Twitter: Public Sphere or Public Square

It’s something of coincidence that the week I began to hate Twitter was the week I was immersed in Critical Theory and more specifically, the work of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Fascinated by Habermas’ concepts around the Lifeworld, the System and Public Sphere, I began immediately trying to see parallels in how we use social media. I was most interested in the idea that Twitter was the technological marvel that merged the Lifeworld — typically the domain of the private and information shared only among close family and friends – with the Public Sphere – the place where people come together to talk about issues of importance to them.

Twitter has a myriad of uses. From sharing the mundane such as today’s lunch special or cat video to live updates on breaking news to intense discussions around social issues, Twitter gives everyone the opportunity to join the conversation.

I am a big fan of Twitter. Since joining in 2007, I have found it to be not only a source of amazing information and great entertainment, but also a great way to meet new, fascinating people (including Stephen Harper’s deceased cat, Cheddar Harper, with whom I’ve had an on again-off again relationship for a number of years).

Cheddar

I remember doing a workshop on Twitter and sharing Margaret Atwood’s love of Twitter. She called the Twittersphere an “odd and uncanny place” and akin to having fairies in your garden. Atwood talks about the whimsical nature of Twitter and the variety of interactions possible.  An idyllic world indeed.

Back to Habermas and my somewhat utopian view that Twitter was the 21st century Public Sphere where not only where dialogue flourishes, but “ideal speech” – respectful, reasoned discourse among individuals – is possible. That all changed with Jian Ghomeshi.

mayIt was fascinating to watch the story evolve on Twitter from the very first Tweets on Sunday, October 26th as people (including me) expressed disbelief that the CBC would fire Ghomeshi through growing shock and then anger as the story developed. Some high profile people – including Green Party leader Elizabeth May – tweeted their support for Ghomeshi in the first hours before the Toronto Star article with the serious allegations of violence and non-consensual sex was published. Those supportive tweets would be retweeted over and over again in the coming days with vitriolic comments added despite the mea culpes from people like May.

I began to see what I had been denying for so long – Twitter, far from being an idyllic Public Sphere, is in reality a vast echo chamber that gives everyone tries to yell louder than the next person. Or worse, the public square where people can be pilloried and shamed for all to see.

I saw people I respected and considered “progressives” attacking other like-minded individuals because they weren’t politically correct enough or hadn’t expressed their outrage loudly enough. There was a rush to post your opinion, then trumpet why it was the correct one.

Zosia Belski wrote an interesting piece in the Globe and Mail on October 29 called “Social media, victim blaming and the two camps enshrined in Ghomeshi-gate, that talks about the rush to judgement. She quotes Alfred Hermida, author of Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters as saying about social media It’s the way that space is designed. You’re expected to react right away, not to take a minute to consider ‘Do I really think that?’…Immediacy privileges reaction rather than reflection. It fosters ardour rather than nuance. These are certainly not the conditions necessary for ideal speech.

All of this is not to argue that there haven’t been some amazing memes that have come from the Ghomeshi affair, including the “BeenRapedNeverReported” hashtag that has shined a much-needed spotlight on why women don’t report sexual abuse and violence. It also doesn’t mean I’ve given up on Twitter. It means I need to look at Twitter with more of a critical eye, and when I tweet, ensure I’ve taken some time to reflect rather than just react.

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4 thoughts on “Twitter: Public Sphere or Public Square

  1. I think those are some terrific points, Barry! Contrary to the mainstream (it appears), I usually think very hard about what I post on social media. Much as Kate mentioned in her blog post “A little bit of everything” (https://thinkingaboutcommunicationtheory.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/a-little-bit-of-everything/) I’m usually hyperaware of my posts (both on Facebook and on Twitter).

    I’ve recently begun to feel much more connected with politics and world events, and so have begun to state my opinion in these public forums. Along with my new found voice, I have begun to research links and opinions a little more (knowing that by expressing my opinions publicly, I may be challenged on them and would like to be able to back my thoughts up with some facts). It was in doing this type of research that my respect for Elizabeth May began to grow- until the day I read her Twitter message to Jian. Someone who is usually so thoughtful and has facts to back up the majority of what she says, who is a feminist, who is a lawyer to the underdog (this was how I saw her); inadvertently (I assume) contributed to victim blaming with her emotionally fulled support. Disappointed would be an understatement.

    But I think this illustrates some of the points in your post so well. People often post to social media quickly and without thought in an effort to stay ‘relevant’, these media often become the new age ‘Public Square’, social media can be very disillusioning, and worst of all – it allows the public to see that the people we look up to are actually human. Our role models do make mistakes, they experience internal conflict as we all do, and they are not all-knowing. I wonder though…maybe that’s not ALL bad…

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  2. We all need to think before we tweet, and make sure we know the whole story, or as much as possible before weighing in on it.

    Your post reminded me of a ‘more mature’ student in our program who is from Scotland. She said that the debate whether Scotland should separate from the UK created a huge divide on Facebook and some of her friends who had been friends since grade school (now in their late 40s, perhaps) were vowing to no longer speak to one another because of the opposing views. So, while this social media tools allowed for connections over seas and continents, it also allowed for rifts and hurt feelings that may never heal.

    Social media channels are communication tools, and like any other tool, they need to be used carefully and with caution, or people can get hurt.

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  3. I first want to echo what everyone else has said – great post Barry! I particularly like how you connected Twitter to Habermas. I agree that Twitter has a myriad of uses – from the mundane food and pet photos, to the discussions on real issues, all in under 140 characters.

    As was discussed in our class a few weeks back, in years to come communications students will likely study the Ghomeshi story as an example of the impact that social media can have on how a story unravels. I, like so many others, was at first surprised that the CBC would fire Ghomeshi for the reasons he gave in his Facebook post. Yet as more details came out on the different sides of this story, my opinion quickly shifted.

    Your post made me think of a few things in particular:

    1. How quickly we jump to conclusions on social media – with Twitter in particular, there is a sense of urgency and people feel they need to take a stance immediately. Even right now most people have an opinion, and this story isn’t even close to going through the legal process.

    2. How we (communications professionals) handle the social media accounts of our organizations’ public facing figures – normally whenever the face of an organization (e.g. the CEO) is going to speak publically about an issue, every detail is vetted through communications. However, a good portion of leaders now handle their own Twitter accounts, and some have gotten themselves into hot water by instantly reacting to something (e.g. the example you used of Elizabeth May).

    3. We talk a lot on social media, but does it drive change or just chatter? Weeks back in class we discussed #bringbackourgirls, and how it was the biggest story on social media one week and then almost forgotten the next. Leading me to wonder how we can better use social media to drive actual change.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts that I had – thank you again Barry for getting us thinking about this!

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