Upcoming book: The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere

I am currently co-editing a volume with my former supervisor Dr. Athina Karatzogianni (University of Leicester) and colleague Elisa Serafinelli (University of Hull). The full title is The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere – Conflict, Migration, Crisis and Culture in Digital Networks. Publication is scheduled for September 2015. The book is a collection of articles related to the digital transformation of media-based public spheres with particular emphasis on the impact of Internet technology as well as the mutual affectivity of conflicts, migration, and public discursivity.

I am going to contribute a chapter on the transnational web sphere that emerged during the Eurozone crisis between 2011 and 2013; I will post a full contents list later this month, once we have the final draft ready. Below read a summary of the introductory chapter, which also provides an overview of the book’s overall purpose and aim:

A constantly evolving set of digital media technologies affects communicative interactions between individuals and collectives, which inevitably leaves an impact on the shape, scope, and function of contemporary public spheres. These can no longer be seen as normative discursive formations limited to the national context as proposed in the Habermasian tradition; they should rather be analysed in terms of their mediality and their increasingly transnational orientation. The various available online media in particular catalyse the speed and range of communication flows and dissolve physical, but also social and cultural boundaries in various contexts.

This again affects the perception and negotiation of crises, the reconfiguration and materialisation of conflicts, and the reproduction as well as distribution of popular culture; each one is a “quasi-object” in itself that triggers the formation of publics of different sizes, potentially spanning around the globe. Migration, migrant communities and the role of media technologies in their formation and continuity become adequate empirical research subjects in this respect, since they often touch several of these discursive fields at once.

They are prime examples for the transnationalisation of discursive relations through the accommodation of digital media technologies. Migrant issues are also at the centre of contemporary political and social conflicts, which tend to result from transnational economic crises. In sum, they provide a starting point for critically analysing the current and continuous digital transformation of the public sphere.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.com

Web Sphere Analysis: A (Very) Brief Overview

Modern public spheres are based on mediated forms of communication that provide a shared catalogue of references for social collectives. The world that we know, including our broader cultural, economic, social, and political environment, becomes to large parts accessible through distorted representations distributed via mass media and the Internet. Especially web communication continues to gain in relevance as a crucial, highly personalised and customisable source for information about social reality.

Web discourses hence remain fresh and relevant subjects for research on public communication in networked, highly mediatised societies. But not only researchers in media and communications have an interest in theorising and empirically analysing digital public spheres; policy-makers, political consultants, and media monitoring agencies have recognised the relevance of the Internet as a space of resonance to political, economic, cultural, and social developments.

However, the precise identification and evaluation of web debates is a considerable methodological challenge. A very fruitful approach to define and approach these extremely dynamic communicative contexts provides the web sphere perspective as proposed by Schneider and Foot (2006). Their methodological proposal to understand web discourses as a condensation of related online communication, i.e. content, enables the critical observer to identify, analyse, and assess digital public spheres efficiently and link them to the underlying social and political currents that sparked their formation. This post provides an (extremely) short summary of its core ideas.

What are Web Spheres?

A web sphere is a collection of related online content that focus the same set of issues or events; the respective content thus shares a common context and is (potentially) held together by referencing and/or hyperlinking. A web sphere can integrate different kinds of online platforms and formats, which highlights the degree of interconnectedness that web content can display. For example, the war of frames/”digital words” between Islamic extremists and their opponents is not limited to one particular social media platform (e.g. Facebook) but includes the whole range of accessible web technologies.

Triggers for the formation of a web sphere are often irritations in everyday politics or society, such as scandals, disasters, terrorist attacks, but also seemingly trivial issues like celebrity news or the colour of a dress. One can basically differentiate between two general types in this respect: firstly, there are web spheres that are somewhat “predictable”, i.e. one can expect they will probably emerge in the context of a planned, ritualised event. Examples are web discourses on the next FIFA World Cup, the next general elections, or the next Academy Awards. Secondly, there are web sphere that emerge erratically as immediate “real-time” reactions to unforeseeable, ad-hoc developments and events. Accidents, disasters, unplanned revelations are often catalysts for an unscheduled torrent of online communication that potentially condenses into a web sphere. The sudden and still unsolved disappearance of an Malaysian Airlines plane in March 2014 is one such tragic event.

