"Push-Button Publishing for the People": The Blogosphere and the Public Sphere
The following is a conference-paper-length essay I wrote for my rhetorical theory class with the intention to build upon the work of Trish Roberts-Miller and Andrew Ó Baoill, who have done excellent analyses of Habermas and blogging. Note: I wrote the essay for a non-techie audience and didn't assume prior knowledge of weblogs.
Conditions for Habermas' notion of the public sphere include the gathering of unsupervised private individuals to discuss matters of public interest in order to reach a rational-critical consensus of what is in the best interest of the public or, rather, what constitutes public opinion, which Habermas defines as “the tasks of criticism and control which a public body of citizens informally—and, in periodic elections, formally as well—practices vis-a-vis the ruling structure in the form of a state” (1989, p. 136). Any issue may be discussed, but Habermas does not include issues dealing with the family or the economy in the category of public. The public sphere takes as a given the existence of a reasoning public who can engage in rational-critical discourse in service of the goal of a democratic political structure. Under advanced capitalism, Habermas argues that the public sphere as a concept has been compromised by, first, the proliferation of advertisements in the news media and the accompanying slant toward commercial interests in the news content, and second, the rise of the social welfare state, in which private interests merge with state control (1989, p. 139-142). With the rise of the internet has come a tendency to analogize conversations that take place on the Web to the public sphere, and in recent years, weblogs in particular have been been regarded as a site for possible creation of a renewed sense of the public sphere. In this essay, I analyze the ways in which weblogs do and do not meet the criteria of the public sphere, but first, I shall define weblogs and explain what discussion on weblogs looks like.
In 1997, Jorn Barger started using the term weblog to refer to his online journal, Robot Wisdom, and other maintainers of sites similar to his followed suit. Weblogs, also called blogs, are frequently updated Web sites on which writers post links to and commentary on articles, other Web sites, and other weblogs. Many weblog writers, called bloggers, link to op-ed pieces on major news sites and write responses to the arguments, sometimes detailed, point-by-point rebuttals. This practice is called “fisking,” after journalist Robert Fisk, whose columns have often been the object of such critiques. Weblogs can be devoted to only one topic, or they can reflect what the blogger is interested in at any given time. They can have one author, or they can be community weblogs with several contributors.
One of the distinguishing features of a weblog is that all posts are time-stamped with the most recent post at the top, making their structure not that of one single coherent, logical argument, but a reverse chronological series of posts, each of which may or may not be a thorough argument. Bloggers write about their jobs, ideas, political views, research interests, childhood memories, and dreams. They post reviews of movies they’ve seen, books they’ve read, and albums they’ve heard. They read other weblogs and freely copy and paste others' content onto their own weblogs, usually with a link back to the original post, often responding and building upon the original post. Often, a blogger will write an essay, post it to his or her weblog, and solicit feedback. Readers post comments underneath the essay (or link to the essay and write response pieces on their own weblogs), and the blogger who wrote the essay may revise it, or simply let the comment discussion stand on its own as a conclusion to the essay. Most weblogs have on the right or left side of the screen a list of links to other weblogs they read regularly; these are called blogrolls, after the political term “logrolling.”
Avid readers of Habermas will have already noted that there are significant problems with weblogs' being associated with the public sphere. First, there is the problem of access; second, the problem of rational-critical consensus; third, ideology and special-interest groups. I will deal with each of these in turn.
In the public sphere, Habermas claims, “[a]ccess is guaranteed to all citizens” (1989, p. 136). Foss, Foss, and Trapp (2002) explain that for Habermas, access is guaranteed “by virtue of the abstract right of humanness” (p. 239). This claim has been criticized as being utopian, but, as McCarthy (1984) points out, Habermas' public sphere is an ideal, and is only meant to be an ideal; in practice, discussions among citizens on matters of public interest are almost always, if not always, exclusive to some degree. Even if there is no explicit basis for exclusion (e.g. women only), not everyone has unfettered access to the discussion. Such is the case with weblogs. In 1999, at least two free-of-charge blogging tools were released: Pitas and Blogger, whose slogan is “push-button publishing for the people.” These tools, which are easy to use for those who know how to send and receive email and navigate Web pages, enabled millions of users to create their own weblogs, but, as Andrew Ó Baoill (2004) has pointed out, several barriers to access exist, including the technological literacy required, the access to computers and the internet, and, perhaps most important, the leisure time. It could be argued that one wouldn't have to own a computer with an internet connection in order to keep a weblog; anyone with a public library card can potentially maintain one. However, participating in a conversation with other bloggers, especially a conversation centered on current political issues, requires a significant time commitment. Bloggers must read many news stories and op-ed pieces, read the other weblogs they usually read and perhaps some they do not usually read, comment on the other bloggers' posts, and write their own responses on their weblogs.
Even if everyone could keep weblogs, not everyone would have an opportunity to be heard, which becomes problematic if one attempts to compare discussions on weblogs to argumentation resulting in rational-critical consensus, which is the goal of discourse in the public sphere. As McCarthy (1984) has claimed, in order for a genuine consensus to be reached, the exchange must meet the conditions of what Habermas calls the “ideal speech situation” (p. 306). That is, the resulting agreement must be “such that any rational, competent judge would come to the same conclusion” because the strongest argument would prevail (McCarthy, 1984, p. 307). In order to reach such an agreement, everyone in the discussion must have an equal opportunity to speak and express themselves, and to use any speech act, including constatives (validity claims about reality such as “That is an oak tree”), regulatives (claims relating to social norms such as “Your comment was condescending”), and avowals (claims regarding the speaker's subjective view such as “You make me laugh”); in addition, everyone must have equal power in the discussion (Foss, Foss, & Trapp, 2002, p. 246-248). In the realm of weblog discourse, also called the “blogosphere,” everyone in the discussion has an equal opportunity to speak, but not everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard or to have equal power over the exchange. This is evident in what has been called the “A-List” phenomenon in blogging: The more people link to a particular weblog, the higher it rises in search engines and in ranking programs such as Technorati and the Ecosystem. Thus, when the weblog gets more exposure, more people have an opportunity to find the weblog and link to it themselves. Bloggers who are just starting weblogs have an especially difficult time being read amidst the large pool of texts. Clay Shirky (2003) writes: “It's not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it's harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year.” This is because new weblogs are being started every day, and as long as the most widely-read bloggers keep writing posts that are consistent with the quality and perspective their readers expect and enjoy, they will probably continue to have the most readers.
To be sure, having many readers is not necessarily desirable in the public sphere. Blogger A.K.M. Adam (2004) observes that “the more a site attracts attention, the more nearly it resembles broadcasting rather than conversation.” Trish Roberts-Miller (2004) notes a paradox “between inclusion and argumentation. The more people included in any public (or counterpublic) sphere, the less the discourse can be rational-critical.” Weblogs, especially widely-read ones, have been called “one-to-many” communication, without the kind of sustained deliberation one should find in the public sphere. Ó Baoill (2004) points out that the reverse-chronological order and brief, rapid-fire comments create a privileging of novelty over critical, careful, well-thought-out reflection:
The importance placed by many weblogs on breaking news not only leads to greater risks of faulty information being published but, given the layout of weblogs, can foreshorten debates. The use of separate comment threads on each individual weblog post means that each particular thread can be quite short, being supplanted by the newest news item.
This is not to say that all discourse on weblogs follows such a pattern; on the contrary, many bloggers post longer pieces less often (about one 2000-word essay a week) and sustain rich debates in which the stronger arguments do prevail.
Another problem in comparing the blogosphere to the public sphere is the proliferation of special-interest weblogs. It is rare to find a weblog that is not more or less topic-driven; some bloggers only write about intellectual property issues, others about reproductive rights, and others about the war in Iraq. Still others write explicitly from their social locations as, for example, genderqueers or as mothers. In other words, it is common to encounter a weblog on intellectual property issues which only links to news stories or other weblogs having to do with intellectual property. While there are certainly plenty of exceptions, for example, Alas, a Blog, a left-leaning political weblog, has a list of links with the heading “To Alas' Right,” and another with the heading “Even Further Right,” to indicate that the contributors to Alas, a Blog read the texts of people with whom they don't agree, most bloggers link to like-minded bloggers.
Insofar as these communities of bloggers are marginalized from hegemonic society, they could be considered subaltern counterpublics, to use Nancy Fraser's (1993) term. Fraser claims that “the proliferation of subaltern counterpublics means a widening of discursive contestation, and that is a good thing in stratified societies” (1993, p. 124). Fraser is quick to point out, though, that such counterpublics are often not democratic but are better described as enclaves, that one sees in them the charge to conform to rigid group norms, a criticism commonly made of identity politics in general. Roberts-Miller (2004) sees like-minded weblog clusters as enclaves rather than counterpublics; she had anticipated “a more open and public public sphere of participatory argumentation rather than simply expression,” but “was instead dismayed to see a realm, not of counterpublics, but of enclaves, and of a system that, at its worst, facilitated the hardening of ideology, and, at its best, allowed for an expressive public sphere.” To be fair, Roberts-Miller does not fault bloggers as hindering a would-be public sphere; she cites the general problem that Americans “argue badly” and too often lack goodwill when engaging in argumentation.
Still, I would join Habermas' critics and ask the following question: Is rational-critical consensus possible in a late-capitalist, pluralistic society? Assuming that it is, are all weblog communities enclaves? Perhaps they are, to the extent that they attract only certain readers. For example, blackfeminism.org will probably not attract many dissenters, at least not those who are sincere in their desire to reach a rational-critical consensus. However, I claim that it is possible to have an exchange without thought-policing, providing the interlocutors are sincere and have equal opportunity to use regulatives. The guidelines for posting comments* at blackfeminism.org are replete with regulatives (emphasis in original):
This is a site for respectful discussion of topics relating to gender and race, both on a personal level and on a collective level. While we value differing opinions and insightful debates, we will not tolerate any of the following:
- Use of racial, ethnic or religious slurs.
- Use of gender slurs
- Use of sexual-orientation slurs
- Use of language that is exceedingly abusive. We understand things get typed in the heat of a discussion, but please make your point without resorting to childish taunts.
- Use of language that is sexually explicit. Again, we recognize that some of our topics will include sensitive topics, but please discuss them with taste and discretion.
- Use of threatening language.
Violating the rules is grounds for having your account deleted. What constitutes a violation will be determined at the sole discretion of the administrator.
Also, be aware that this server keeps logs that include your IP address. We will track you down and/or block your address if necessary.
Admittedly, the administrator of the site has the power to delete comments and to ban posters who violate the rules of the exchange, but that doesn't mean he or she will do so capriciously.
The public sphere and the ideal speech situation, as I have stated earlier in this essay, are ideals, much like the concepts of justice and freedom. Although such ideals are “incapable of complete realization,” they are “no less effective in shaping social life” (McCarthy, 1984, p. 310). Although the blogosphere falls short of the ideal in several significant ways, it can, like many other exchanges that are not corporate or advertising-driven, in which one can potentially interact with people who disagree with him or her to discuss matters of public interest (however one defines it), embody the ideal of the public sphere in some cases.
* See also the posting policies at Invisible Adjunct, which include similar regulatives.