Networked Publics

When talking about social changes in the wake of the digital media revolution the concept of “networked publics” (see Kazys  Varnelis (ed), “Networked Publics” MIT Press 2008) is useful and interesting. If there is such a thing as a global network society, it would be reasonable to assume that the public sphere is in some way conditioned by networked information and communication technologies (NICT). Mizuko Ito in the Introduction to the collection of essays on topics such as place, culture, politics, and media, summarizes the affordances of NICT in terms of four “technosocial trends;” 1) the accessibility to digital tools and networks; 2) many-to-many and peer-to-peer forms of distribution; 3) the creation of value at the edges of the network; and 4) aggregation of culture and information.  These trends produce “networked publics,” that is “a linked set of social, cultural, and technological developments” that replace the public sphere of traditional mass media societies; a public sphere  that was, after all, nothing more than an audience of consumers, a silent majority, or the anonymous masses.

Accessibility means that networked publics are always-on, always-connected, and always producing and exchanging information. They are prosumers and sharers, establishing bottom up standards for value, engagement, and concern, and therefore not bound to centralized control in the creation and use of information. They are above all involved in a “many-to-many” communication that in the past was simply not possible. Traditional social theory recognizes the possibility of either one-to-one interaction in small groups, or when the group gets too large, one-to-many communication, but not many-to-many. When everyone starts talking to everyone in a large group, there is chaos. Only after space and time has ceased to be primary conditions of communication and virtual layers can be added to physical reality has many-to-many communication become possible. The result is networked publics, that is, everybody interacting. As Clay Shirky put it, it has become incredibly easy to form groups and coordinate collaborative action. Is this not what the public does in a democratic society, or at least, what it is supposed to do?

Ito remarks that “We are still very much in the midst of negotiating appropriate social norms in this area of layered presence.” (6) Perhaps this is the reason why the concept of “networked publics” is not only interesting, but also problematic. To begin with, networked publics are plural; we are not talking about the THE public sphere by which Habermas characterized modern democratic societies. One society has one public, who is responsible through deliberative democratic processes to legitimate government power and policy. The many publics that Varnelis and Friedberg in their contribution “Place: The Networking of Public Space” find distributed throughout networked society tend not to be responsible to, or even interested in, the legitimation of political power. This view is partially corrected in the contribution on politics by Lim and Kann, who point to the, albeit relatively unimportant, impact of online-deliberation in today’s world. A second problem is that to speak of publics as “networked” puts the network in the active mode and the public in the passive.  Publics are worked on, influenced, even constructed by the net. Instead of speaking of the public sphere as being “networked,” perhaps it would have been fruitful to speak of “net-working,” that is, to speak of the work that goes into building, maintaining, and transforming networks.

The focus on the various actors and activities of networking instead of the state of being networked would have allowed the authors to focus on the unresolved issue of those “social norms” that, after all, guide, inform, steer, and condition the actions of networking.  Even though Varnelis admits in the Conclusion to this important book that the “network has become the dominant cultural logic” (145), that “today connection is more important than division,” and that therefore our time “is distinctly different” from Postmodernism,  he laments that ”we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the product of multiple networks.” The autonomy and individuality of the self dissolves into “a pure collection of links.” Along with this change in the self comes a new attitude toward privacy. Privacy is no longer important. Without privacy the subject has no boundaries and finally disappears, is fragmented, dispersed into the networks.  Postmodernism returns with a vengeance: “Under network culture, then, the waning of the subject that began under postmodernism grows ever greater.” (154) Appealing to the net won’t help when all that is left is a self that has been dissolved into Derrida’s “endlessly deferred play of language.”

The reader cannot escape the impression that the idea of “networked publics” is caught between an awareness that things have changed, a vision of a new era and a recalcitrant Postmodernism. But the way forward has been clearly indicated: take a look at what networkers are doing; discover the underlying social norms guiding their actions, so to speak, the “pragmatics” of networking, and describe these norms as the conditions for creating social order in a global network society in which the self has become information and action networking.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *