From Free Press to Facebook: First Reflections on Public Discourse

When discussing public discourse it is necessary to define the parameters and nature of what constitutes the public sphere. For my working definition, the public sphere is the virtual arena wherein all discourse regarding information flow, culture, governance, and common elements of habitation is held by a population using all available modes of communication. This may include television, film, periodicals, social media and internet pages, public meetings and debates, popular vernacular, or the current state of social mores and their application. All of the previously stated are part of a larger discussion being held verbally and non-verbally by our collective “selves” within the human, global, western, American, state, and local communities. In this space, we settle our differences and discover them, determine shared value systems, create culture/s, debate the viability of cultural shifts and belief structures, and assess the role governing bodies (even if the government in question is not representational) in a process that forms and upholds community structures. As we move in and out of this virtual, public space, we define ourselves as well as our common bond. The relationship is a two way circuit that originates from the input of the masses while simultaneously shaping them. Essentially, the public sphere is where our discourse takes place. When a reporter asks, “What is everyone saying about Johnny Depp’s new hairstyle? What’s hot in new fashion? What is the public reaction to Rick Santorum’s latest anti-everyone else statement?” it references a discussion that is taking place in this virtual realm; in short, our public discourse.

Public discourse ranges from the haute culture of art, philosophy, and political policy debate to the constant updates of Twitter accounts. It is held, quite effectively, in the realm of the latter. Online social media offers an interesting medium utilizing new technology to “connect” people to one another in a virtual space to exchange information, ideas, opinions, and sentiments without the limitations of time, place, or access beyond those of procuring an internet ready device. What is excellent about this tool is it’s open forum style of communication. The best example being Facebook.

Facebook links with other media sites allowing for subscriptions to updates in your “news feed” alongside the recent posts of friends and famous persons alike. It also allows you to share and spread your thoughts, pictures, videos, and reactions along with links to other internet pages creating a flow of information both instant and timeless in the sense that it can travel near infinite distance in the blink of an eye while remaining accessible for a later time by any connected member of your greater online social ring. It is evidence of the power this medium that Rick Perry’s campaign ad became the most un-liked YouTube post of all time in a matter of days, that the controversial SOPA was so quick to outrage the public, or that so many Americans (and citizens of the world for that matter) have called for a deeper investigation into the tragic shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin this March. Even in a limited way, Facebook allows the public to debate and take a stance on a myriad of issues without having to make more concerted efforts in their personal lives.

While it can be said Facebook may also be diminishing our ability to communicate face to face and offers banal intercourse in the majority of its interchanges, that argument is subjective and does little to negate the very real positives it has opened as opportunities to public discourse. In fact, having the medium deal with both the serious debate and what may be called “the trashy part of culture” (McKee 67) creates a unique blend encompassing all the important aspects of healthy discourse. Facebook is fully mutable in terms of information flow and allows users to command and demand of it what they will. Every member of the Facebook community drives the discussion through their chosen connections and information they wish to make known. As of December 2011, Facebook self reported it had reached usage by 845 million members. In a sense, Facebook has created the graphic user interface of the public sphere. With that many members driving content, this medium can be seen as one of the best representations of how the public sphere operates, what fair access to the discourse means to a community’s members, and the power of mob mentality to affect societal change.

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