Jurgen Habermas's theory of the public sphere provides a model of idealised democratic debate. Three major features of this model can be identified - universal access, rational debate, and a disregard for rank. I analyse the model, and use it to examine Slashdot, a popular Web site, as an actualisation of public space.
The Public Sphere
Flaws in the Model
Slashdot as Public Space
Immanuel Kant's ironic claim that"if I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all" [ 1]
was part of a clear case in favour of the use of rational thought in decision-making, protected from the influence of church and state. The theory of the public sphere has developed from this support for the "freedom to make public use of one's reason in all matters" [ 2].
In this essay I will examine the public sphere as a model of idealised public debate, and I will consider the extent to which Slashdot, a popular Web site, achieves this idealised model.
Slashdot is a news and discussion-based Web site, in operation since 1997. Operating under the slogan of "News For Nerds - Stuff That Matters", it covers news stories about the Internet, computers, and legal and scientific developments among others. News stories, questions, and essays are submitted by readers, often referencing original articles on other Web sites. Slashdot staff members then select the stories to publish on the site, and a discussion forum is opened allowing the public at large to debate the issue under consideration [ 3].
First I will explore a highly influential model of the public sphere as elaborated by Jürgen Habermas. I will highlight three features of the idealised public space with which to judge actual implementations. I will look at some issues and problems with Habermas's model, though I conclude that it is a useful ideal against which to judge actual implementations of public space. I will then examine Slashdot in relation to these headings, looking at the extent to which is corresponds to Habermas's ideal.
The Public Sphere
I start my examination by looking at the properties of the public sphere, a concept that is especially associated with the work of Jürgen Habermas [ 4]. While the public sphere can be viewed as "that domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed" [ 5], it is useful to start our investigation of the concept by reference to Habermas's theory of "a combined lifeworld-systems perspective" .
Habermas draws a distinction between two ways of viewing society:"Society [can be] conceived from the participant perspective of acting subjects as the lifeworld of a social group. On the other hand society can be conceived from the observer perspective of someone not involved as merely a system of actions, in which actions attain a functional value according to their contribution to the maintenance of the system". [ 7]
The Lifeworld is "an unproblematic shared horizon defining what is the case, what should be done and how authentic expressions and works of art are to be assessed" [ 8]. In other words, the Lifeworld is life as we live it, with all our beliefs, hopes, expectations, and desires. It is manifest in individual personalities and, in a larger sense, in cultures and subcultures. It is "a cultural storehouse, ... a source of expectations about the ordering of social relations, [and] a milieu out of which individual competences for speech and action are formed" [ 9]. For Habermas, however, a so-called rationalized lifeworld also embodies a "structural differentiation of precisely those three dimensions: culture, society and personality" .
Major examples of systems in modern society are the economic system and the administrative system [the state]. Habermas believes that "these other structural phenomena can generate crucial constraints on the rationalization of action" [ 11].
One of the questions raised by the introduction of a lifeworld model is how the norms and structures are maintained and reproduced. Habermas introduces the notion of communicative action, which he understands as "a medium of sociation through which [the symbolic reproduction of society] occurs" [ 12]. It is through communicative action that the structures and norms of the Lifeworld are produced and reproduced. Systems, in contrast, reproduce materially, which causes them to "interfere in the process of the symbolic reproduction of daily life" [ 13]. And since these systems act in functional terms "the processes of mediation between systems and lifeworld are perceived under imperatives of money and power in functional terms exclusive of communicative interaction" .
It is in light of the tension between functional systems and the greater lifeworld that the concept of the public sphere emerges. The public sphere is part of that space which is beyond the influence of systems such as economy, church, and state. It is part of that space in which 'communicative action' takes place, as opposed to the 'functionalistic reason' "conceptualized within systems theory" [ 15].
