Privacy in the Public Sphere

As I read through my notes and try to decide what to blog about, I find myself continuously returning to the idea of our public and private life in the digital age. I find it especially interesting as other classes have touched on this idea as well. There is an apparent shift in the importance of individual values versus the importance of communal values.

“Western societies early notions of individual selfhood are now moving toward a greater emphasis on more relational notions of self-hood”. (Ess, 2014., p. 61) Our society is shifting from a focus on individual values to a focus on communal values. Why the shift? I have a few ideas.

Habermas touched upon the collision of the life world and the public sphere. These two worlds are colliding because it is inevitable in the ‘bare all’ technological world we live in. We are subjecting our information to the interpretation of our audience. Your life can only be private so long as you keep your information private. The emergence of social networking sites has resulted in an incredible amount of information being put on the internet to be used at the disposal of whomever happens to get their hands on it. Once you post information on a social networking site, you are leaving it up to interpretation of the reader (as well as creating a permanent digital footprint). Babe (2007) would suggest your message only to be of effect if it is understood by the reader in the way you intend the message to be understood. Considering your frame of reference, the information may be misinterpreted or misunderstood. In an ideal world, this misinterpretation would be impossible – a message would convey exactly what it is intended to convey. Unfortunately, due to barriers of communication, such as frame of reference and the chosen medium, this absolute truth is unattainable; but it does not mean we cannot try (what is truth anyway? – in postmodern sense) I believe the shift in the individual privacy to community privacy has emerged as a direct result of misinterpretation of information. If you wish your information to be well received by your ‘audience’ (followers, friends), you had better step into their shoes and try to imagine what it is they would like to see. Empathy is incredibly important in the use of rhetoric. As you empathize with them, and imagine what it is they would like to experience, you can create dialogue that persuades them to see a situation in a way that is mutually enjoyable for yourself and your audience. As the pleasure of your audience becomes more important, you are straying from your individual focus to that of the content of the community. Grierson alluded to the relationship between individualism and interdependence pg 107 babe 2007. There is interdependence between our community and ourselves. William Stewart explained McLuhlan’s idea of the global village as a society “interconnected by an electronic nervous system”. (2014) Interestingly enough, McLuhlan was right. He predicted the internet’s mass appeal to the world.

Babe, R.E. (2007). Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ess, Charles. (2014). Digital Media Ethics: Digital Media and Society Series.


The Public Sphere Online: The Ethics of Governmental Presence

Our discussions surrounding Habermas’s ‘public sphere’ and rhetoric have, like many of our classmates, led me to some clear and obvious connections with electronic mediums today. Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the public sphere evolved as a political attempt to reinvigorate the Enlightenment project of freedom, ‘through the reconstruction of a public sphere in which reason might prevail, not the instrumental reason of modern practice but the critical reason that represents the best of the democratic tradition’ (Ku, 2000). Habermas argued that this sphere emerged as a means for citizens to express their opinions openly and free of political constraints – democracy. These individuals are sharing opinions, thoughts, stories, and anything else they feel like sharing. As we know, the Internet, more notably, social media platforms, is facilitating this. This online discourse has been celebrated as a means for promoting democracy and giving everyone a platform to have their individual voice heard. While I agree, some recent experiences have caused me to sit back and reflect.

This semester I had the privilege of lecturing for the COMM PBRL 3013 01: Mass Media and Public Opinion undergraduate class on the subject of the discourse of fear, and the “tough on crime” agenda in media. The relationship between fear and the media dates back to as far as the First World War however now with social media engagement at an all time high, it is particularly prevalent today. I come to question if citizen journalism is a true form of democracy, as Habermas argues, or if it is just adding fuel to the fire.

