The Bubble Citi Zen
The Celebrated Coffee House
Ah, the early days of the Internet. With its chatrooms and its squeaky dial-up noises and its “stay away from the phone, I’m online” cries. As Internet penetration grew larger and larger, its novelties in communication led many to believe that we were in the midst of an almost apocalyptic revolution of citizenry. The Habermasian notion of the public sphere inspired early enthusiasts to declare the Internet the “global coffee house”.
Such was the enthusiasm, that many would believe that another element of the public sphere would eventually come to dominate the public fora of the WWW; the rational citizen. It seems almost naïve today, but it was believed that global deliberation about broader-than-local spheres would be led by a level playing field of rational netizens. The emergence of social media further fuelled ambitions of world-wide fora, full of engaged citizens.
The more fragmented the Internet becomes, the bolder the mission statements by tech giants about bringing the world together, as if anyone asked them to.
Fast-forward to today and all you see is bubbles. The more fragmented the Internet becomes, the bolder the mission statements by tech giants about bringing the world together, as if anyone asked them to. Bubbles rarely provide any space for meaningful debate, let alone for the rational citizen. The business model, the algorithm, the remote nature of online deliberation, all contribute to the disengagement of the bubble citizen from online public discourse. In other words, people might be speaking in political terms, accusing each other, but they don’t do so as citizens anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. All the bubble citizen can do is merely elect; just a fraction of the citizen’s role in the collective.
This new bubble citizen would sometimes stumble upon a rare instance of actual public deliberation. However, because social media corporations still operate not with public service at heart but according to their profit, any bubble-free debate would only be just a by-product of “free” digital space rather than a direct outcome systemic to the platform’s operation.
Bursting the bubbles of the Internet would take, as Christian Fuchs says, the “decolonisation of the Internet” by profit-oriented corporations towards a model of public service without the digital labour perpetuated by the necessities of ad revenues. The bubble citizen would discuss policies in a de-fragmented environment, on a platform of public -as much as social- media.
The Habermasian model of the public sphere is clearly not applicable to 2019 Internet and social media. This doesn’t mean it can’t inform the way forward. In a network of social media operating as public service providers, the bubble citizen can confront antitheses in public discourse and more easily form syntheses, all the while educating themselves in the ways of citizenry. Digital citizenry, but citizenry, nonetheless.