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Social Media—–the pubilc sphere on steroids

May 5, 2012

The Seattle Times

Special to The Times

THE initial public offering of Facebook captures headlines but misses the real importance of social media in our lives. Whether its IPO values the company at nearly $100 billion is immaterial in the long run. Stock prices rise and fall, but the impact of social networks on society goes beyond share value.

It was not long ago that human beings interacted with each other in face-to-face, brick-and-mortar operations that defined our public sphere. Some of these physical buildings became community centers where human beings exchanged ideas and maintained and nurtured friendships.

This is the case with coffee houses, pubs, salons, neighborhood libraries and bookstores, all of which created community. They brought people together, not always to agree but at least to face each other in the open.

Newspapers entered into this public sphere and soon became an indispensable part of the democratic process. It was in this burgeoning sphere that the “watchdog” function of the press became a significant cornerstone of democracy.

In the Western world, these community centers were the bedrock of what we call “civil society.” Not only did civil society give expression to our democratic beliefs, but it also created a buffer zone for talk between government and the people that allows for peaceful coexistence between the two forces.

Otherwise, the temptation is to regularly overthrow the government. Democracy would not long survive under such chaotic conditions, no matter what Thomas Jefferson quaintly said about our republic needing a revolution every 20 years.

Most of the globe never experienced the benefits of civil society. This explains why some countries today are politically unstable, or fall prey to political extremism despite democratic leanings.

Beginning with the rise of television and certainly since the spread of the Internet, community and the public sphere migrated to the electronic world and away from face-to-face contact.

More and more, community takes place on the Internet. Today, newspapers invite readers both to their print and online editions, and with the addition of video and blogs, they become a “mediating commons.”

Newspapers offer more than just information — they facilitate human communication exchange. This process may return newspapers to their central role as dialogue keepers of the public sphere.

Facebook and other social media like Twitter are taking the mediating commons idea to a higher level. They not only fashion their own private social domains, a kind of parallel universe of sharing and liking, but they also in effect become their own nations.

At 845 million regular users, Facebook is one of the largest parallel nations on Earth, including withholding private information about us just like governments do. Is it a democracy? Well, not really, but it functions like one and it encourages people to think in democratic terms — to like and dislike, to friend and defriend.

For a website to become a mediating commons, it must do more than offer commercial products or services — it must become trusted and respected.

In my research on mediating commons, I found that such places are hugely important to the social fabric of a community. Trust is key — without it, such places wither and die.

With trust in place, a mediating commons can do many things — encourage social interactions and even roll out new ideas and innovations.

This is where social media become a powerful social force in the modern sphere. Because we live in a world of constant anxiety and stress about our lives, our careers, the planet and the fate of our families and friends, trusted sites like Facebook and Twitter are places we turn to relieve this tension and allow us to live and express our humanity.

Social media use the role of anxiety reducers to signal they are the community centers of the future. With one important twist — they may introduce new technology and ideas to the public.

Some form of education may even take place on social media. Why? Because this is where we meet today. And where increasingly we will meet tomorrow.

Already, many college professors use Facebook to connect to their students since that is where they congregate and as an audience there they are easily accessible.

If this development seems frightening, it is. The lecture-centric educational world must conform to the new mass reality. There is little time for boredom anymore. And the new electronic public sphere offers instantaneous dialogue with little time for reflection. Democracy is thus now on steroids and this speeding up affects how we make decisions.

But this era also promises benefits: We are not tied down to institutions that move slowly. Applications for government and private services are handled online. We spend less time in an office and more time with people and events that matter to us. And we unshackle the tethers and burdens of routine and pointless traditions.

Social media allow us to communicate in faster, more efficient and less time-consuming ways. We engage more in the public sphere because it has never been easier to do so. We are no longer boxed in by four walls and a roof. Communication and connections are everywhere and at all times. And almost limitless. That’s the real actual value of social media, not their stock price.

Suzan Bafford

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