I, along with the majority of our country, flew to Twitter as soon as the news of the shootings on parliament hill broke. In fact, I believe the news broke on Twitter. It was the personal accounts of those on the scene that provided us the up-to-the minute updates about the situation and the well-being of those involved. As a society, we have come to expect this speed during crisis. The public is so starved for information, the set themselves up to be vulnerable to just about anything someone has to say. As social media is a public forum and citizens are free to say what they wish, feeds can often become more of a he said, she said, rather than factual information. As the public scans through their feed, they are absorbing each post, regardless of the author’s credibility. Media has had a poor reputation of trust in the past for pushing messages of propaganda and stories that advance government agenda. As Habermas suggested, the public is looking to get away from governmental constraints and discuss openly with other citizens. People are more likely to relate with and trust the average citizen as opposed to the media’s formulated – assumed – politically driven messaging.

We are in the now generation. This is a time where society is accustomed to instant gratification and no longer enjoys it, but demands it. How we receive our news is no different. Citizen journalists are commenting on current events at such a pace, credible news outlets and law enforcement are having difficulty keeping up. In the absence of the official story, the public relies on these citizens for their information. This past fall I attended a media panel where the largest media outlets in Newfoundland gathered to discuss social media and its influence on the delivery of the news. Interestingly, a few outlets stated that many of their reporters are sent into the field to gather what they can as quickly as they can, regardless of if it has been fact checked. They simply send out a disclaimer that this is not the official story. For the general public however, if you are reading a news update from a CBC reporter, you are lead to believe it is to be true. This is the thin line that citizen journalism walks. Despite the mistrust many major news sources receive, it may be in the public’s best interest to look to them for facts rather than their fellow tweeter.

During PR Ethics and Leadership this term, we spent time discussing online privacy and the ethics surrounding the perceived government control over our Internet presence. As Habermas argues, the public sphere should be free for open discussion, free of governmental influence. That said, there are many occasions where, in my opinion, governmental implication has proven to be critical. If the government had not had access to the public’s social media and online activity, alerts to potential terrorist or dangerous events may not have been flagged. With the globalization of these social sites, individuals from around the world are using this medium to communicate about any subject of their choice. This could be concerning to some interest groups. Outside of clear public threats such as terrorism, there are other dangers such as child pornography, or sex trafficking. As outlined, the public sphere is meant to be a source of communication at the public’s discretion. Who is to say that a group of individuals cannot come together to discuss such disturbing activity?

Overall, I am positive about Habermas’s idea of the public sphere. As an avid user of social media and someone who goes online to gather and share my opinion, this form of free speech is both useful and crucial in my daily life. Personally, I am more than comfortable with the government have an observer role in the Internet as I don’t believe I have anything I need to hide. I take a utilitarian approach to this issue and would relinquish my privacy for the greater good if that could lead to the capture of a potential pedophile or terrorist. I understand that this comparison is quite dramatic, but I think it delivers the point.

How do you feel about the public sphere online? If the government is involved, is it still a public sphere?


Ess, Charles. (2013). Digital Media Ethics. Hoboken: Wiley. Retrieved from

Ku, Agnes S. (July 2000) ‘Revisiting the Notion of the “Public” in Habermas’s Theory – Toward a theory of politics and public credibility’, Sociological Theory 18 (2): 216-240.

Waluchow, W. J. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Press.

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).


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.

Public discourse in the Rhetorical Tradition and Habermas’ Theory

I was really jazzed by our course readings on Habermas. His theories were down-to-earth, practical, applicable to the modern world, and very relevant to the current events unfolding during the week of reading and discussing his theories (Oct 26-Nov 1, 2014).

The readings about Habermas reminded me of one of another theory we read earlier. I looked back on the moodle posts and found it on page 135 of Robert T. Craig’s “Communication as a Field” article, right in the title of the section: “The Rhetorical Tradition: Communication as a Practical Art of Discourse”. (Craig, 1999, p. 135) Aha, read on!

