The Internet – An ideal public sphere?

The aim of this post is to explore and discuss the concept of the Internet as an ideal public sphere – defined by Holub (1991, p.3) as, “…a realm in which individuals gather to participate in open discussions. Potentially, everyone has access to it. No one enters in discourse… with an advantage over another”. Over the years the interpretation has changed and, when considering the internet in the current converging media landscape,  a more appropriate, modern definition can be taken from Gimmler (2001, p. 22), “…(the public sphere is) an arena of political and social relations, a field where individual and collective identities both are expressed and become integrated”. To effectively discuss and critically analyse both sides of this argument this post will; discuss the Internet as a public sphere and how individuals have the ability to fairly and equally contribute, analyse globalisation and the impact of convergence on the individuals experience within this public sphere and explore the nature of individuals behaviour when participating in the public sphere. This analysis will be supported by various readings, most notably Australia’s Foray into Internet Censorship (Bambauer 2009), Media and Globalisation: Why the State Matters (Morris 2001) as well as the previously cited definitions from Holub and Gimmler and will seek to provide an informative and balanced response to the concept of the Internet as an ideal public sphere and to further expand on the ideas presented.

When considering the Internet as a public sphere on Holub’s (1991, p.3) terms it is, in theory, an ideal public sphere where individuals gather for open discussion. Each participant has the chance to engage actively, fairly and equally. In a nutshell this is what the Internet is all about and, at least on face value, it can be accepted as such. However when the surface is scratched it quickly becomes apparent that there is more complexity to the debate and that, like in most public spheres, the influence of power and politics rules over the power of the people. Like any place of social interaction there is a hierarchy that must be observed when utilising the Internet for communication. Moderators, be they state appointed government officials tasked with reviewing data usage for criminal activities (Bambauer 2009) or an overseer on a forum appointed by a developer, are constantly reviewing and remedying any manner of changes made to the internet. While an offensive post on a forum may not carry the same weight of penalty as an international terrorist plot the notion that one member of a society has the authority to dictate to another, with no real qualifications other than a state appointed title, shows already a level of inequality moving into the public sphere. When analysing the public sphere in this way then it almost becomes directly comparable to communism – whereby on paper everyone is equal and treated the same – until it comes into practice. To borrow a quote from Orwell (1945), “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” a fitting description of both the public sphere in general as well as the vast expanses of the Internet.

Perhaps a more appropriate example of participation without being able to participate within the mediasphere would be the rise of qualified radio broadcasters post World War One (Sterling 2012, p. 224). Despite having all the knowledge and skills required to operate a radio from their military training without the appropriate equipment to transmit they were incapable of participating in the broadcast culture of the time. As mentioned in previous articles this broadcast culture was a precursor to the participatory culture of modern times and the ability to create content and share it with others via radio is directly comparable to  bloggers and designers creating online content now. Based on this it can be assumed that, had everyone then had access to the radio waves in the same way the developed world has access to the Internet, participation rates would have been higher. Instead, much like the modern day broadcasters of the Internet, there was impediments and prejudices in between content creators and the public sphere. This shows that throughout history, even when there have been individuals more than capable of participating fairly and equally in the public sphere, the ingrained culture and self imposed hierarchy of our class society influences how they can and gives advantages to those who may not necessarily be deserving of them.

Further to the ability to participate equally and without prejudice on an individual level the convergent media landscape has further impacted upon the way the Internet can be viewed as an ideal public sphere. In the converging media landscape that is the Internet (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012) the lasting effects of corporate globalisation can be seen everywhere. Paid advertising and product placement is rife throughout the World Wide Web and there are few websites that can be visited without a suggestion or a pop up trying to sell something. (Williams et. al. 2011). To say that the Internet has been affected by globalisation is only a half-truth – the Internet has done more than its fair share to help with Globalisation since the dawn of the new millennium (Morris 2001) – but regardless of this the corporate influence over the online world cannot be understated. Considering this it then becomes apparent that not all individuals coming together in the public sphere are doing so for open discussion with some preferring to exploit the ability to monetise the system and use it to generate profit. As soon as money enters the discussion the equality of individuals is compromised – separating them instead by class and their ability to pay – as opposed to giving them an open forum with equal voice.

As the Internet has slowly become saturated with offshoots of traditional mainstream broadcast and print media the online sector has shifted from an open world forum for information sharing (Jenkins 2006) to a viable marketplace where profits can not only be made but added to the already established stream of content coming from the media industry. This not only means more content for independent collaborators to compete with but also content tailored specifically for the interests and needs of the individual browser. GPS and other location services use individuals search histories and recorded interests to supply things like recommended search results, tailored advertising and product placement (Tentacle Inbound 2016). This not only furthers the advantage of those who are financially invested but also removes the possibility of an individual having an authentic browsing experience – complete without any prejudices – which should be the intention in an ideal public sphere.