However, it is not the whole of this space. In his analysis of the lifeworld, Habermas deals with two distinct spheres: the private sphere and the public sphere. Kant had earlier stated that "the public use of one's reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men. The private use of reason, on the other hand, may often be very narrowly restricted without particularly hindering the progress of enlightenment" [ 16]. The public sphere, therefore, concerns itself with the "domain of 'common concern' which is the object of public critical attention" .
This definition, insofar as it depends in itself on a definition of 'public', fudges the issue of the distinction between the two spheres, and not without cause. The two spheres are not hermetically sealed off from one another. As Seyla Benhabib notes when talking of models of public space, "the effect of collective action in concert will be to put ever new and unexpected items on the agenda of public debate" [ 18]. However, it is possible to identify certain areas of concern which have traditionally been viewed as proper to the private sphere. Benhabib identifies three:
- "the sphere of moral and religious conscience";
- "the free flow of commodity relations";
- the "intimate sphere" .
Theorists such as Kenneth Baynes have suggested that the very concept of "rights", such as those in the U.S. Constitution,"serve as constraints on most public debates, removing topics from the agenda because of their deeply personal nature or close association with recognised spheres of privacy. However, discussion about the nature and scope of these rights is always something that can become the subject of public debate" [ 20].
This reinforces the point that the "domain of concern" [ 21] is fluid, taking matters from the private sphere as societal norms evolve.
Our discussion so far has concentrated on matters of theoretical concern, in an attempt to situate the public sphere relative to the other arenas of human experience. However, Habermas himself, in his first work on the topic, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, often interrupted his theoretical discourse with "talk of coffee houses, newspaper circulation or literary salons" [ 22]. In identifying bodies such as the eighteenth century coffee house as "a bourgeois 'public sphere', an ideal forum within which newspapers and journals were read and discussed in face-to-face groups" , Habermas is able to investigate the "institutional criteria" [ 24] that they had in common. These criteria, insofar as they define an idealised public sphere, can then be used to measure the success of a particular public space in providing a space for the aforementioned forming of public opinion.
The criteria can be summarised under three headings:
- Universal access - anybody can have access to the space .
- Rational debate - any topic can be raised by any participant [ 26], and it will be debated rationally until consensus is achieved [ 27].
- Disregard of rank - the status of participants is ignored [ 28].
Central to Habermas's thinking has been a belief that "the history of public space and public opinion ... is more declining than transforming" [ 29]. This is due, drawing on our earlier exploration of systems theory, to the neutralising by the economic and administrative systems of the public sphere "as a site of effective participation by citizens" [ 30]. Compensation, according to this theory, "comes in the form of system-conforming rewards which are channeled into the roles of private consumer and public client of the welfare state" [ 31]. Activities such as the well-intentioned expansion of the Welfare State, therefore, are seen to result in a diminishing of the space available for public debate, the public sphere.
In the context of Habermas's view of the restriction of the public sphere, it is interesting to note the growth of the Internet, and to consider the extent to which this provides a twenty-first century forum for the lifeworld corresponding to the eighteenth century coffee houses. First, though, it is useful to evaluate the strength of the model.
Flaws in the Model
Apart from the practical difficulties associated with the protection and development of the public sphere, there are a number of flaws in the model insofar as it represents an idealised basis for debate. Before evaluating the Slashdot example, it is necessary to look briefly at these flaws.
First, many commentators have noted that the 'classic' example of the bourgeois public sphere excluded many groups, such as the working class and women. As John B. Thomson has observed, "although the bourgeois public sphere has based on the principle of universal access, in practice it was restricted to those individuals who had the education and the financial means to participate in it" [ 32]. Moreover, the "public sphere was not only restricted to educated and propertied elites, but was also a predominately male preserve" [ 33]. The issue of access on the basis of class can be rebutted by Habermas's assertion that while the idea of parity of esteem within the public sphere might not be "actually realized ... but as an idea it had become institutionalized and thereby stated as an objective claim" [ 34]. However, the question of access on the basis of gender raises more troubling questions, as noted by Seyla Benhabib, concerning the relationship between public and private. For instance, since the 'intimate sphere' has been relegated to the private sphere, "the rules governing the sexual division of labour in the family have been placed beyond the scope of justice" [ 35]. While the "line between private and the public ... is being renegotiated", the example highlights the fundamental effects that restrictions on access of participation can have.
