Saturday, June 02, 2007

Activating Citizenship

[Part Five in a series: Reading Benkler's Wealth of Networks.]

"The easy possibility of communicating effectively into the public sphere allows individuals to reorient themselves from passive readers and listeners to potential speakers and participants in a conversation. The way we listen to what we hear changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for public communication." (p.213)

This leads to “a fundamental change in how individuals can interact with their democracy and experience their role as citizens” (p.272):
Ideal citizens need not be seen purely as trying to inform themselves about what others have found, so that they can vote intelligently. They need not be limited to reading the opinions of opinion makers and judging them in private conversations. They are no longer constrained to occupy the role of mere readers, viewers, and listeners. They can be, instead, participants in a conversation. Practices that begin to take advantage of these new capabilities shift the locus of content creation from the few professional journalists trolling society for issues and observations, to the people who make up that society. They begin to free the public agenda setting from dependence on the judgments of managers, whose job it is to assure that the maximum number of readers, viewers, and listeners are sold in the market for eyeballs. The agenda thus can be rooted in the life and experience of individual participants in society—in their observations, experiences, and obsessions. The network allows all citizens to change their relationship to the public sphere. They no longer need be consumers and passive spectators. They can become creators and primary subjects. It is in this sense that the Internet democratizes.

This ‘conversational’ approach represents a deliberative-democratic transformation of the public sphere itself (p. 180):
The Internet allows individuals to abandon the idea of the public sphere as primarily constructed of finished statements uttered by a small set of actors socially understood to be “the media” (whether state owned or commercial) and separated from society, and to move toward a set of social practices that see individuals as participating in a debate. Statements in the public sphere can now be seen as invitations for a conversation, not as finished goods. Individuals can work their way through their lives, collecting observations and forming opinions that they understand to be practically capable of becoming moves in a broader public conversation, rather than merely the grist for private musings.


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