In 1962, Jurgen Habermas introduced the concept of “public sphere” in his book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”. He defined the notion of the public as “events and occasions are ‘public’ when they are open to all, in contrast to close or exclusive affairs” (Fuchs, 2014). According to Habermas, the public sphere is a discursive social space where private individuals come together as a ‘public’. In this space, the public (all citizens) has an unhindered access to information, it facilitates the maximum public participation, and people can freely debate the key social and political issues. Consequently, these practices promote the participatory democracy separate from the public authority which is embodied in government and state institutions.
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The rise of social media such as Twitter and Facebook has resulted in increased public discussions on various political issues. Habermas states that political communication and political economy are two most crucial aspects of the public sphere (Fuchs, 2014). So, it can be argued that opportunity and access to voice your political opinion and reach thousands of people via microblogs, blogs, or other social media participation is enhancing the participatory democracy and freedom in public sphere. However, Fuchs states that social media like Twitter is not a great medium for participating in the public sphere as politics is a minority topic on twitter, rather Twitter is dominated by the entertainment industry. In fact, Fuchs (2014) claims that Twitter is a predominantly an information medium than a communication tool. Moreover, he argues that all Twitter users do not have “formal education or material resources” to critically engage in public debate and participate in the public sphere.
The political economy of most social media corporations is now fueled by advertising; to be precise, by targeted advertising. Facebook, Google, and Twitter corporations dominate the social media advertising markets. The users of these social media websites are exploited as the user generated data is used against users themselves by commodification through targeted advertising. Moreover, that user generated data is often sold to third party companies for advertising with or without user’s own knowledge. Fuchs (2014) asserts that “capital accumulation on corporate social media is based on internet prosumer commodification, the unpaid labor of internet users, targeted advertising, and economic surveillance”. That brings me to the issue of surveillance and privacy. The commodification of the user generated content is not the only concern; these companies are also often responsible for surveillance and privacy invasion of social media users as their online behavior and personal data/interactions are monitored for monitory benefits. Fuchs (2014) argues that capitalism requires anonymity and privacy in order to function; however, in modern society, privacy is inherently linked to surveillance. For Habermas, the modern concept of privacy is connected to the capitalist separation of the private and public realms (Fuchs, 2014). In fact, according to Fuchs (2014), the notion of privacy in today’s society is connected to the central ideal of the freedom of private ownership.
Today, there is no turning back, whether or not social media is exploiting its users, the number of social media users is climbing each and every day. We interact with our friends and family on social media and also get our daily dose of news from social media. It has become an indispensable part of our lives. Even though we know that our data is being used for the targeted advertising when we interact on Facebook or Twitter or our behavior is monitored by scanning through our internet cookies when we perform a Google search; we still keep using social media. So, how can we achieve a truly social media? Fuchs (2014) states that a social media world without surveillance and exploitation of digital labor will be a truly social media, open society, and a truly participatory democracy. In Fuchs’ ideal social media, we would get to choose if we want to receive any advertisements at all or what kind of advertisements we would like to see. Additionally, the truly social media will be designed with strengthened privacy standards and will not need protections from surveillance as there will be no surveillance. At this point in modern society, this seems a little difficult to achieve, however, I do hope we reach a point when we won’t have to worry about what we are uploading on social media, whether our conversation is being recorded, and if the content generated by us is being used against us.
Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: a critical introduction. Los Angeles: SAGE.