Secondly, the model of the public sphere assumes that any topic of general concern can be raised by any participant, and will be rationally debated until consensus is achieved. One can ask how we can "know they [matters raised for discussion] are general before they are debated?" [ 36] However, this question is to a large extent answered by Kenneth Baynes' distinction between discussion of a matter which falls within a sphere of privacy, and discussion of the nature of the boundaries of such spheres, as mentioned earlier .
What would seem to be a more relevant concern in this regard stems from the necessarily finite nature of any public sphere, and the fact that the participants are humans, limited in processing power and knowledge [ 38]. Theories such as Herbert Simon's models of bounded rationality highlight the limited ability of human beings when faced with questions such as achieving a 'successful' outcome when there are an unknown number of possible results, which cannot necessarily be measured against each other. Though Simon suggests that such problems can be solved through the introduction of concepts such as a "'satisficing' strategy" which "seeks to satisfy some pre-set goal" [ 39], there still exists the fact that "people have limited attention" which results in both "political faddishness and one-issue politics" [ 40]. Theories such as agenda setting would concur, suggesting that prior content of an agenda, while perhaps not telling us what to think, "tells us what to think about" . This would appear to be an inescapable distortion in the topology of any public space.
The third possible flaw in the model surrounds the matter of consensus. One can easily conceive of matters of debate - such as the issue of abortion - in which the tenets of the various participants are so much at odds that consensus can never be achieved. Bruce Ackerman deals with this matter, as part of his model of a Liberal Public Space. He introduces a Supreme Pragmatic Imperative (SPI) which "states that they [citizens] must be willing to participate in an ongoing dialogue about their conception of the good with others who are not members of their primary group" [ 42]. Ackerman suggests that this ongoing dialogue can be supported through the introduction of "conversational restraint", where participants agree not to discuss the point of disagreement within the public sphere, though discussion can continue within the private sphere .
Benhabib, rightly, attacks this suggestion for precluding certain matters from being debated in the public arena [ 44]. To simply avoid any issue on which fundamental differences occur is, on the one hand, unlikely to be practicable and on the other suspect from a theoretical viewpoint, since it attempts to side-step any weaknesses in the model, waiving the opportunity to address and potentially overcome these weaknesses.
Despite the flaws discussed above, I believe that the concept of the public sphere is a valuable model, providing an idealised model of public debate against which actual implementations can be measured. It provides a general target at which we might aim, though further elaboration of this model remains to be done.
Slashdot as Public Space
Having looked at the model, I now move on to examine Slashdot [ 45] as an actual realisation of public space. I evaluate this implementation from the point of view of three features of public space, as mentioned above. These are: universal access, rational debate, and disregard of rank.
The Internet undeniably changes the topology of the public sphere, providing as it does new and varied forums for debate and discussion. The extent to which these satisfy Habermas's criteria for an ideal public sphere is, however, open to debate.
The first, and perhaps the most obvious, point surrounds the question of access to the Internet. The physical requirements for Internet access include:
- Hardware [e.g. personal computer with modem]
- Software [e.g. Web browser, mail client software]
- Access to Internet node [e.g. ISP dialup port]
In addition, users need certain skills in order to operate the computer and navigate their way around the Internet. Literacy is a necessary requirement.
