Public Spheres and Networked Societies: No Matter How Things Change They Always Stay the Same

Coffeehouses, salons, and literary associations were the original public sphere

Imagine a place where people gather to exchange information and discuss ideas as equals. A place that is characterized by civil engagement, is accessible to all, and exists outside of class, government, or business structures.  This is not a scene from a utopian novel; it is what sociologist Jürgen Habermas referred to as the public sphere.  The original public spheres were the literary associations, coffeehouses, and salons frequented by the bourgeoisie.  They engaged in rational debates and generated shared understandings free from the influence of the government.  Habermas believed the ideal public sphere was open and accessible to all and held government and business accountable to the social good. 

In his 1962 book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Habermas discussed the decay of the public sphere.  Whereas the press used to play an important part in the public sphere by making information freely accessible, Habermas argued that the media was now part of the problem.  In his view, the corporatization of the media blurred the lines between public and private.  Political, business, and media institutions infiltrated the public sphere and usurped the power of the common people.  

Instead of a deteriorating public sphere, sociologist Manuel Castells sees the promise of an open, unbounded network that gives people more access than ever before.  He calls this the network society – a society where technology-based networks are more integral to society’s functioning than institutions. People can have a presence in multiple places at one time and can spend their time on multiple activities at once.  In the network society, people are not dependent on institutions for information or service.  They can mobilize through their technological networks and impact education, governments, and economies.    

Diagram of industrial society versus network society
From Open Network Society

We have certainly seen some of the positive impacts of the network society.  The Occupy movements showed networks of people standing up to capitalist institutions.  In the Movement for Black Lives, Black people are leading demands for structural change to the institutions that have oppressed and killed them for centuries.  However, the network society has also facilitated the public regrowth of hate groups such as the white supremacy movement.  

Black Lives Matter protester holding sign in front of police line

Habermas’s critique of the commodification of the press still rings true today, and has grown more relevant as the network society has grown.  News sources are neither independent nor unbiased.  They are increasingly corporate and political.  A large percent of people in the U.S. got at least some of their 2016 presidential election news from social media.  Social media sites, however, are not in the public sphere.  They are institutions that financially profit off of the spread of news.  For example, in addition to the micro-targeted advertising that Facebook routinely sells, the company also embedded Facebook employees within the Trump campaign (Clinton declined a similar offer). 

The network society has changed the public sphere, but the changes began long before the growths in technology.  In fact, Habermas’s original depiction of public spheres was just as idealistic as Castells’ view of the network society.  The working class and other oppressed groups did not frequent the salons.  Access to the public sphere has always been constrained by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and other characteristics.  In the network society, technology has broken down (some) barriers, leveled (some) playing fields, and opened society (for some).  People from minoritized races and ethnicities, trans people, and people with disabilities still face barriers to full societal participation.  As long as our underlying societal structures reward power, any technology we lay on top will replicate disparity and oppression.

(c) the Roosevelt Institute


Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphereBoston, MA: MIT Press.

Van Kreiken, R. (2016). Castells and the network societyUniversity of Sydney.

Using SNA to Understand Social Media Connections Among Red Flag Campaign Campuses

Health promotion and violence prevention campaigns are increasingly using social media to help spread their messages (Potter & Stapleton, 2011).  The Red Flag Campaign (RFC), a project of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, is one example.  The RFC is a bystander intervention campaign designed to prevent interpersonal violence and increase healthy relationships among college students.  Given the high rates of social media use among young adults, the RFC includes a social media element.  

All consuming possessiveness or suspicion is #ExcessiveJealousy." If you see a #RedFlag in a friend's relationship, #SaySomething. #RedFlagCampaign #HealthyRelationships
Example of Red Flag Campaign content for Instagram
Do you know the #RedFlags? If you see something, #SaySomething! #HealthyRelationships #RedFlagCampaign
Example of Red Flag Campaign content for Instagram

Some aspects of the RFC have been evaluated previously, including the visual appeal, the messaging, and its reach within individual institutions.  No one, however, has looked at the relationships among participating schools.  My research addresses this by asking, How are the RFC partner campuses connected to each other and the Action Alliance on social media?  

I will use a directed, bounded network comprised of 17 campuses selected to work closely with the Action Alliance in implementing and evaluating the campaign (n=18).  To collect the data, I will sort through the Facebook page likes for each node and record when each node likes the page of another node in the network.  I will repeat this process with the list of Instagram accounts and Twitter accounts each node follows.

