In Papacharissi’s The Virtual Sphere, she highlights the two main opinions which emerge when considering the effectiveness of the internet as a public sphere. Those in favor argue that the rise of the internet will give way to improvement in the political process due to the “democratizing effects” of the internet (10). On the other hand, however, detractors state that people should be cautious of this idea because not all people have access to this technology and the discussions taking place on the internet are also fragmented and are not rational but instead “enraged discussion” (10) She then goes on to argue that the internet certainly does provide a new public space, where people can deliberate about political matters. However, a public space does not necessarily indicate a public sphere, where there hypothetically would be the democratic exchange of thoughts and ideas.
Furthermore, Papacharissi questions whether a true public sphere has ever existed or will ever exist in the future. The past, idealized public sphere, she argues, was constructed mostly of “privileged men” while excluding women and those of lower social classes (11). She then sites an argument by Fraser which states that there is not one public sphere even today, but instead “coexisting spheres of counterpublics” (11) Therefore, the question still remains if there will or at the very least, could, exist a true public sphere on the internet.
When looking at the current state of political discussion on the internet, it seems to me that a public sphere is largely unattainable. A worldwide online public sphere is clearly impossible to achieve, because many people throughout the world do not have equal access to the internet and furthermore do not have the social media skills necessary to participate in such political discussions. Furthermore, individual public spheres for each nation seem far from probable as well. Though the internet provides us with a forum in which we can, in theory, all log on to a website and let everyone’s voices be heard, this is not the case in reality. Smaller virtual spheres are often formed by marginalized groups and those with similar opinions and, whenever people with contrasting ideas do come head-to-head online, it is often more of a heated argument, “flaming” as Papacharissi calls it, than rational public discourse.
Social media today seems to put us on an open playing field with more influential members of society such as political leaders and celebrities. However, our voices are not heard equally among social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. We follow friends and family we know and celebrities, politicians, and other media figures who hold opinions with which we already know we agree. These media platforms mostly feature people talking at, rather than with, each other. When there are debates, they are often not intending to achieve an understanding of each other and reach a compromise but rather to argue and, sometimes even fire out hateful remarks. While of course social media platforms lend themselves to the sharing political ideas in a way that is more accessible than ever before, this does not necessarily mean that a public sphere is achieved. Some, not all, voices are heard and the discourse is very often not rational. Therefore, I agree with Papacharissi that while the internet most definitely is a public space, it is not open, equal, or rational enough to be a public sphere.