The investment required of individuals is quite modest, but can be onerous depending on personal circumstances. The prevalence of PC leasing, subvented PCs and, indeed, free PCs, can alleviate the problems surrounding the acquisition of hardware and software. The problems that remains, then, surrounds access to an Internet node, which typically happens by way of telephone to the nearest ISP node. Here the problems can be more institutional or infrastructural than dependent solely on personal economic circumstances. Then one bears in mind that Mozambique has one telephone for every 333.3 people, while Ireland has one for every 2.7 people [ 46], it is evident that there are significant impediments to universal access to the Internet. There are significant economies of scale associated with the extension of the telephone network to an area - the cost of extending telephone access to 100 homes in an area is much less than 100 times the cost of extending access to 1 home - which means that overall economic and social conditions, including population density, in an area or region can strongly influence the affordability of telephone and Internet access.
Accordingly, when evaluating the accessibility of the Internet as a public space, one cannot simply talk of a barrier based on personal economic circumstances. The topological deformation caused by geographic discrepancies was brought sharply into relief by a recent discussion on Slashdot.
In a discussion titled "Social Changes & Internet Access In The Third World", the question of the importance of extending better access to the Internet to Africa and other parts of the developing world was addressed. The discussion was noteworthy in two respects. First, many important points were raised, including some which have already been mentioned here, though much of the debate concentrated on the dynamics of the "ecommerce" system [ 47].
The second, and possibly more significant, matter was the relative under-representation of those most affected by the matter under discussion - those residing in sub-Saharan Africa. At the very core of the principle of universal access is the idea that access is coterminous with being a 'stake-holder' in the matter being discussed. While it can be argued that residents of Europe or the United States - who form the majority of the participants on Slashdot - would be affected by a decision to provide large-scale funding of Internet access in Africa, it is equally the case that African residents of all economic and social backgrounds would be undeniably affected by a decision to set funding of the Internet as a spending priority. The fact that a large part of the spectrum are not only lacking from the debate, but lack any reasonable possibility of access, must cast serious doubt on the ability of Slashdot, and the Internet in general, to act as a public sphere for the discussion of questions of this nature.
On the other hand, by removing geographic, and to a certain degree temporal, restrictions on participation, forums such as Slashdot do allow a greater number of people to participate in a discussion than would otherwise be the case. On general issues affecting those already online, the Internet allows all those interested to participate in a discussion directly.
The second feature that I want to examine is the extent to which Slashdot discussions meet the criterion of "rational debate".
Anybody who spends a reasonable amount of time browsing Slashdot will realise that many of the comments could not be classified as 'rational debate'. Notwithstanding the fact that many comments are well argued and relate to the topic under discussion, it is questionable whether this is sufficient to fulfil the requirement of rational discussion. This principle holds that any topic may be raised by any participant, and will be discussed rationally until consensus is achieved. It is this consensus which, thanks to the principle of universal access, manifests itself as public opinion.
The question of 'any topic may be raised by any participant'. While anyone can submit a story or topic to Slashdot, the staff members have a gatekeeping role, deciding which submissions are published on the Web site. This role, while a practical necessity, distorts the shape of the space in which Slashdot operates. While it could be argued that it is in the interest of Slashdot and its staff to carry stories which will interest its readers, it does remove a level of control from the participants in the discussion.
The control exercised by the Slashdot system over content has taken on a new significance in recent months, with the purchase of Slashdot by Andover, and the latter;s acquisition by VA Linux. A recent 'Stating the Obvious' article, observed that as Slashdot is now inextricably linked to the fortunes of a software provider, the capacity for the appearance of abuse has certainly increased, whether abuse is currently present or not [ 48].
A second issue has been raised by Mark Poster in his essay "The Net as a Public Sphere". He claims that "disembodied exchange of video text is not a substitute for face-to-face meeting" [ 49]. His argument that the ability of those online to "define their own identities and change them at will" is "not consonant with forming a stable political community as we have known it" [ 50] does carry some weight. It can be difficult to establish the veracity of claims made, or the reliability of evidence provided, when we do not necessarily have the usual social clues, such as a pattern of (un)reliable information from a particular source. In this regard, Poster's remarks regarding face-to-face communication are probably best understood in the context of Giddens' claim that "'Face' can also be understood in a broader sense to refer to the esteem in which an individual is held by others" .
