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The Public Sphere and the New Media

Public sphere is a concept created in the 18th century and further developed by Jürgen Habermas, who stated that the public sphere was characterized by it’s critical nature in contraposition to the representative nature of the feudal system (Boeder, P., 2005). According to Hauser (Hauser, G., 1988), it is a discursive place where people can interchange their opinions to create a common judgment. This critical nature is endangered by the power of the mass media that transforms most of the society in a passive public, the objectives of a consumer's culture. It is interesting to note however that the possibility of reaching larger numbers of persons allow internet users to create ties that would have been difficult to maintain without the new tool, and these ties create networks, a popular word nowadays. But how is our society influenced by networks?

Two theorists that have studied the influence of networks are Castells and Granovetter. Castells (Castells, M., 2004) recognizes the importance of networks stating that power doesn’t reside in institutions, rather “it is located in the networks that structure society”. That is why to have control, networks need to be created that counteract other networks, making it a question of “networks vs. networks”. On the other hand, Granovetter (Granovetter, M., 1984) studies the influences of strong and weak ties to help people be successful. Indeed both strong and weak ties are helpful, but influential in different terms. Although it is not clear how the new media is developing them both, it is clear that it is easier to create and maintain weak ties all over the world nowadays through the internet thanks to email, blogs, sms, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google + etc... But the boost of weak ties hasn't been at the expenses of strong ties, at least nothing let us thinks so: with the same tools we can keep in contact with our family and we probably have better relationships with them than in the 19th century.

The conclusion we can draw from both authors is that power, which has always been sourced by ties, is being diverted to networks: the new way of creating and maintaining these ties. The issue is not trivial as networks through new tools are much cheaper to create and expand, and therefore much more accessible for most citizens. As an example, the Spanish EQUO President Reyes Montiel is keeping a twitter account and a blog very actively, responding to the questions of the citizens. Some of the questions Reyes Montiel has discussed with her colleagues are inspired by the comments on her blogcasts and twitter casts. It is then clear that the new ways of communicating offer a higher interactivity and a higher connectivity, both essential to the development of the public sphere.

But new media also offers the possibility of personalization. The “personal design” as described by Sunstein (Sunstein, R., 2001), is the future result of the great possibilities the Internet offers for personalizing the content we want to get, actually filtering the information that reaches us. Although the personal advantages are clear, the consequences over the public sphere might not be so positive due to the possible creation of compartments in society. If you only get the information you want, from the people you chose, the exposition to other mentalities and new ideas might be greatly reduced.

To conclude, although the euphoria displayed by many new technology enthusiasts can be disappointing, taking into account the situation of the public sphere before the emergence of the internet, we can allow ourselves optimism.

-Manuel Castells, Why Networks Matter, Network Logic: Who Governs in an Interconnected World?, Helen McCarthy, Paul Miller, Paul Skidmore, eds, London: Demos, 2004
-Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties, A Network Theory Revisited," Sociological Theory, Volume 1(1983)
-Pieter Boeder, Habermas Heritage: the future of the public sphere in the network society
-Cass R. Sunstein, "The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?
-Gerard Hauser, Vernacular Dialogue and the Rhetoricality of Public Opinion"

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