Whither the Public Sphere:
Prospects for Cybersphere

Computers to the rescue

The emergence of personal computers as communication devices, connected by a worldwide network, presents new hope for a revival of the public sphere. Tapping into on-line communication and Internet URL addresses can surmount many problems the public sphere faces IRL -- in real life.

Distance between discussants, for instance, is no longer an obstacle, because on-line services and Internet Relay Chat let them exchange messages from any computer that's connected to a modem and a telephone, anywhere in the world. Time is less of an obstacle, too, because the parties can either exchange messages in real time or send e-mail, which will wait patiently for the receiver and spare the sender from playing telephone tag. Nor is it a problem any longer to find a meeting space large enough to accommodate all the potential discussants. The number of people who can participate in an on-line discussion, or e-mail exchange, is practically limitless. Compared to radio, television and even cable TV, the bandwidth of the Internet is so enormous that it requires no government regulation.

Nearly as vast is the variety of sources available on the Internet, far outstripping the amount of issue-oriented material available to any one person from radio, television, cable TV, magazines or newspapers. More than 150 daily newspapers in the United States, from The New York Times to the Beloit (Wis.) Daily News, have editions available on the Internet, as do dozens of magazines. Besides the on-line federal government materials mentioned at the start of this paper, most state Legislatures and many local governments also have placed many of their documents on the Internet. The 'Net has also become a fast, flexible way for candidates to make their viewpoints available to voters. And in 1992, Minnesota candidates for governor and U.S. Senate started a trend by engaging in the first live, on-line political debates (Ivry, 1995).

Such exchanges highlight the interactivity of on-line communication, which is one of the major advantages it has over other mass media for fostering the public sphere. Unlike the one-way communication of other mass media, which have many message receivers and relatively few senders, computer networks let every user be a receiver and a sender. The Internet allows two-way mass communication, from the many to the many. This means everything that Greek citizens did in their public spheres can be done by "netizens" in cyberspheres -- and more. They can access an unprecedented wealth of information about issues and candidates, get statements directly from government officials and candidates without filtering from journalists, pose questions directly to the officials and candidates, ask them follow up questions, then discuss and debate what they've learned with a like-minded or diversified on-line group that could be scattered across the world. The final step is to allow direct on-line voting on candidates and legislation. This type of direct democracy already has been used for advisory votes in Columbus, Ohio, and for actual student government elections on several large campuses, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Maryland at College Park.

There is one final facet of on-line communication, at least as it is most commonly configured now, that paradoxically makes it preferable to other forms of mass communication for many people. That is the lack of "social cues" that accompany e-mail or other on-line texts; i.e. the message is separated from the physical features and voice of the sender (Kiesler, 1986). Often times, status also is much less apparent, either because the sender omits or disguises his/her name, or because the sender is previously unknown to the receiver. This lack of social cues allows many people to participate more freely and forthrightly in a "hyper-real" cybersphere than they would in a real public sphere.

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