Poster believes that these conditions mean that "the conditions that encourage compromise, the hallmark of the democratic process, are lacking online" [ 52]. He provides no evidence, however, that this is actually the case. It can be argued however that individuals can use the Internet to research the veracity of claims, and that the removal of personal charisma from the equation increases the pressure on arguments to stand on their own merits. Indeed, Poster's claim that "without embodied co-presence the charisma and status of individuals have no force" [ 53] would seem to support the claim of the Internet, and Slashdot in particular, to be a public sphere. One principle of the public sphere, after all, is that the rank of individuals should have no bearing on the discussion undertaken.
The third objection under the heading of rational discussion stems from the issue of discussion continuing until consensus is achieved. Since discussion threads are linked to individual news items or essays, discussions are quite limited temporally. Other relevant factors are that each of the dozen or more stories posted each day has its own discussion thread, and that each discussion typically involves several hundred comments. This can mean that those who make comments do not have the time, or inclination, to return to the discussion at a later stage. In general, it is obvious that those comments which are added early in a discussion are read by more people, are more often moderated, and garner more direct replies. This means that the contributors of these comments have a greater impact in determining what is perceived to be public opinion. Since all users have the potential to be in this group, this does not pose a serious distortion of the topology of the discussion. The lack of continued discussion, though, can deter the emergence of consensus on any particular issue. This may be alleviated somewhat by the fact that many discussions centre around similar themes, which suggests that consensus may be achieved over a range of discussions.
It is perhaps on the principle of disregarding rank that Slashdot is most in accordance with Habermas's criteria. The use of ambiguous 'handles' [nicknames] and the capacity for both anonymous communication and arbitrary reinvention of one's identity means that, essentially, each comment must be taken on its own merits. The proliferation of names similar to those of well-known Internet figures [ 54] means that comments made by these people must rely on their internal logic for credence, rather than on the prior reputation of the authors.
There is an obvious exception to this situation. As mentioned earlier, the gatekeeper role of Slashdot staff in adding stories distorts the 'universal access' nature of Slashdot. The tradition of appending editorial comment to these stories gives such comments special weight. A particularly good example of this would be the stories classified under the general topic of Your Rights Online, many of which are written or posted by a member of the Censorware Project, an anti-filtering software advocacy group.
It could be argued that such editorial merely proffers a proposition for debate. It is true that debate does generally continue without subsequent interference by the poster. However, the status of the staff member's comments as part of the original post must impact the nature of the subsequent debate.
Before concluding the discussion on Slashdot, it is worthwhile considering the extent to which social systems impinge upon whatever public sphere is present within Slashdot.
As commercialisation of the Internet has become more apparent, concern has arisen as to whether the public space on the Internet is being diminished. Noam Chomsky has talked of corporations such as Microsoft wanting to "control access in such a way that people who access the Internet will be guided to things that they want, like home marketing service, or diversion, or something or other" [ 55]. While Slashdot, operated by students, and then former students without formal links to other bodies, was seen to be independent of any particular system, recent events have changed matters. Rob Malda, founder of Slashdot, is now on the advisory board of Linux.com . Slashdot itself was recently acquired by Andover.com, which in turn was bought out by VA Linux [ 57].
It is true that Malda was give assurances of editorial independence. The acquisition by Andover was justified by virtue of the high costs associated with running such a high-traffic site. However, it has been noted that editorial decisions on which stories are carried will now be open to doubt regarding vested interests [ 58]. Further, by virtue of their positions as employees within the Internet industry, editorial staff are likely to have at least an unconscious bias toward celebratory stories of the Internet as fountain of wealth and income.