A double-check on the meaning of public discourse revealed “A fancy way of saying public discussion. When you have people on a panel show, they are having public discourse – in other words, discussing something in public.” (Yahoo Answers, 2012)
Rhetoric was defined as “the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing”. (Oxford, 2014)

Turning to Habermas, we find a description of public discourse in Peter Levine’s blog entry (Levine, 2012). Levine describes the way Habermas defines the public sphere as “the set of forums and institutions in which diverse people come together to talk about common concerns. It includes civic associations, editorial pages of newspapers, town meetings and parts of the internet.”

Back to Craig, who says about the rhetorical tradition: “This way of theorizing communication is useful for explaining why our participation in discourse, especially public discourse, is important and how it occurs, and holds forth the possibility that the practice of communication can be cultivated and improved through critical study and education.” (Craig, 1999, p. 135) I heartily agree with this statement!


Jian Ghomeshi

A very relevant section in the Craig article: “We know some people are better communicators than others, and that the best examples of rhetoric can rise to the level of great art.” (p. 135) How relevant to the Jian Ghomeshi situation! The parallel between Craig’s statement and Ghomeshi’s skill at communicating in the public sphere (radio) is striking.

An interesting question here would be how public discourse could be balanced, and be free communication, as we see Haberman’s theory described by Stowe (2010), “Free and open communication should be the basis of all social interaction”, if one of the communicators’ skillset far exceeds any other. We saw Ghomeshi’s incredible ability to gain sympathy and support in his Facebook post on Sunday, October 26, 2014 (Facebook, 2014). We then witness a deluge of public discourse over the weeks to come about the truth of that post, and the effect of his convincing words.

Both Habermas and the rhetorical theory see public debate as having the potential to convince and improve the world for the better. Gengrich tells us Habermas thought debate in the public sphere can “create the possibility of greater reason, justice and human freedom”. (Gingrich, n.d., p. 1) This is true in many cases, such as election debates, talk shows, town halls or public meetings.

Where public discourse does not always show greater reason, justice and human freedom, is in the public space of the internet. Unfortunately, this easily accessible, world-wide, open and free method of communication and debate is often besmirched by thoughtless people who do not take the time to critically think through their words before they bang on their keyboard and share their comments. Many people waste the opportunity to engage, enlighten and share ideas, and the internet becomes a place for insults, oversharing and meaningless cryptic comments.

Mike, Bree, Andy and Dayna

Case-Rowling family dinner discussion

This topic of public discourse led to much discussion at the dinner table, and has potential for many other private as well as public debates. Many of us would benefit to consider the question: “Where do you see public discourse in the modern world, and where does it work well?”





Craig, R.T. (1999). Communication as a Field. Communication Theory, 9:2, p 135-136. Retrieved from

Ghomeshi, J. (2014, October 26) Dear everyone [Facebook post] Retreived from:

Gringrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. University of Regina. Retrieved from

Levine, P. (2012, July 11). Habermas and critical theory (a primer) [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Rhetoric (n.d.) Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved from:

Stowe, M. (2010, March 20) Jurgen Habermas Concepts, Communication Theory and the Problems of Modern Society [Web log post]. Retrieved from:

Public Discourse (n.d.) Yahoo Answers, retrieved from:

To act or to react: shaping external conversations through social media

After listening to our October 27th blackboard collaborate session I was very intrigued to analyze aspects of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, Habermas’s critical theory and Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. One comment that really sparked my interest is that we live in a society where “we act, rather than react” to important issues. This statement struck a chord in my professional life, as the industry I work in strives to understand what Canadians know and think about energy in order to “react” to negative opinions.

Growing up in Fort McMurray and now working in external communications for an oil sands company, I have found myself smack dab in the middle of an “oil sands PR war.” There is rarely a day that goes by where at least one special interest group, environmental activist or Hollywood celebrity, isn’t trending online for taking another critical shot at Canada’s oil sands. These debates mostly materialize on Twitter, Facebook and blogs, highlighting the idea that social media is breaking the hegemonic dominance of mass media. Gramsci’s theory of hegemony describes the “ways particular political forces achieved hegemonic authority, and the delineation of counterhegemonic forces, groups, and ideas that could contest and overthrow the existing hegemony” (Durham & Kellner, 2006, p. 15-16). The Internet gives people the ability to freely share their thoughts and express views that often differ from traditional mass media outlets. This online world has created a counterhegemonic platform of conversation and debate where marginalized voices utilize the virtual sphere. Social media heightens the public voice and demands a level of connectivity that companies cannot choose to ignore.