The environment and the surroundings of individuals when using the Internet can only be accountable for so much. The behaviour of the individuals online, much like the behaviour of the individual in any public sphere, impacts not only their own experience but also the experiences of those around them. This can then have an adverse effect on how the Internet is viewed as an ideal public sphere. Unlike an ideal public sphere not everyone who accesses the Internet does so with the intention of participating in open discussion (Buckels, Trapnell & Paulhus 2014). By gathering together in groups and sharing a common cause for causing mischief and social unrest the individuals who partake in the public sphere in this manner go against the nature of allowing everyone to a fair and balanced discussion.

This is not to say that everyone who enters the public spheres discourse does so with the explicit intention of causing trouble, nor do they do it with sinister motivations, however it is a harsh reality that not everyone can co-exist harmoniously when interacting in a social environment (Buckels, Trapnell & Paulhus 2014). With the help of the Internet the sinister intentions of individuals can be projected further and with more impact than ever before. State controlled security and data retention may not be popular among the moral majority (Dempster 2015), not to mention the feelings held by some individuals towards the moderators of this, but the effectiveness of using this information to protect the greater society outweighs – in the majority of cases – the illusion of freedom of speech in which Internet users like to revel. It becomes a case then of what is better for the greater good and, given Gimmler’s (2001) opinion on political influence over the public sphere, it once again becomes a point of using the sphere to the advantage of the elite.

Through critical analysis and discussion of the concept of the Internet as an ideal public sphere it can be seen that there are strong points both for and against. Utilising the definitions of the scholars Holub and Gimmler it can be ascertained that on the surface, as stated by Holub, that the Internet satisfies the criteria presented as an ideal public sphere. Upon further analysis it becomes apparent then that, as raised by Gimmler, there are deeper motivations – be they personal or political – when exploring the public sphere and, approaching the discussion from this position, there are areas where the Internets discourse can be less than ideal. The key point of contention then becomes the application of not only these definitions, but the application of the term ‘ideal’ and the position taken by those who will take this discussion further into the future.


Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, ‘Broken Concepts’,, <;

Bambauer, D 2009, ‘Filtering in Oz: Australia’s Foray into Internet Censorship’, Journal of International Law, vol. 31, no. 2.

British Broadcasting Corporation 2015, ‘Internet used by 3.2 billion people in 2015’, May 26, <>

Buckels, E, Trapnell, P and Paulhus, D 2014, ‘Trolls just want to have fun’. Personality and individual Differences, 67, pp.97-102.

Dempster , Q 2015, ‘Data retention and the end of Australians’ digital privacy’, August 29, <>

Gimmler, A 2001, Deliberative democracy, the public sphere and the internet, Philosophy & Social Criticism, Vol. 27, Issue 4, p. 21-39.

Holub, R 1991, Jurgen Habermas: Critic in the Public Sphere, Routledge, New York, NY

Jenkins, H 2006, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, NYU Press, New York, NY

Morris, N 2001, Media and Globalization: Why the State Matters, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland

Orwell, G 1945, Animal Farm, Harcourt, Brace and World, New York

Sterling, C 2012, ‘Radio Broadcasting’ in Simonson, Peck, Craig & Jackson (eds), The Handbook of Communication History, Taylor & Francis, New York: NY.

Tentacle Inbound 2016, ‘The Complex Web of Personalised Search’, <>

Williams, K, Petrosky, A, Hernandez, E & Page Jr, R 2011, ‘Product placement effectiveness: revisited and renewed’, Journal of Management and Marketing research, 7, p.1, <;



Exploring the Participatory Culture

Media and its consumption has evolved down the years from a traditional broadcast culture to what has been dubbed in modern times as a participatory culture. Unlike the traditional broadcast culture of old – government or commercial organisation approved and/or distributed sources of media transmission, such as network radio and television shows – a participatory culture is. “…a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.” (Jenkins 2006, p. 5) This piece will look to explore participatory culture with respect to the progression of key media and communication technologies and by; identifying factors that gave rise to the introduction and diffusion of these innovations, as well as the impact that these technologies have had on society, and how this has influenced the cultural progression.

