Media Theory Toolbox: The Public Sphere

The idea of the public sphere was first introduced by Jurgen Habermas in the 1960s. According to Calhoun, C (2002), “the modern public sphere has two related meanings: it refers both to the open discussion among members of a collectivity about their common concerns and to the activities of the state that are central to defining that community”. Habermas described it as being similar to an 18th century coffee house; a place to acquire the news and debate issues. Despite the concept appearing inviting, the participants were largely middle-class men. This idea of an exclusive group creates problems as it eliminates the ability for a diverse range of opinions and discussions.

Lloyds Coffee House, London By William Holland 1798

In the modern world, this idea of sharing news and ideas looks a little different. For most of us, our public sphere is social media. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are our main sources of news updates and discussions. This is a very different situation to Habermas’s original depiction. For starters, social media is a lot more inclusive than the original public sphere as most people of any age, race, sexuality and financial status are able to access it. However, despite anyone being allowed to contribute, discrimination within social media, is an ever-present issue. We are in a time where individualism is beginning to be accepted but it hasn’t always been so. Because this public sphere is online, some think they can say whatever they want, to whoever they want. The result of this is often cyber bullying or harassment. Secondly to this, although anyone is allowed access to social media, not everyone has the privilege. Much of the population is not fortunate to have internet or electronic devices in which they can create social media accounts with. This means there is a huge cavity in the range of ideas being shared on social media.

Most ideas on social media (including those coming from news sources) are predominantly western views. Although information is produced from countries that may not have access to Wi-Fi or electronics, the reports are usually written from a western point or view. This creates a difficult problem because although social media is “inclusive” there is still an obvious western slant in the information circulating online.

The media plays a huge role in the topics discussed online. They even have an influence on the opinions that people form and express as a result. This is key issue as news sources are often at least somewhat biased. However, this would be a problem regardless of the public sphere. Perhaps it is just a greater issue as content can be circulated at a much quicker pace online than it can in person.

Despite these negative qualities, social media allows billions of people to have access to new information and discussion. This is a huge extension of Habermas’s original idea and quite extraordinary if you take a moment to contemplate it. The ability to access new ideas and express your thoughts at any moment is a privilege I won’t be taking for granted.

Bibliography:

Calhoun C 2002, ‘public sphere’, in Dictionary of social sciences, Oxford University Press.  

Middlemost, R 2020, ‘The Media Theory Toolbox’, lecture, BCM110, University of Wollongong, delivered 30 March.

2 thoughts on “Media Theory Toolbox: The Public Sphere

  1. Hi Sophie, I really liked what you wrote about some people not having the privilege of having social media— I’ve never thought about it like that. It really makes me think how different my public sphere is compared to someone from a third world country, very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

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