As Wikipedia puts it, most contemporary discourses and conceptualizations of the public sphere, are based on the Jürgen Habermas ideas in the book “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere – An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society“.
The idea of the public sphere may be conceived as a realm in social life where private people come together as a public to engage in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor. (Habermas, 1989)
With the understanding of how a public sphere should function, here are some of them I have identified, in Singapore:
- the almost defunct Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park
(many still have the impression that a permit must be obtained before ‘demonstrating’ with posters and banners not knowing that since Sep 2008, the management of the Speakers Corner has been handed over from the Singapore Police Force to the National Parks Board, hence many of the restrictions that the area once had, are lifted. see channelnewsasia article: Singaporeans can demonstrate at Speakers’ Corner from Sep 1)
(one just needs to be a registered user to participate actively, comment and contribute, in the discussion forums. However one can still browse freely, if he (sic) is just interested in observing. Looking at the number of topics generated and the activity on the site, it seems like the online version of the Speakers’ Corner has taken off better than the actual space)
(It is a platform which encourages advocacy journalism, championing causes and values like civic participation, open government and free media, reflecting the views and opinions of ordinary Singaporeans like myself who are concerned about issues that affect us as citizens)
- Comments Section of Internet Newspapers (like The Temasek Review), and/or articles and forum sections of online versions of existing mainstream media (such as TODAY, The Straits Times)
(readers basically comment on what they feel about the articles published, or air their thoughts in these forums. these online versions fulfill more of the criteria of a public sphere as they allow interaction and more discussion space as compared to the print counterpart of the Forum Page)
Does STOMP fit in then? (see: Navigating through STOMP & A Social Media Community in the making?) Can an indigenous social media community be the public sphere, as what Habermas (1974) summarizes in his encyclopedia article, for Singaporeans to engage in debate, conferring in an unrestricted fashion, as how (Habermas, Lennox, Lennox:1974) expressing their opinions about matters of general interest?
I say aye.
Well you might argue otherwise, especially since the quality of news and contributions on STOMP is often highly debated/questioned (see: “News Quality” on STOMP). However, understanding that a public sphere merely provides the conducive space for interaction without the strict enforcement or close scrutiny over the type of topics discussed, the idealist expectation of its activity has to be lowered/readjusted.
Besides Habermas (1996) did go on further, in his later work, to segregate the different levels of the public sphere, according to the density of communication, organizational complexity (Habermas, 1996, cited in Burgess, Foth and Klaebe, 2006) to differentiate the “Hard” and “Soft” subjects as various discourses, and included popular culture and everyday life encounters and connections that are ‘accessible to laypersons‘.
A public sphere’s ‘success’ ultimately thrives on the participation of the citizens. It needs the citizens to come together to discuss about issues, to engage in conversation, even beyond Facebook’s and Twitter’s capabilities. Not that Facebook is incapable of functioning as a communicative space, however its intricate design is such that one mostly only engage discussions with friends within the network and more often than not about private affairs. Whereas Twitter allows one to ‘follow’ and be ‘followed’ by a global audience, from private individuals to public companies, hence reaching out to any stranger with a Twitter account.
Since the term ‘public’ connotes ideas of citizenship, commonality, and all things not private but at the same time accessible and observable by all (Dewey 1972, cited in Papacharissi 2002) Facebook and Twitter therefore would not qualify as the public sphere that we have come to understand.
Hence if we were to analyze STOMP’s interesting structure,
- the fact that the registered users, STOMPers are all private citizens who contribute their news stories, observations (through citizen journalism, as the site promotes itself to be) in a public communicative space
- at the same time have these active participants engage in discussion (through feedback and commentary on articles posted in the more engaging section, Singapore Seen And the actual discussion forum of Talkback and other commentary on other sections of STOMP) on matters of interest
a melting pot of social media networking tools and features and elements of citizen journalism (to encourage interaction and participation from citizens as on the ground/’grassroots’ reporters) STOMP seems to be emerging to be the new public sphere, for Singapore Youths to ‘step out’ and start engaging in matters that concern them.
Even though brought up many times in various debates and discussions over the triviality of subject topics in STOMP by both academics and citizens alike, if a public sphere’s primary objective is to encourage participation from citizens (not judging the content’s quality) wouldn’t STOMP triumph as The New Public Sphere. After all it is by far one of the most accessed and talked about communicative space amongst Singaporeans, especially the youths.
Burgess Jean., Foth Marcus., Klaebe Helen., (2006) Everyday Creativity as Civic Engagement: A Cultural Citizenship View of New Media, in Proceedings Communications Policy & Research Forum, Sydney. Queensland University of Technology, Australia. QUT ePrints. http://eprints.qut.edu.au
Habermas, J. (1989) The structural transformation of the public sphere. An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society (T. Burger with F. Lawrence, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1962)
Habermas J., Lennox S., Lennox F., (1974) The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article (1964), in New German Critique, No. 3 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 49-55, Duke University Press and JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/487737
Papacharissi, Zizi (2002) The virtual sphere: The internet as a public sphere, in New Media & Society 2002 4: 9, DOI: 10.11777/1461440222226244, Sage Publications http://nms.sagepub.com/content/4/1/9.refs.html