The PhD Proposal

UPDATE: This PhD proposal secured me a full scholarship – stipend and fees – at the University of Hull, where I completed my doctoral degree in March 2015. Though much of the methodology and empirical part changed over the course of the past three years, the basic research motivation(s) remained largely the same (but it was of course further refined to more precise research goals). Read the original below.


I’m pretty busy applying for PhD programmes these days and I have already sent some applications to universities throughout Europe. Though it still takes a few weeks before I get official responses, I have already received unofficial feedback – which has been quite positive. At the moment, my personal favorite is the City of London University (it offers great funding opportunities).  Read my proposal, i.e. the research project I would like to work on in the next three years:

Proposal for a Ph.D. Research Project

Area of Studies: Media and Communications

Europe Online: Towards a Digital Transnational Sphere or Isolated Web Spaces?

 A Comparative Study on the Structure, Function, and Scope of Contemporary Online Discourses in regards to Participation and Segmentation in the European Union

1. Introduction and Research Motivation

In 2011, the European Union faces substantial social, economic, cultural, and political challenges: The continuing economic crisis, increasing migration problems, environmental issues, and a shift towards the political right in various member states are only the most prominent ones. The EU is forced to communicate each political decision carefully to the continent’s population, particularly in such times of crisis; it actually needs to address a European public. Assessing the chances and limits of transnational public spheres within the geographical, political, and cultural spaces of the European Union is a recurring topic in academic discourses – most notably in communication and media studies (Bee/Bezoni et al. 2010; de Vreese 2010; Triandafyllidou et al. 2009). Various articles, case studies, and research projects on the issue exist. However, the majority of these approaches mainly focus the role of conventional mass media in ‘European’ public discourses (e.g. Balcytiene/Vinciuniene 2010; Berkel 2006; de Vreese 2002). Only a few academic contributions pay attention to online media and their relevance to processes of cultural, political, and social convergence in the EU (e.g. Jankowski/van Os 2004; Koopmanns/Zimmermann 2003). In fact, no larger empirical study has focused the Internet and its actual impact on European self-perception and public discourses beyond national frames yet (Risse 2003: 2).

As the distribution of the WWW continues to spread on the continent, examining online phenomena could yield important insights on tendencies towards ‘trans-nationality’ and a common ‘European’ identity. After all, citizens, the media, and political institutions have access to unprecedented technologies for communicative interaction that theoretically facilitate public debate and cultural exchange.

My research project will bridge this gap by analysing participatory online media and their potential for open transnational discourses, i.e. public spheres, in four stages:

I. The development of an elaborated theoretical framework for analysing and understanding transnational public spheres in the age of digital globalisation; this includes an in-depth revision and discussion of already existing notions of the public sphere (e.g. Habermas 1962, Noelle-Neumann 1998, Luhmann 1992, Sunstein 2007, Dahlberg 2007). By comparing and combining theoretical approaches from different academic cultures1, I will try to examine the subject-matter-of-consideration from a pluralistic perspective. Integrating theories on political communication, information societies (Webster 1995), digital democracy (Dean 2005; Lovink 2008), media convergences (Jenkins 2006; 2003), media audiences, and the formation of (transnational-)identities through discourse (Hall 2004) is crucial for achieving this. It is indispensable to include an analysis of the dominant discursive formations that determine the structure and outcome of online debates on and in the EU, i.e. the politics of in- and exclusion as regards participation in web-based discourses.

II. An extensive, comparative content analysis of EU-related online media and -debates in both quantitative and qualitative respect; this requires the development of a complementary methodological approach and the compilation of an appropriate text corpus.

III. Interviews with a selection of professional content providers in EU-related contexts (e.g. online journalists, EU-PR writers, popular bloggers), which I will conduct either off- or online (e.g. Skype); this allows me to evaluate the utilization of web technologies to ‘communicate’ Europe .

IV. Based on the findings of the previous steps, the establishment of a detailed taxonomy of EU-related online media, a characterisation of European ‘netizens’, and a map of transnational online networks of public spaces within the Union. Finally, I will be able to give substantiated answers to the question whether the Internet stimulates the emergence of transnational spheres or it rather promotes the demarcation of (nationally) isolated web-spaces – an important aspect in regards to the future course and success of the “European project” (Tisdall 2010). Ideally, the outcome of my research will also provide a methodological model that might be used to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based contexts.

2. Research Questions

In order to assess the structure, scope, and function of online content regarding the EU, I will approach and answer the following  research questions, which are divided into three categories:

I. On the Potential of Transnational Public Spheres in European Information Societies: What online content on the European Union is available and does it add up to networked, digitalised public spheres across national borders, i.e. does the Internet actually facilitate the emergence of transnational, ‘European’ public debates? Where do they occur, what does their structure look like and what function do they have? What are the differences between the various online platforms (e.g. blogs, websites, Twitter, social media) as regards their potential for public debate in EU-contexts?

II. On the ‘Providers’ of Public Forums Online: What issues do professional content providers perceive to be ‘European’? What differences in identifying and evaluating ‘European’ issues do exist (e.g. national vs. transnational interests)? Where do the providers of content allocate themselves within Europe and its web- based environment? How does the EU communicate to the populations of its member states online?

III. On the Recipients/Users (and therefore possible ‘Europeans’): Who is participating in online discourses? Do the discussants reflect a certain ‘European’ self-conception? Who regards him-/herself to be European and where does this transnational self-perception collide with national identities? Do multilateral, deliberative-democratic discussions on controversial issues – such as climate change, migration, economy etc. – occur? Where do crucial short-comings in terms of openness and inclusion become apparent?

3. Data and Methodology

The core of this research project is an elaborate content analysis of online media platforms that focus the European Union and relevant trans- or international issues:

  • Websites and forums provided by the institutions of the EU (e.g. European Commission 2010)
  • Decidedly transnational, European news media online (e.g. European Voice 2010)
  • A selection of ‘Europe sections’ from popular news media online, located in three important member states: the UK (e.g. Guardian.co.uk), Germany (e.g. faz.de), and France (e.g. lemonde.fr)
  • A selection of blogs, Twitter-accounts, homepages etc. provided by decidedly ‘pan- European’ groups and organisations The text corpus will mainly consist of articles and posts, i.e. discourses, on websites, blogs, forums, and social networking sites.

To delimit the sample, I will set a temporal frame covering the years of ‘European crisis’ 2008 to 2010. The analysis aims for two levels: The “content-level”, i.e. the articles, blog-posts, Facebook-messages, Tweets etc. and the “comment level”, i.e. the direct responses from users/readers. The instruments for the data survey are a detailed codebook and data entry forms. Since it is not possible to gain satisfactory insights from a quantitative examination only, I will also analyse a sample of texts qualitatively by applying an adjusted form of critical discourse analysis (Richardson 2006). The second part of the data collection consists of interviews which will provide additional information for a deeper understanding of the intentions for utilising online media to address a public audience.

4. Conclusive Remarks

Ideally, my research project will develop an applicable theory to understand and analyse the structure, scope, and function of (transnational-)public spheres in contemporary, digitalised information societies and provide a complementary methodological approach to assess such phenomena both qualitatively and empirically. It could become a model to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based context.

By establishing a detailed taxonomy of EU- related online media and analysing the Web’s potential for transnational discourse, I will be able to highlight aspects in ‘communication on Europe’ that need further improvement on the side of professional content providers (e.g. EU-PR writers and online journalists focusing the EU). Moreover, it can bridge the gap between different academic cultures, i.e. connect and combine theoretical and methodological concepts from German Communication Sciences and Anglophone Communication- and Media Studies. Since I had the chance to study in both systems (and to receive both degrees), I am well aware of the different perspectives and approaches on one and the same field of study. Especially in regards to research on the public sphere, public opinion, and political communication, there is good potential for a productive exchange of findings and experiences.

 

5. List of References

Balcytiene, Aukse/Vinciuniene, Ausra (2010) ‘Assessing Conditions for the Homogenisation of the European Public Sphere: How Journalists Report, and Could Report, on Europe’, in: Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela (eds.): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp141-159.

Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela, eds. (2010): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp83-99.

Berkel, Barbara (2006) Conflict as a Catalyser for a European Public Sphere. A Content Analysis of Newspapers in Germany, France, Great Britain, and Austria. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Dahlberg, Lincoln (2007) ‘The Internet, Deliberative Democracy and Power: Radicalizing the Public Sphere’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. Vol. 3 (1): pp.47- 64.

Dean, Jodi (2005) ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’, Cultural Politics 1 (1).

De Vreese, Claes (2010) The EU as a Public Sphere. http://europeangovernance.livingreviews.org/Articles/lreg-2007-3/ (21/01/2011)

De Vreese, Claes (2002) Framing Europe: Television news and European integration. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers.

