Habermas and Castells on Networks and Public Sphere

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.

In today’s digital society, 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.

Castells sees network society as a global system and a new form of globalization as this society is not restricted by borders of nations and states (Castells, 2011). He states “although networks are an old form of organization in human experience, digital networking technologies and characteristics of the information age, powered social and organizational networks in ways that allowed their endless expansion and reconfiguration, overcoming the traditional limitations of networking forms of organization to manage complexity beyond a certain size of a network” (Castells, 2011). According to Castells, the network society is able to give public a more unhindered access to information as they do not depend on social institutions for this information. For him, the networks now form the new architecture of society and are the dominant mode of organizing social relations (Introduction to Sociology). The communication technologies, such as the Internet, allow for decentralization of operations and focusing of control, increasing the effectiveness of networks relative to hierarchical structures. Moreover, for Castells, the contemporary digital communities can be considered open social structures that thread within and across the fabric of a network society (Castells, 2011; Daniels et al, 2017).

Even though digital communities are the inherent part of today’s public sphere, social media platforms cannot be considered the same. 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”. The public discourse of in the network society has changed over time. The network society is more diverse, open, and accessible to all as compared to the public sphere in earlier societies where the access was often exclusive to one’s standing in the society.

 

Castells, M. (2011). The Rise of the Network Society: the Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I. Somerset: Wiley.

Daniels, J., Gregory, K., & Cottom, T. M. (2017). Digital sociologies. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Fuchs, C. (2014). Social media: a critical introduction. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Introduction to Sociology. (2016). Castells and the Network Society. YouTube. Retrieved from:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLF5J8Y5zyg

 

One thought on “Habermas and Castells on Networks and Public Sphere

  1. While the public sphere seems more open, your point about the political economy of it also illustrates its power is more insidious, hidden and targeted. We now feel free to choice but that freedom is actually being governed by covert forces which can follow us without us knowing! I wonder about our definition of public?!

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