[iDC] New Structural Transformations of the Public Sphere, new fluencies?

Jan Schmidt j.schmidt at hans-bredow-institut.de
Mon Jul 25 19:03:17 UTC 2011

Dear IDC-lers and -ies,

I've enjoyed the lively discussion on the future of humanities over the 
last couple of days. In preparation for the conference I also agreed to 
introduce some ideas of my own, starting today - so here's a somewhat 
different topic, which nevertheless will stimulate responses as well :-)

As I've written in my introduction to this list (and I'm going to copy 
some parts of the introduction below), I have a background in sociology 
and communication science. I'm particularly interested in identifying 
the developments, shifts, and mechanisms that come along with digital 
media (and their social appropriation).

One, if not the main disruption digital media bring about is the 
emergence of a new type of public sphere - thus the reference to 
Habermas in my subject line - by lowering technological barriers to make 
information or content available.
Tools like (micro-)blogs, social network sites, video platforms etc. 
afford the emergence of "personal public spheres" (or "persoenliche
Oeffentlichkeiten" in German). These can be best understood by 
contrasting them with "traditional" public spheres produced by 
professional journalism; personal public spheres are formed when and where

a) users make available information that is personally relevant to them
(instead of the information being selected according to journalistic
news factors or news values),

b) that is directed to an intended audience of strong and weak ties
(instead of the disperse, unconnected, and unknown audience of
mass-mediated public spheres),

c) and that is presented mainly to engage in conversation (instead of
the one-way mode of publishing).

Some elements of this development have been described in other concepts 
or theories as well. E.g., Axel Bruns' idea of "produsage" also 
emphasizes the idea that the boundaries between "producer" and "user" 
are blurring - he is giving lots of examples from different fields; I'm 
focussing here on the blurring boundaries between "senders" and 
"receivers" - within personal publics, users are both, since they are 
constantly "sending" information (e.g. by updating their Facebook Status 
or tweeting) to their social network as well as receiving information 
which is filtered through their social graph.

In addition, as sub-type of digital public spheres, or networked 
publics, or whatever you want to call these new convergent media spaces, 
personal publics are pretty dynamic and fluid - the metaphor here is the 
"stream" or "feed", not the "issue" or the "show" or any other concept 
we know from traditional media. Information in personal publics is also 
simultaneously de-packaged (because users can take single news items, 
stories, microcontent and like, (re-)tweet, digg, blog them) and 
re-packaged (into one's stream or feed etc.).

These are just a few of the structural characteristics of this new form 
of public sphere, and I'm happy to add and/or discuss other elements 
with you.

What I'd also like to discuss with you are the implications for 
necessary competencies / fluencies. Some first ideas and statements, 
feel free to add more:

1) "media competence" is becoming "social competence" - it is no longer 
only about finding, understanding, appraising given media content (e.g. 
the newspaper article; the tv show; advertisment vs. editorial content), 
but more importantly about how to use convergent media (including 
journalistic content) within conversations and social interactions. This 
includes, for example, competencies and skills regarding participation 
in reasonable discourses as well respecting (privacy of or viewpoints 
of) one's communication partners (think: cyber-bullying etc.).

2) Filter Competence is crucial: As Clay Shirky put it (I paraphrase 
from memory): "There is no information overload, only filter failure." - 
With personal publics the volume of potentially relevant information is 
expanding even more rapidly, so it is up to the individual user to 
construct filters - including both traditional gatekeepers as well as 
one's social graph.

3) Participation as a meta-skill: Not only do we need to be fluent 
participants in these new public spheres; we also have to participate in 
the more general power struggles around the design and control of these 
new structures, which are often proprietary and intransparent. Put it 
the other way round: Being an active citizen in a "convergent media 
democracy" includes participation regarding our own rights and 
responsibilities as "netizens".

Looking forward to your ideas and comments,


Dr. Jan-Hinrik Schmidt
Wissenschaftlicher Referent für Digitale Interaktive Medien und
Politische Kommunikation
Hans-Bredow-Institut für Medienforschung

Warburgstr. 8-10
D-20354 Hamburg

T: 040-450217-83
F: 040-450217-99

j.schmidt at hans-bredow-institut.de

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