Social Media consumes my working life from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and sometimes even into the wee hours of the morning. My team’s approach is to turn on all commenting functions and enable direct engagement with company spokespersons. This open dialogue requires us to respond quickly in order to stimulate conversation and share our company’s story effectively. Gleick (2000) comments on this quest for speed in our lives, from television without commercials, smartphones, to “instant” microwavable meals. We desire instantaneous communication and loathe devices that waste or delay our time. We live in an age where information spreads like wildfire and companies need to monitor the Internet carefully. The worst thing a company can do is stay silent or refuse to comment during a conversation or issue. While the answer may not be readily available, I have learned that it is important to emphasis accessibility and availability – to put the brakes on potential controversy.

Habermas’s principles of the ideal speech situation outline mutual understanding, truth, sincere expression, the right to speak and legitimacy as key factors to maintaining communication and developing common understanding (Gingrich, n.d.). These values speak to the fact that companies cannot just act, but need to react with knowledge to build credibility with audiences. Cenovus Energy has attempted to “react” to negative perceptions of the oil sands industry with the following ads:

Through the lens of Habermas’s principles, the company’s attempt to foster a responsible conversation hinges on the mutual understanding that oil adds legitimate value to our daily lives. Furthermore, their ability to connect the resource to life-changing, inspiring situations leaves the viewer with impressions of sincere expression and truth. Cenovus has placed these ads on YouTube and Facebook in order to tap into the social media realm and encourage dialogue on one of the industry’s most controversial platforms. Many oil sands companies are following suit to help set the stage for a more open and honest debate. This discourse is explained by Habermas as one where “all concerned take part, freely and equally, in a cooperative search for truth, where noting coerces anyone except the force of a better argument” (Gingrich, n.d., p. 10). His thoughts capture the ability of social media to bring diverse people from all over the world together to talk about common concerns. While social media comes with its own set of unique challenges, it ultimately forces companies to actively listen and guide their business with transparency. My daily attempt to react, rather than simply act in the face of controversy has become the most rewarding aspect of my career.

Please feel free to share your comments below. I’m very interested to learn how other companies/industries use social media to shape external conversations.


Durham, M.G. & Kellner, D.M. (2006). Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks. UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Gingrich, P. (n.d.). An Introduction to the Work of Jurgen Habermas. Retrieved from

Gleick, J. (1999). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Pantheon Books.

A little bit of everything…

Sex. Terrorism. Elections. Theory. I sit here with a rather large dilemma: what should I blog about? My head is filled with thoughts and ideas, applications of theories and general questions about Habermas and recent events that I could tie him (and critical theory) to. Not a bad problem to have. Among the swirling thoughts:

  • There’s the Ottawa shooting, and ideas about state surveillance, open government, mental illness versus terrorism, the media’s failure (or not) and official statements. Will an “ideal speech situation” occur about the different aspects of the shooting and will we come to a “mutually understood truth,” as Levine puts it in his blog? Call me a pessimist, but I’m not holding my breath. (More on that later).
  • I won’t be attending the Collaborate session because I’ll be covering the municipal election here in London (aka The Other London). I’ll go in for 4 p.m., hopefully get pizza (a must, despite dwindling newsroom resources, on election night. We might not have pens, notebooks or a future in newsprint, but we will eat free election day pizza, damn it). How do we get people to recognize each other (and each other’s opinions and discourse) as equal? Habermas assumes that it’s possible, but I’m not so sure. What is my role, as the journalist, to cover all campaigns equally? Is it the responsibility to of the media to give every candidate or issue equal space? Who decides who is a front-runner (an opinion poll?) and who is a fringe candidate not worth spilling ink over? It’s interesting how angry some people get if we don’t cover every candidate, but if we covered everyone, we’d have less space for the people who might actually win. I know that puts an awful lot of power in the hands of the journalists and editors in the (mainstream) media, and it’s not one that anyone involved takes lightly. Also interesting are the things we choose to release about ourselves – the hashtag you choose to end your tweet with or the simple act of affixing an “I voted” sticker to your jacket says a lot about you, I think.
  • On a slightly different note, though related to communication theory and PR, I’ve become obsessed in the last 24 hours with the whole Jian Ghomeshi/CBC scandal, on so many different levels. The sequence of how it all went down is so instructional and I’m guessing will be studied in PR courses. First, the fact that, although Gomeshi hired a powerful PR and law firm which put out a bare-bones press release/statement (Sunday afternoon) of his intention to sue the CBC, he used his Facebook page to explain his own side of the story (Sunday evening) before anyone else was able to do so. A brilliant PR move, if nothing else, right? (Maybe those of you in PR will disagree). But here’s how I see it – most people (perhaps those not quite as obsessive about getting all the facts and sequence of events) will see it as a personal letter (“Dear Everyone” his Facebook post begins) to the masses. Much more poignant than any statement someone might release through a PR or law firm (though undoubtedly his FB statement was vetted and revetted, written and rewritten, but both his PR and law firm). What began, on my social media, anyway, as some people sharing his statement, has now turned into people sharing the mainstream media links (CBC, The Star, National Post, Globe and Mail, Huff Post) as well as critical blogs and podcasts, etc. Now it’s turned into, ‘wait, why aren’t we hearing from the women?’ Interesting to see who in my social network is linking to what. What does it say about them? I routinely stop myself from posting links of any kind on my Facebook wall because I’m weary of how people will interpret the source. Are you guys that hyper-aware when you post stuff on personal social media (blogs, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook)?

Now that you all know what I’m thinking about today, let me briefly turn back to Habermas. From the very first reading (Levine’s blog), I understood the Frankfurt School’s dilemma. Why, given all the tools, has there been no revolution? Why did humans turn to totalitarianism instead of rising up? I’ve always tended to think that it’s because we’re born selfish, or at least selfishness is socially constructed in us from birth. Marcuse’s theory of capitalism as a clever ruse to make us think that we have all these needs for which it is providing us choice (Sudersan, 261) really hit home.

I can get behind Habermas to a point, probably more than any of the other theorists we’ve studied. I get that our life-world is being colonized by overarching systems that have come to dominate all areas of our life. I might even agree that society is ultimately redeemable, as Stowe says in her blog. I understand how truth can be empirical and/or normative (Levine). I see communication getting distorted because of power and ideological domination all the time, and I agree that a society free of distorted communication is a noble goal. I just don’t know if an ideal speech situation is possible. (Maybe that’s because we’re still working toward this goal?). I can’t think of a single instance where everyone gets an equal chance to argue and question, where rationality prevails because power doesn’t matter (particularly in the public sphere). I guess I’m not sold on that Utopian ideal, though I don’t know yet if that’s because our life-worlds are still being colonized and will continue to be for a long while yet, or if I even believe that it’s possible to end the colonization.

I like that Habermas’ end goal isn’t victory or defeat of any standpoint, but rather consensual agreement (Sudersan), I just don’t know if that emancipation is possible. I’ve either not seen an example of it (on a micro level), or it hasn’t happened yet. Curious to find out what the discussion leads to tonight. We’ve had a mayoral candidate here in London (the likely winner, if the polls prove correct), who has talked about change and consensus building. He claims to be more concerned with consensus than ideology, to recognize his opponents as equals. Will rational discourse, or ideology, prevail? How do we get people who claim to be concerned about their property taxes, to care about city-building (figuratively, not literally)? Maybe we’re experiencing a mini social-movement here in London. Or maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow and it’ll all be the same.