New media – new public spheres? An analysis of online shared spaces becoming public agoras
Arguably the Internet offers the ideal communicative configuration for a viable public sphere. At stake there are some of the central features of the Habermas’ concept of Öffentlichkeit (1962/1990): the commitment to freedom and equality in the communicative interaction; the dialogicity and the mutual expectations of uptake between interlocutors; the ability to address an indefinite audience, thus ruling out any form of social exclusion. All these normative requirements can be fully realized by new media which not only facilitate the proliferation of different and counterhegemonic voices, but also have the potential for free exchanges of opinions where only the ‘best argument’ stands out. However, this logic is weakened by countless empirical contradictions demonstrating that there is no intrinsic feature in new media leading automatically to a vibrant public sphere. The aim of this thesis is to analyze how the interactional and representational dimension (Dahlgren, 1995) of online shared spaces, shape the establishment of a public that reflexively acknowledges itself as ‘inclusive in principle’ and ‘focused on matters of common concern’ (Calhoun, 1992; Dayan, 2005). In order to do this, the classic notion of public deliberation will be reframed through a double conceptual movement inspired by some of the main criticisms elicited by his theory. This double movement implies firstly an attempt to reframe sociologically the myth of ideal speech situation coming from normative accounts of deliberative democratic theory and informing all current technological utopias about new media (Bourdieu, 2000; Crossley, 2004). Second, if it is true that Habermas’s public sphere appears to contain a “basically nopolitical and static view of the public interest” (Verstraeten, 1996), the assessment of online public-sphere requires a ‘political twist’ of the concept. This would cast light upon the evolving dialectic between inclusion and exclusion implied by every normative boundary among public and private spheres. Starting from this theoretical background, an empirical model will be developed and applied to the study of an Italian weblog (www.beppegrillo.it), which is considered to be a public sphericule (Gitlin, 1998) where media processes merge in a fruitful fusion with the emergence of a new political subject. Combining discourse analysis with interviews, the study will look at the weblog with the purpose of highlighting the ‘politics of truth’ and validity claims established through discourses and grassroots debates. The study will explore at the same time the contingent social imaginary inspiring users’ practices and the political identity built on the backdrop of a network of counter-identities and assimilatory affinities.