Ever tweeted a trending topic, re-blogged an article, tuned in to a talk show or posted a status about a current affair? Then you have engaged in the public sphere, a metaphorical space in which ideas and opinions are exchanged and debated surrounding common concerns.
Sociologist and philosopher Jurgen Habermas first likened the public sphere to a coffeehouse, a hub for discussion of current issues. Originally participated in by the elite social class and males, it evolved to include the middle class and both genders. Today, the media is closely linked to the public sphere as it encapsulates recent topics and is a platform used to both debate and incite issues. It has been argued that the modern model of the public sphere largely differs from Habermas’ original concept and is questionable in its effectiveness due to its digital progression; as First Monday Journal reads: ‘Can virtual communities contribute to the revival of the public debate… or are they merely distracting simulations?’ (Boeder, 2005). There is definite bias against contemporary media enhancing the public sphere:
“It seems most likely that the virtual public sphere brought about by (computer–mediated communication) will serve a cathartic role, allowing the public to feel involved rather than to advance actual participation.” (2005)
This statement complements other general concerns surrounding technological communication replacing human interaction whilst simultaneously evoking isolation, however the verging of the public sphere onto digital platforms has certainly improved society’s exposure to current issues and opinions. For example, Emma Watson’s speech at a UN conference for the launch of the He for She campaign sparked international discussion and controversy, both online and offline, when the video recording was shared across social media. Without media, society would not be exposed to multiple international concerns, decreasing the extent of the public sphere.
Not only does the media serve as an informant to the public sphere, but also as a medium via which people across the globe participate in the public sphere. With the notion of multiple public spheres, the growth in social media networks, including sites such as Facebook and Twitter, means that people are able to communicate globally in an online public sphere. Television and radio journalism with news programmes and talk shows often incorporate public opinion into their projection of current affairs. SBS’s Insight is one of many shows on commercial television dedicated to dialogue between various viewpoints about contemporary matters, using a diverse audience to gather a range of opinions. Not only is society involved in the public sphere by simply viewing such shows, the integration of social networks means viewers can engage with each other about the topic at hand.
The credibility of television programmes as a way of interacting with the public sphere is questionable amongst society. The range of media within the public realm is extensive, encompassing both high and low culture forms. How do we distinguish between the two? High culture is involved with serious issues while low culture seems to be concerned with the trivial, however both can be connected to individuals within the public sphere, posing the question whether on type is more relevant than the other. While the quality of the current public sphere may be in question, the quantity of issues is escalating. Modern society is definitely more involved in the “coffeehouse debate” than ever before.