Erbe, Jessica, (2005) “’What Do the Papers Say? How Press Reviews Link National Media Arenas in Europe”, in Javnost – The Public, 12(2): pp75–92. European Commission (2010), http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ (21/01/2011)

European Voice (2010), http://www.europeanvoice.com/ (21/01/2011)

FAZ (2010), http://www.faz.net/s/Rub99C3EECA60D84C08AD6B3E 60C4EA807F/Tpl~Ecommon~SThemenseite.html (21/01/2011)

Guardian (2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/europe/roundup (21/01/2011)

Habermas, Jürgen (1996) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Burgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hall, Stuart (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Jankowski, Nicholas/van Os, Renée (2004) “The 2004 European parliament election and the internet: contribution to a European public sphere?”, Conference on internet communication in intelligent societies, Hong Kong, conference paper.

Jenkins, Henry (2006) Convergence Culture. New York and London: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry / Thorburn, David (2003) ‘Introduction: The Digital Revolution, the Informed Citizen, and the Culture of Democracy’, in Jenkins, Henry / Thorburn, David, eds. Democracy and New Media. Cambridge/London: MIT Press.

Koopmans, Ruud/Zimmerman, Ann (2003) “Internet: A new potential for European political communication?”, WZB Discussion Paper, SP IV 2003-402, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, Berlin Le Monde (2010), http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/ (21/01/2011)

Lovink, Gert (2008): Zero Comments. Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York/London: Routledge.

Luhmann, Niklas (1992) “Observing the Observers in the Political System: On the Theory of Public Opinion”, in: Wilke, Jürgen (Hrsg.): Öffentliche Meinung, Theorie, Methoden, Befunde, Beiträge zu Ehren von Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Freiburg: pp77-86.

Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth (1998) Public Opinion, in: Jarren,Otfried/Sarcinelli/Saxer(Hrsg.): Politische Kommunikation in der demokratischen Gesellschaft, Wiesbaden: pp81-93.

Risse, Thomas (2003) An Emerging European Public Sphere? Theoretical Clarifications and Empirical Indicators. Nashville: Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the European Union Studies Association (EUSA).

Sunstein, Cass R. (2007) Republic.com. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Tisdall, Simon (2010) Has the Whole European Project Peaked? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/11/european-union-euro-reform (21/01/2011)

Triandafyllido, Anna/ Wodak, Ruth/ Krzyżanowski, Michal, eds. (2009) The European Public Sphere and the Media. Europe in Crisis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Webster, Frank (1995) Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is not allowed to copy the contents – also in extracts – of this post/proposal. This text is, like any other content on this weblog, property of the author.

Wikileaks and the (alleged) “Diplomacy-Crisis”

Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel.  All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines  speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.

Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.

The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:

1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate  a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.

2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks  – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.

3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.

To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied  by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.

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.

Ethics, Journalists, and the Use of New Media

Media producers of all branches or genres, respectively, increase their efforts to use the Internet and the various forms of social media as both a new communication channel and a source for research. Contemporary journalistic work not using new media became almost unthinkable – certain forms like “citizen journalism” or online news (all genres) would not even exist. A modern and successful news/media producer must be aware of the opportunities  but also limits of the world wide web.

Though the digitalised environment of today’s information societies creates and demands different, new modes of  news/knowledge production as well as distribution, there have to be certain guidelines and rules, basing on traditional perceptions of this ‘media craft’ – at least according to some professionals. Especially ethics, which always have been a often heatedly discussed issue in journalism, seem thereby to be an important topic in online media production discourses, too. How to handle social network media sources? How to treat statements made on blogposts, comments or in fora? How to sustain fairness – and guarantee ‘accuracy’, ‘truth’ (or at least ‘objectivity’ – if this is even possible) online? Though some of the basics behind those questions are long known points of contention (especially on ‘truth’ and ‘neutrality’), the Internet confronts the critical observer with various new and complex problems in this context. Especially concerning the alleged freedom of information, property rights, and privacy issues.

To find an interesting example for such ethical guidelines, please visit Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). Here, media professionals postulate rules for using and treating online sources – and try to approach crucial questions like the ones mentioned above. It shows how those who are directly involved in the production process of online content attempt to meet the challenges of a changed information economy.

Thanks to my colleague Tomi, who passed me the link – visit her blog here.

