Social Networks and the Public Sphere

Many commentators, particularly in the traditional media, suggest that social networks represent a two-dimensional view of reality. For example, people with lots of Facebook 'friends' may not have as many friends in real-life, and therefore social networks in cyberspace represent a distorted view of human relationships.

The trouble with seeing social networks as purely two-dimensional is that this view is a distortion of reality in itself. Sure, social networks cannot replace the human need for friends and face-to-face contact. But I don't actually know anyone who lives in cyberspace only. Cyberspace adds another dimension to our lives, rather than replacing our existing social sphere.

However, the two-dimensional view of social networks discounts their important role in reclaiming the public sphere. The Ancient Greek idea of the agora being the site of politics has been overwhelmed by marketing messages cluttering up the space where citizens might once have grappled with political issues of the day. Further, 'freedom of speech' in the earlier stages of mass media reduced the public sphere to the relative few who had access to the media. Social networks are changing the nature of the public sphere.

Social networks do not replace human relationships. Rather, they increase opportunities for citizen engagement and access to news and views beyond those which the mass media pundits have controlled for far too long. Some might say that 'much of what is on the Internet is rubbish', but does this mean that what we see and hear on television and radio is high quality, intellectully engaging, and therefore somehow not rubbish?

Advertising messages have found their way into social networks, but the model is very different from the traditional media. If, for example, you are watching a TV show, you have no choice but to wait for the advertisements to finish before you continue to view your chosen program. The message is effectively 'pushed' to you. Advertising in social networks attempts to 'pull' viewers toward the content, which provides the viewer with a choice of engaging with the message or not. Further, viewers can also be content developers, so the engagement can be one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many or few-to-few, providing even greater choice for participants.

The idea of a digital divide is problematic for those without the resources to get involved in social networks. Nonetheless, the opportunity for ordinary citizens to reclaim the public sphere is huge. Along with many other issues arising from New Media technologies, the disruption to the 'way we do things' will be problematic. The New Media age is one of diversity, fragmentation, pluralism and particularism. Those clinging to the idea that social networks are two-dimensional have a lot to learn. Such simple views will be unable to cope with the complexity which is already emerging through social networks. Given the growth in social networks, it seems that this is what ordinary people want - a (cyber) public space where anyone can listen and be heard.