Spotlight on Tidewater Community College
Example of a connection between a campus and the Red Flag campaign Facebook page.

I am focusing on the social media aspect of the RFC because previous research has shown that social media can be an important tool to fight rape culture on college campuses (Giraldi & Monk-Turner, 2017) and to encourage campus activism (Linder, Riggle, Myers, & Lacy, 2016).  

To the best of my knowledge, social network analysis has not been used to study organizational relationships in bystander intervention campaigns.  I am drawing upon existing social network research related to general nonprofit and public health collaboration to inform the methodology and analysis of this project.  Johnson, Honnold, and Stevens (2010) analyzed four types of relationships among a regional network of nonprofits.  As I am looking at three types of relationships (Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), their study provides conceptual and analytical approaches I can use.  Valente and colleagues (2015) used social network analysis to understand the implementation process (including sustainability) of health promotion programs.  The study’s inclusion of program sustainability is particularly relevant to my project as the RFC is in the sustainability stage.

The current project will build upon previous research by applying organization level social network analysis to a bystander intervention program.  Social network analysis is not widely used in interpersonal violence prevention work, although it holds great promise.   This project is one step toward a wider adoption of this methodology.



Giraldi, A. & Monk-Turner, E. (2017). Perception of rape culture on a college campus: A look at social media posts. Women’s Studies International Forum, 62, 116-124.

Johnson, J. A., Honnold, J. A., & Stevens, F. P. (2010). Using social network analysis to enhance nonprofit organizational research capacity: A case study. Journal of Community Practice, 18, 493-512.

Linder, C., Riggle, C., Myers, J. S., & Lacy, M. (2016). From margins to mainstream: Social media as a tool for campus sexual violence activism. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 9, 231-244.

Potter, S. J. & Stapleton, J. G. (2011). Bringing in the target audience in bystander social marketing materials for communities: Suggestions for practitioners. Violence Against Women, 17, 797-812.

Valente, T. W., Palinkas, L. A., Czaja, S., Chu, K. H., & Brown, C. H. (2015).  Social network analysis for program implementation. PLOS One. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131712

Transferring tacit and explicit knowledge

When I was preparing to leave my last job, I faced an immense challenge.  What was I going to leave behind to help the person taking over my position?  I had been in that position for eight years; this was more than half the number of years the position had existed.  No one else had served more than 2 years.  We were a small organization with little positional overlap.  My co-workers and I kept each other apprised of what we were doing, but there was not a structure in place to share ongoing information about how that work got done.  How could I get 8 years worth of information and experience out of my head and into a format that would be helpful?

Learning more about Dixon’s (2000) models of knowledge transfer gave me a new perspective on that dilemma.  She reviewed five types of knowledge transfer that covered both tacit and explicit knowledge, routine and non-routine tasks, as well as similar and dissimilar contexts.  The over-arching theme among all models was that organizations need to have an ongoing structure in place for knowledge sharing and a culture that values the learning that comes from knowledge sharing.

Both components (the structure and the culture) are key to maintaining a learning organization.  Without some type of structure to guide information sharing, from ongoing review meetings to a Q&A listserv, knowledge cannot be shared in an efficient or effective way.  Even organizations who truly value learning from others cannot hope to track or make good use of the information without a structure.  The type of structure needed depends on the type of organization and the type of information.  In the example I gave above, I worked for a very small organization.  A complicated database of best practices would have been over the top.  A regular process of debrief meetings that were written up in a shared drive, however, would have been extremely helpful.

Having a structure in place does not guarantee it will be effective.  The organization has to have an underlying value of learning.  After all, gathering, organizing, and transmitting knowledge is time consuming, no matter what the process.  Employees will not want to engage in those processes if the results are not valued.  Additionally, organizational leaders must embrace learning from mistakes and include that type of learning in the knowledge transfer as well.  People often learn more from mistakes than when everything goes according to plan.  Tracking mistakes, synthesizing learning from those mistakes, and communicating those lessons help ensure that future employees do not repeat those same mistakes.  In my eight years at my previous job, I had made many mistakes.  While I learned from each of them, without a mechanism to formally share that information within the organization, any new employees could not learn from them once I was gone.

While I did not know about creating knowledge sharing processes in time to help my previous organization, I plan to use the information in my future work.  Whether I join an organization that is already committed to learning or whether I attempt to bring that information in, my understanding of knowledge transfer will benefit myself and my organization.