Sexual Harassment and Social Media

A couple of days ago I saw a quite disturbing news story about a paedophilic postman from Cornwall on the BBC. A 28-year old used primarily applications of the New Media to groom hundreds of underage victims. By using various fake identities on social networking sites like Facebook, he approached and befriended youngsters and children – pretending he would be a teenage boy or girl of their age. After establishing a relationship, he started to harass them sexually. He admitted 27 charges of “inciting sexual activity, grooming and possessing and distributing indecent images” (BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cornwall/8652124.stm, 30/05/2010). He used several computers simultaneously to lead his digital “second life”. See a brief news clip from sky-news here:

The whole issue highlights another very important dimension of the discourse on cyber-bullying/-criminality/-violence: The directed misuse of contemporary technology for sexual harassment and (psychological as well as physical) abuse of minors. It also shows once more to what extent an individual can “live” more than one self-created identity in cyberspace; this “freedom” proves to be a janus-faced one, as advantages in terms of self-determination and digital self-fulfilmet coexist with irrefutable dangers and threats. Furthermore, the (still wide) gap between generations is clearly perceptible, too. Many parents did not know what their children were doing online and who they were engaging with.

Sexual harassment in the Internet is nothing new – various cases occurred during the last years (Weller, http://www.uiowa.edu/~cyberlaw/cls06/papers/bwfinfin.htm 30/05/2010). The concrete manifestations of this behaviour range from e.g. constantly e-mailing, over cyber-stalking to actual physical assaults. In some cases culprits used the web to search and contact possible victims , before approaching and assaulting them offline. Pedophiliacs often establish a bond of trust to children before they attempt to seduce them (Deirmenjian, http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Pedophilia_on_the_Internet.pdf 30/05/2010) – just like the postman from Cornwall did.

Many causes for and forms of sexual harassment exist. For instance, various cases among adults took place at work (between employers/employees). Though the majority of such activities come from men, the number of victims seems to increase on both sides (Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028.html 30/05/2010), at least in the USA. Other incidents resulted from failed relationships. There is a wide range of psychological reasons for such dangerous behaviour. Nevertheless, online paedophilia and child abuse are extraordinary repulsive delicts.

There are lot of heated discussions on negative media effects of violent/sexual content on young people; it is undoubtedly a crucial task to debate and examine the actual form and impact of the many media-transported influences on recipients of all age. However, examples like this show to what extent the World Wide Web can entail concrete threats to an individuals safety, especially concerning children.  The Internet provides a lot of possibilities to communicate and engage with other people – but proper education and information about certain downsides of these benefits is needed. These considerations forces the critical observer to face some difficult questions, which have to deal with e.g. privacy, identity-controll, and media capacity: How can I be sure the person I contact is really the one he/she supposes to be? Where should be the legal limits to the creation of online effigies/identities? How can young people be effectively warned about the existing threats? What can the  providers of social networking sites do – without further cutting down an user’s privacy rights? What would appropriate safety measures look like? Approaching answers is crucial but also very difficult: hasty measures could lead to certain disadvantages, though not reacting to such incidents cannot be an option. Thus, current discourses on the subject should focus and revise contemporary concepts of preparation and protection.

List of References

BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cornwall/8652124.stm,  (30/05/2010)

Deirmenjian, http://www.hawaii.edu/hivandaids/Pedophilia_on_the_Internet.pdf  (30/05/2010)

Sky News, youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1ermaR1emM (30/05/2010)

Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704117304575137881438719028.html  (30/05/2010)

Weller, http://www.uiowa.edu/~cyberlaw/cls06/papers/bwfinfin.htm  (30/05/2010)

The Metaphors of the Internet

Spam, surfing, Netizen, Blogosphere, Twitterverse – the World Wide Web is interspersed with metaphorical expressions, which most of us use quite unquestioned and self-evidently. These and many other vocables became inherent part of our contemporary lexicon. But where exactly do all this terms come/derive from? What is their precise meaning and what is the motivation to use them? Those of you who have at least a bit of linguistic curiosity will find answers to such questions on Metaphor Lookout. Written from the academic perspective of an postgraduate linguist (English and French), this blog collects and examines Internet-/computer metaphors – and gives elaborate yet comprehensible explanations for each word. Very interesting and quite entertaining to read. Recommendable for all those, who want to know more about the language of online information societies.

Click the link above or here, to get there.