The bias toward open-source software within Slashdot may mask this initially, but as the open-source movement coalesces into the open-source industry, it will become more apparent. It is salient to remember Habermas' warning that compensation for the erosion of the public sphere "comes in the form of system-conforming rewards which are channeled into the roles of private consumer and public client".
An ideal solution might be the creation of a self-perpetuating trust, with no beneficial owners, such as the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian in the United Kingdom. However, it is difficult to see how this might develop in the near future. An alternate move might be to adopt a funding mechanism such as the Street Performer Protocol [ 59], which itself is similar to the mechanism used by many non-commercial radio stations in the United States. Again, it is unlikely that a company with the inflated stock value of VA Linux would see itself in a position to limit the potential return from such an important asset as Slashdot.
Given that Slashdot is already in the commercial arena, more immediate and perhaps realistic approaches must be addressed. Who will critically assess the editorial and business policies of the site? Who will exert at least moral pressure for proper procedures? How will Slashdot continue as a valuable - and largely independent - forum for debate?
To summarise, then, Slashdot has many features of a public sphere, but equally has many facets in which it deviates from the ideal model. Some of these deviations would appear to be unavoidable - practical necessities, imposed by the desire to condense an entire reality into a small number of news items, and the limitations of the computer medium. In other areas, there is undoubtedly room for development within the Slashdot organisation. Equally, those planning the development of computer forums in the future would do well to learn from both the strengths and weaknesses of the Slashdot model.
Slashdot is limited in terms of universal access to the Internet user base. Equally, almost all of those with Internet access have access to Slashdot. This has implications for the range of topics that can most usefully be discussed on Slashdot.
It is perhaps under the rational discussion criterion that Slashdot is weakest. Discussions are limited in time, and have little of the to and fro that would occur in a one-to-one real-time discussion. This limits the extent to which public opinion can be seen to develop, though this is countered to an extent by the coverage of thematically similar stories. With a user base of over one million people, it is difficult to envisage a way in which this difficulty can be overcome.
The mixture of anonymous users and ambiguous 'handles', coupled with the large number of users, means that rank is largely irrelevant. Comments must rely on an internal logic for support, rather than the status or physical charisma of the user. Slashdot is, accordingly, closer to meeting the 'disregard of rank' criterion than either of the other two.
In terms of the site's relationship with the systems it is commenting on, its current commercial standing may cause difficulties. I have suggested a number of measures which might help to improve matters.
Habermas' model of the public sphere is one which has generated much comment and analysis. Though subject to criticism, it is ultimately rewarding. It is a complex theory that can be approached in many ways. The joint lifeworld-systems perspective assists us in understanding the tensions between the symbolic aspects of the lifeworld, which are guided by communicative action, and the functional systems contained within the lifeworld. The three characteristics of the classic public sphere - universal access, rational debate, and a disregard of rank - serve as benchmarks against which to judge actual public spaces. The analysis of Slashdot under these headings, while not always positive, must ultimately be viewed as confirming the power of the Internet to provide a strong public sphere in the twenty-first century.
In closing, it is heartening to read Marshall McLuhan's analysis of the age of automation:"Persons grouped around a fire or candle for warmth or light are less able to pursue independent thoughts, or even tasks, than people supplied with electric light. In the same way, the social and educational patterns latent in automation are those of self-employment and artistic autonomy" [ 60].
If McLuhan's analysis is accurate, how closely it resembles Kant's description of enlightenment as a situation where "men as a whole can be in a position ... of using their own understanding confidently ... without outside guidance" [ 61].
About the Author
Andrew Ó Baoill is Market Analysis Manager with eircom, Ireland's largest communications company. He holds a degree in Mathematics from the National University of Ireland, Galway, and is currently studying for an M.A. in Communications and Cultural Studies with Dublin City University.
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Paper received 18 July 2000; accepted 29 August 2000.
Copyright ©2000, First Monday
Slashdot and the Public Sphere by Andrew Ó Baoill
First Monday, volume 5, number 9 (September 2000),