Web spheres can also differ in their degree of durability: some may vaporise as quickly as they formed, while others may persists over longer time periods. The issues that determined their emergence, i.e, their content, as well as the set of participating communicators, i.e. their underlying networks, are the most important factors that influence their duration.

How to Analyse and Evaluate Web Spheres?

Due to the virtually unlimited amount of web sources it is very difficult to define the actual borders of a web sphere. In fact, any meaningful empirical investigation is inevitably limited to a mere snippet of a potentially much larger web discourse. It comes all down to the general problem of sampling and representability of findings in online media research. However, these limitations have always affected analyses in media and communications to one degree or the other. When deciding what content is considered as part of a web sphere, it is absolutely crucial to explain its assumed relevance and to outline the limits of sampling.

Once a set of sources has been defined for analyses, it is recommendable to archive/store the respective websites (urls) with precise information on their origin, date of publication, authorship etc. for documentation. Online content is extremely dynamic and it can become very difficult to retrieve the original content after longer time periods.

The next step is to decide what the web sphere analysis is exactly focusing on; potential research questions can aim for demographic/ethnographic factors, networking patterns, and discursive practices (e.g. framing). For example, in my analysis of the EU crisis web sphere I combined frame- and network analyses to reveal how the Eurozone crisis was perceived from different cultural-political perspectives and what the social composition of communicators looked like. Data for both analyses was collected via a multi-step content analysis.

The in-depth screening of a web sphere in terms of its content and sociological properties therefore depends on the actual research interest and can be achieved through qualitative and quantitative content analytical methods.

In short, a web sphere may include the following steps:

  • Definition of the social phenomenon that causes online debates (e.g. a political development or cultural event)
  • Identification, sampling, and archiving of relevant online content (e.g. snow ball sampling, combination of non-probalistic and random sampling)
  • Qualitative and quantitative analysis of the web sphere’s content and/or sociological factors (e.g. frame analysis, discourse analysis, network analysis etc.)
  • Presentation of results (and potential predictions for future developments)

The public sphere – seen as a highly differentiated and dynamic network of media-based discourses  – experiences constant transformations; Internet technology is a driving force in these processes and understanding the structure and logic of web discourses is absolutely crucial for researchers and practitioners in public (political) communication. In this respect, the web sphere model provides a flexible, easily customisable as well as expandable methodological approach for comprehensive analyses – which is a starting point for grasping the complexity of public discourses in the networked society.

References:

Schneider, S. M. and Foot, K. A. (2006): ‘Web Sphere Analysis. An Approach to Studying Online Action’, in Hine, C. (ed.) Virtual Methods. Issues in Social Research on the Internet, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Image courtesy of http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/

11 Rules for a more livable WWW

The (in-)famous German Chaos Computer Club (‘CCC’) postulates in one of its recent website updates eleven theses to improve a ‘livable’ world wide web. They deal with structural inequalities, the digital divide, freedom of information, and anonymity.

As the original text is in German, I provide here a digested translation of their advice to achieve a more liberal and fair Internet:

1. Internet access is a fundamental right and a requirement for participation in cultural and political life.

2. The benefits of the Internet can only fully develope if ‘net-neutrality’ is guranteed.

3. Major IT-projects in the public sector should be assigned after reasonable criteria.

4. Keep public data transparent.

5. Clear rejection of patented software.

6. Modernisation of copyright.

7. Internet providers have no responsibility for the data of their customers

8. Improved protection of private data.

9. Establish the right on anonymity.

10. Prohibition of profiling users.

11. Improve Whistleblower-Protection.

The CCC, founded 1981 in Berlin by hackers, explains its motivation to enter once more the discourse on freedom and the Internet as follows:

since its beginnings [the CCC] realized and propagated the chances and possibilities of a networked life. Many of the original – in the past quite futuristic seeming – visions turned not only into reality but became natural for our society. Indeed, the advent of the Internet into everyday life of almost everyone lead to problems concerning data privacy but also catalyzed democratization, and brought an enrichment from a scientific, social, and artistic perspective. The self-regulating forces of the Internet thereby prohibited various feared dystopia, without further governmental interventions. From our point of view, the current discussion bases on a misjudgment where a need for regulation is detectable and where not.

