Masthead CMC Magazine / February 1, 1996
  Information Technology Systems as Publics, by John Monberg

Information Technology-Based Publics

The social and political ramifications of advanced media technologies, like those of other technologies, are complex and difficult to identify. Use of the term "public" has a number of advantages; it inherently calls attention to political rights and responsibilities in a way that the terms "market," "community," and "culture" do not.

Meanings of the Term "Public" in Social and Political Theory

The public ought not be misunderstood as an arithmetic summation of individuals' preferences. Advocates of a participatory democracy share the belief that publics are created when citizens come together to form a community and deliberate about common aims and values. A fully democratic public sphere is, in principle, open and equally accessible to all citizens and is free of coercion; outcomes are determined by the "forceless force" of the better argument. This is not a theoretical abstraction, existing only in a sphere of imagined ideas; it is a functioning public sphere that requires actual deliberation among citizens--it is a social concept and, as such, needs social spaces where dialogue may be enacted.

Jane Jacobs and Richard Sennett have emphasized that easy, sustained, engaged reaction to others in a community is required to realize what stakes are held in common, and what possibilities there are for self and group discovery. Such activity requires the active participation of those who constitute the community, and this activity must take place, whether in face-to-face interactions or in an electronically mediated form. These public spaces--the parks, town squares, libraries, pedestrian-filled streets, taverns adjacent to large factories-- foster open, convivial, extended conversations embedded in the comings and goings of everyday life.

There are --four key tensions that define a public; I explain these tensions and then use them to generate an analysis of electronic forums.

CMC Magazine Index
Contents Archive Sponsors Studies Contact