The explosion of media production and distribution in the 20th century catapulted society into the future in a way that could not have been predicted at the time (Randle 2001). With the invention and mainstream distribution of radio, the television and the mobile phone these three inventions, while all different in their nature, were able to create three very similar cultures by which they would come to be identified. The first major milestone in modern media came with the radio, a transmitting device which not only changed the way people were able to consume media, but also how they could communicate – particularly those in the armed forces (Sterling 2012). Military use would come to be seen as a recurring theme in the development of media technologies, at least in their infancy, as it was war again – this time the Cold War – that would spur the popularity and mainstream exposure of the television (The Paley Center for Media 2016).

Although chronologically both the Internet and computers were being developed around the same time as the television for the purpose of this essay they will be referred to as the last instalment in the trifecta of communication technologies that shaped the culture of media as they did not become part of the mainstream media culture until the internet was publicised in 1991 (Wright 2014). Another child born of the military the Internet, in its infancy at least, was used as a means of cross-country and international communications before it become the public domain world wide web of today (Leiner et al. 2016) All three of these technological creations were initially brought about and popularised amidst the fear and propaganda of war. While it may not have been the intention at the time to advance technology in the way that it would eventually the effectiveness of these inventions cannot be disputed as they have all stood the test of time.

The introduction and diffusions of these inventions, while impressive, can only tell part of the story. The inventions themselves would not have been half as successful as they were if they could not have drawn in the public, kept them captivated and constantly looking for new and exciting ways to use their devices for creative expression. This was the beginning of the era of broadcast culture. The societal impact of the radio was unparalleled by anything else of its time (Gugliotta 2007). News and current affairs, stories and radio plays and later music were all given a new medium of transmission and, thanks to the large number of radio trained military personnel who were out of work at the end of the war ham radio operators were able to give new life to the medium and utilise their skills (Sterling 2012, p. 224). Ironically, their independent broadcasts would be some of the earliest examples of participatory culture in the modern technological age.

This laid the foundations for the television to, much like its wireless predecessor, revolutionise media consumption and capture the imaginations of people the world over (Bignell 2012). The lasting effect that television would have on households can be summarised perfectly by a quote from Television journalist Andrew Anthony in his review of Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation (Moran 2013). “Moran quotes a dumbfounded Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc) from Friends on learning that a new acquaintance doesn’t have a TV set: “But what does your furniture point at?” (Anthony 2013). Such was the profound influence of the television entire household areas were redesigned to make it the focus – an alteration the likes of which had likely not been seen since the introduction of a designated sleeping quarters. The next step in the natural progression of technological evolution then was the personal computer and with it the modern day smart devices, which have allowed a greater, constant connection to the virtual world around us.

Where as radio and television brought people together in physical groups, albeit as individuals experiencing the same thing together (Anthony 2013), the computer allowed groups of people to experience things simultaneously without having to leave their house – often from different states, territories and even countries. With this new level of connection and ability for social interaction came the rise of user created content and with it the notion of a participatory culture (Johnston 2016). Though the user generated content created online is no different to the independent content created by radio operators of the 1930’s the notion that it is easier to interact with and participate with makes it different from the traditional broadcast culture. The two cultures themselves have many similarities; most notably encouraging inclusion and participation amongst their subjects.

The main point of contention then becomes the ease at which modern media can be distributed online – to the point where anyone with an Internet connection now can become a content broadcaster without any real experience or training (Gates 1996). The logical reasoning behind this interpretation is that through the birth and evolution of convergence (Australian Communications and Media Authority 2012, p.5) where elements of traditional broadcast culture have been combined with new media the simplest way to categorise it within the mediasphere is by labelling it differently. Where participation then becomes the pinnacle of the mediums public interface it is only fitting that the new culture then be christened participatory.

Through critical analysis of the evolution of media consumption and broadcast culture it can be seen how society has moved from a traditional broadcast culture to the modern participatory culture. Irrespective of definitions the analysis discussion shows that while there are differences when looking at the influence of specific technological advancements there are also very strong similarities between the broadcast and participatory cultures. Both cultures encourage inclusion and, where possible, participation. The key point of difference is the ease at which media consumers can become media producers in the modern culture thanks largely in part to the ease at which media manufacturing technology can be accessed. This begs the question, had radio and television technology been more readily accessible in the 1950’s would the era of the participatory culture have begun sooner?



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Moran, J 2013, Armchair Nation, Profile Books, London United Kingdom.

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Randle, Q 2001, ‘A Historical Overview of the Effects of New Mass Media Introductions on Magazine Publishing During the 20th Century’, First Monday, 3 September, Vol. 6, Issue 9, viewed 11 September 2016, <;

Sterling, C 2012, ‘Radio Broadcasting’ in Simonson, Peck, Craig & Jackson (eds), The Handbook of Communication History, Taylor & Francis, New York: NY.

Wright, A 2014, Cataloging the World Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, Oxford University Press, Oxford