counterpublics represent minority groups that are excluded from the mainstream public sphere. Their insular status and under-proliferation of their interests and stances are the reasons for the term 'counter-publics.' These groups may form around shared marginalized opinions, interests, and issues. It has often been argued that counter publics are dissents that challenge the state and societal norms of the public sphere. I personally disagree with this idea that counter publics must be discordant with governments--the public sphere does not necessarily equate with government.

Networked Counterpublics

The tools and resources of the Internet have given rise to "networked counterpublics", spaces mediated by networked tools where individuals of common interests can engage in discourse and action internally and externally with other (perhaps more dominant) public spheres. What it means to be "counterpublic", I believe, has not departed much from what Nancy Fraser defined it - as "subaltern" or coalitions of marginal groups combating oppression from more dominant public spheres. However, as Yochai Benkler argues, the Internet has dramatically changed how individuals can participate in the public sphere. With the lower costs of publishing and interaction, the roles individuals can take on have shifted from being readers and listeners to writers and watchdogs of their own domains. They do not need to rely on mass media to deliver information nor do they need to rely on others to act on their behalf.


Subscribe to Front page feed