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The Revolution of Virtual Institutions: Citizen Journalism as an Alternative Public Sphere

Mollie Field considers how citizen journalism can be theorised as an alternative public sphere. This piece notes how social platforms, such as Twitter, have evolved into virtual institutions of the alternative public sphere; the premise of multiple public spheres is explored.

BY Mollie Field

Citizen journalism (CJ) continues to dominate the contemporary study of journalism; its presence in the global media landscape is now prominent. Changes have occurred in the ecology of news, through new opportunities of participation, citizens are increasingly engaged with news media. Therefore the role of consumer and producer is no longer easily defined. The development of CJ and its effects on traditional forms of news media continues to be challenged by academics, professional journalists and established media outlets.

The term CJ has developed over time; alternative titles include ‘personal journalism’, ‘grassroots journalism’ and ‘networked journalism’. Providing a normative definition of CJ is equally as problematic as classifying the term itself. CJ is both a thoroughly modern concept yet rooted in history. Although no approved definition of CJ has yet been established, aims from scholars to do so — although not exclusively — can be situated in two themes. Firstly, theorising citizen journalists at an individual level. Therefore, this theme is concerned with what citizen journalists do and perhaps crucially what they do not do; how individuals employ journalistic tools and practises, how they collaborate with established media outlets and how they contribute to coverage of events particularly in times of crisis, conflict or political affairs. Secondly, and more crucially in understanding CJ as a historical product, and thus sharing philosophies with the idealistic nature of Habermas’ Bourgeois sphere, is considering how CJ can be theorised at a collective level. At the collective level scholars are concerned with CJ as a communal force and therefore recognises it can have social and cultural effects; CJ advocates deeper meanings between the citizen and the journalist, has increased civic participation with news media and enhanced democratic values of the public sphere.

This level of ambiguity in providing a definition is shared in defining the public sphere. The public sphere theory was established by German Philosopher, Jürgen Habermas in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; first published in German in 1962 before its English translation. Habermas established the emergence of a Bourgeois public sphere in eighteenth-century Europe. The public sphere is the space through which the public can have an open and equal debate on matters of interest. These spaces or institutions of the sphere included coffee houses in Britain, saloons in France and through the pages of printed pamphlets and the press — drawing the connections between public life and civil society to form public opinion. The principles of the Bourgeois sphere would be to function democratically; private interests would, therefore, be cast aside. Though Habermas continues to have a substantial influence on critical theory; and the establishment of the public sphere in popular discourse, his normative public sphere theory been criticised. The critique of Habermas’ Bourgeois public sphere and its institutions is predominantly centred around the exclusive of Habermas’ sphere in 17th and 18th century. Nancy Fraser’s 1992 text Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy provides a useful critique upon Habermas’ Bourgeois sphere as she classifies how it excluded subordinate groups. Fraser concludes the overall class and gender exclusivity of Habermas’ sphere theory.

“I propose the citizen journalism sphere (CJS) as an independent sphere that can function outside of the mainstream.”

The rise of virtual space has changed the way in which the world communicates. Communications across the globe have transformed dramatically since the idealistic model of 18th century Europe envisioned in Habermas’ normative theory. Digital technologies will continue to revolutionise, and therefore so to must the way in which we think of the public sphere and its role in the revolution. The relationship between technology and the public sphere can be envisioned in what Julian March, former online director at ITV plc, notes as the current “age of video democracy”. The globalisation of communications has dominated discussions around the public sphere theory, enabling the concept of multiple spheres to now be apparent. I propose the citizen journalism sphere (CJS) as an independent sphere that can function outside of the mainstream. The metaphorical sphere in both Habermas’ Bourgeois terms and the mainstream media as a sphere intends to operate democratically. Therefore, the CJS has enabled the public to become central to the sphere and has thus produced a democratic reality of a functioning public sphere, perhaps accomplishing the idealistic limitations of Habermas’s normative sphere theory. 

Twitter can be theorised as the virtual institution of which the CJS functions, the platform has enabled the CJS to be less exclusive and thus less problematic than Habermas’ Bourgeois sphere, which can be noted to be flawed in its ability to allow the principle of equal debate. The global phenomenon of Twitter came into being in March 2006 and currently dominates the online news media market. The success of Twitter, as a micro-blogging site that allows short content to be shared instantly, has been influenced by the way in which we as citizens of an increasingly globalised world; consume fast, digestible news content. In 2012 the company’s current CEO, who attended an Online News Association Conference in San Francisco, was propositioned; “so how does it feel to be the voice of the press in the 21st century?” although proposed humorously, it encapsulates some of the anxieties from the mainstream industry.

The power of Twitter has therefore transformed the institutes of which the normative public sphere operates. Virtual spaces have allowed for discussion in the sphere to function outside of any definable space or location. Virtual spaces such as Twitter are thus an extension of what Howard Rheingold first theorised to be ‘virtual community’; a collective community that crosses geographical and political borders to peruse a mutual interest. Virtual spaces and the consumption of modern technology have similarly changed the institutions of the public sphere. Although, this should not be classified as a negative revolution; the social fabric of Habermas’ sphere required a change to function democratically.

“the potential to bring to bear alternative perspectives, context and ideological diversity to its reporting, providing users with the means to hear distant voices otherwise being marginalised, it not silenced altogether, across the network society.”

Stuart Allan

Twitter as an institution of the CJS has provided a space of which equal discussion can correctly function. Though, it is not too idealistic to recognise that virtual spaces such as Twitter are closing the gap between local and global and contributing to a realistic ‘Global Village’ in the words of Marshall McLuhan. The use of Twitter in the CJS is in many ways a step towards universal equality in communications. The CJS is open to a plurality of voices which concludes authentic public debate upon diverse matters of interests. Established journalist scholar Stuart Allan, predicted the potential of CJ nothing online journalism, in his 2004 publication News Culture as having “the potential to bring to bear alternative perspectives, context and ideological diversity to its reporting, providing users with the means to hear distant voices otherwise being marginalised, it not silenced altogether, across the network society.”

Citizen journalism has provided an alternative public sphere, of which shares principles of public journalism and liberal debates on public engagement in news consumption and production. Digital technologies and virtual institutions have allowed citizen journalism to function as a democratic sphere, one that has the potential to allow for political change to stem from public concern, debate and opinion. The virtual spaces through which the citizen journalism sphere functions have offered a less exclusive environment than Habermas’ Bourgeois public sphere. Similarly, the coexistence of multiple spheres can contribute to a plurality of media systems and has allowed active citizens who are engaged in the citizen journalism sphere to adopt traditional and once exclusive roles of the mainstream media. Considering that citizen journalism has allowed the boundaries between consumer and producer to be blurred; citizen journalism as a public sphere has an optimistic future. Continuing to allow for a change in the production of news, global communications and the functions and fruition of democracy. As virtual spaces continue to thrive and their reach across the globe continual; situating a potential global sphere could become less for the democratic imagination and more of democratic reality.