These points focus numerous important issues concerning contemporary life in cyberspace. Most of the suggestions are very reasonable though it is quite disputable if they can be realized against the interests of major economic players.

Find further information on the Chaos Computer Club here.

TED Talk on Anonymity in Cyberspace

A current videoclip on the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) focuses the “case for anonymity online”. Interlocutor  Christopher “moot” Poole, founder of 4chan – an online imageboard subsisting from the contributions of its anonymous users – explains thereby the structure and customs of the subculture he created. Watch the video here:

From the perspective of a new media practitioner, Poole talks about the potential and power of anonymity as well as the limits and prices to pay for it. Quite interesting in regards of the digitalized information society and the way it denizens can present (or not present) themselves in new and different public spheres.

Reflections on Cyber-Culture and Information Societies

The documentary we watched last Wednesday gave an broad overview of the debate on cyber-culture and information societies. Different academic discourses problematized the impact of new information technology on society and culture, respectively: cybernetics, cultural studies and philosophy. During the film and the following discussion some interesting aspects of the issue were highlighted. I want to focus two, from my point of view, more important points mentioned last week: the problem of determinism and the evaluation of trends towards an so-called information society and cyber culture.

The statements of the “cybernetic fraction” made it clear: Those, who are involved in the process of creating new forms of media, technological devices etc., seem to see in technological progress the determining variable in social and cultural development. However, this techno-determinism has been criticized as a rather unreflective perspective: It is highly debatable if technology alone shapes our social and cultural environment. This sort of mono-causality simplifies far more complex correlations. The step towards a kind of cultural determinism should thereby be avoided, too. It seems to be more appropriate to speak of a complex interaction of several factors in society, culture and science, influencing each other. There is no teleological development and it is impossible to predict the future course of mankind – especially not by focusing on a single aspect exclusively. Sir Karl Raimund Popper demonstrated this in his book  The Poverty of Historicism over 50 years ago.

As long as the technological infrastructure is based on limited resources, we cannot speak of one information society in general – access is restricted and the term is applicable only to developed capitalistic(-democratic) states. However, some of us are constantly surrounded by technology and information products. Thus living in a kind of information society is for certain parts of world`s population a simple fact – if this is “good” or “bad” should not be the question. It is more important to accept the changes in everyday life,  to face the challenges and to find orientation. The individual decides for which purposes he or she uses the possibilities of new media. A key term is here, I think, “media competence (or capacity)”. This means: learning to understand the possibilities, limits, merits and demerits of new communication and information technologies; to be able to evaluate and use new media effectively and to avoid possible dangers concerning privacy / sensible data.  The right education might provide an appropriate preparation, before one enters the ever-flowing data stream of the internet.

Concerning “Cyborgs”: Actually, we are all to a certain extent connected with machines – this discourse for instance is constituted by the usage of computers to express our thoughts and exchange opinions. We connect, chat, discuss, fight, praise, shop, date and play online. Some have a one or more online identities. Others even live their sexuality in cyberspace. Our eyes, ears, (mouths) and minds are extended by computers and the internet. Effects of cyber identities on the “real-life”-existence have appeared already – and some of them are rather negative: 70% of U.S. human-ressources officers admitted, that they have rejected job applications due to inappropriate info material they have found on social networking sites (Time Magazine) . One can find plenty of examples in the web:

Girl Sacked Afte Boss Sees Ranting Facebook Status Update (The London Paper 14/08/09)

Worker Sacked over Facebook Comments on ‘Boring’ Job (Personnel Today 27/02/09)

FACEBOOK FIRED: 8% of US Companies Have Sacked Social Media Miscreants (Mashabel The Social Media Guide)

Therefore, actions of a digital effigy can cause consequences in “real life”.

Another important question deals with the aspect of hegemony: Who has the power in the world wide web? Who controls access? Which sources are independent? Where are hidden agendas? How “free” is information really? Who evaluates and defines the reliability, i.e. the worth of information? What shapes the virtual reality? People seem sometimes to forget, that the first page showing hits on google reveals only a very small part of the vast spaces we call the internet.