Week 5 – The Networked Public Sphere: A Critical Assessment of Participatory Culture by Sergey Ponomarenko, Dominic Dod and John Chabowski

19 Aug

The Networked Public Sphere: A Critical Assessment of Participatory Culture

by Sergey Ponomarenko, Dominic Dod and John Chabowski
Group F

In the article by Dr Ben Roberts he raises questions about democratizing nature of the Internet, focusing on the participatory culture of it. The article also critically looks at the book The Wealth of Networks by Yochai Benkler, and Bernard Stiegler‘s along with Marc Crépon‘s book  De la démocratie participative. In this blog post we will cover the key ideas and arguments.

In the past few years a number of authors described their optimism and excitement about the democratizing nature of Web 2.0 and their belief that participatory and collaborative culture of Web 2.0 is extremely beneficial for a society. They ascribe a power of liberation and change to the opportunities that it brings.

Web 2.0 and Participation: read/write web, blogs, social bookmarks, wikis et cetera

Blogs: http://acopa.tumblr.com/      http://domain.nationalforum.com.au/ (political)

Bookmarking: http://au.my.yahoo.com/      http://www.abc.net.au/services/rss/     http://australia.gov.au/news-and-media/media-release-rss-feeds   http://twitter.com/

Wikis: http://stargate.wikia.com/wiki/Stargate_Wiki      http://starwars.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page

Social Networks: https://www.facebook.com/     http://www.last.fm/   http://www.youtube.com/

The main argument is that Web 2.0 offers a better medium for the creation of public sphere in which a truly democratic form of political debate can take place. We found interesting the use of the words “truly democratic”, which implicitly implies that traditional media does not offer a platform for a “real” democracy. Yochai Benkler’s work in The Wealth of Network examines such arguments and puts them in a context of political theories, specifically by Jürgen Habermas and his ideas about the public sphere.

Benkler argues that with the emergence of Web 2.0 the ‘industrial information economy’ was replaced by a ‘networked information economy’, which empowers individuals and promotes ‘decentralised individual action’. This is due to two key changes: ‘multidirectional connections’ along with the multidirectional distribution and a reduction in communication costs. This new information economy in turn creates a new form of political communication called the ‘networked public sphere’.  Benkler argues that ‘it is inherently more democratic that the ‘mass-mediated public sphere’. Benkler outlines his understanding that just because web 2.0 gives everyone a chance to voice out their opinions and thoughts, it does not mean it is essentially democratizing, because ‘if everyone can speak at once, no one can be heard’ . Therefore he outlines the set of criteria:

  • ‘Universal Intake’
  • Filtering sustems
  • Accreditation of information sources
  • Capability to synthesize public opinion into one coherent opinion
  • Independent from government control


Are these five requirements met with the current social media and the given examples?

 NIE: Have users become active or are we still a passive public?

 Has the public sphere become a forum for debate and political action? How or how not?


Digital citizenship: The criteria is that (1) you live in a democracy, (2) you are a citizen of that platform, (3) you participate in the platform, (4) labor is used to either create or share content, (5) you possess digital property within the platform and (6) you are part of a collective.

Benkler see the web as a relatively organised information platform, because of its links network structures.

Essentially Benkler’s main argument is that the network information economy made us (audience) producers and active participants as opposed to being passive consumers before the emergence of web 2.0.

Criticism of Benkler’s ideas.

In his book Benkler provides an example of an online campaign Boycott.SBG.com aimed to stop Sinclair Broadcasting Group to air a documentary, which criticizes John Kerry, the democratic candidate. Even though the campaign has achieved its goal it is not an example of a platform where a rational, democratic and active debate took place. Instead it is simply a example of the internet is being used as the tool for a collective political action.

Our example is Facebook page ‘We are all Khaled Said’, which maid the Egyptian revolution possible.

But if you will go through this you will not see an ongoing debate. It is merely a tool of organization to drive a social change. It is very powerful and efficient, but it does not provide that platform for a democratic debate.

 Then Benkler talks about ‘nonmarket’ production, which all the contribution that users of web make, such as entries in in Wikipedia, social bookmarking, blog posts and more, the majority of which does not participate in an economic market. Benkler does not raises an important question in his book: is this free labour being exploited?

Benkler ascribes the transformative power of web 2.0 to changes in network technologies and it narrows the context. The important point that he misses here is that technological change does happen in a wider social and economic context. Benkler does not challenge the relationship between technology, culture and democracy or what social and political change drives a technological change.

Participation, Technics and Individuation

Crépon critically examines the call for ‘participatory democracy’ and analyses it in the context of two coincidental phenomena: on one hand there is a decline in participation in voting and political interest; and on the other hand is the emergence of new possibilities with the Web 2.0.

Crépon argues that a participatory democracy eventually ‘would descend into a kind of interactive televised populism’. Both Crépon and Stiegler believe that online political debates are nothing more but the extension of the existing tools of political marketing. It this sense a participatory democracy becomes a mirror that reflects what is happening on the inside of mass media and politics. The danger is that such online political debates can make political appear more legitimate and transparent, while they are short circuiting the proper apparatus of representative democracy.

Crépon refers to C.B. Macpherson’ four models of democracy in order to explore a true participatory democracy.

Protective Democracy – protection of self-interests of citizens from bad government

Development Democracy – focus on the improvement of a mankind, where ‘a free and equal society not yet achieved’.

Equilibrium Democracy – reconciliation of different interests of citizens through the voting, where ‘policies serve like products offered by parties’.

Benkler argues that there is nothing wrong with the current model of democracy, there is just a problem with the political communication, which can be corrected with open and transparent communication that Web 2.0 offers. For Crépon that problem is right ‘at the heart of democracy’, which is mass media.

Stiegler arues that human is always constituted through a ‘prosthetic relationship’ with technics, which are exteriorized tools or systems used for communication. And because we are witnessing a shift in communication and participation models, there is ‘a potential challenge‘ to the industrial and asymmetric model of cultural production.

For Stiegler in order for new changes brought by Web 2.0 to be meaningful, participation must bring social and economic empowerment. Participatory culture must be understood within the wider social, economic and political contexts.

Industrial Temporal Objects: a flow with human consciousness, embracing and adopting the time and means, thus the most powerful component is the use of the temporal objects.

Note: Mass Media- asymmetrical/Social Media (Web 2.0)-multidirectional.

Web 2.0 can only have political meaning if a new associative milieu exists (1) with the help of government on the web and (2) improvement from decentralized individual action to make new forms of sociality.

Final Question: How do you see it? Can there be a new wide social, political and cultural transformation, or just a new communication medium, if governments and individuals work together to achieve a new digital citizenship? Or is it already occurring? 


Roberts, B 2012, ‘Beyond the Networked Public Sphere: Politics, Participation and Technics in Web 2.0’, Fibreculture, vol. 14, http://fourteen.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-093-beyond-the-networked-public-sphere-politics-participation-and-technics-in-web-2-0/


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