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The Internet, the Marketplace of Ideas, and the Public Sphere

This thesis paper was originally written for a journalism course at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2001.

Introduction

Discussions about the Internet are dominated by colorful and often ill-defined metaphors.  One is expected to surf the information superhighway over to the infobahn, on the way to the digital town hall in the global village to peruse the marketplace of ideas.  This last metaphor, the market where ideas are offered, considered and either accepted or rejected like so much fruit, is more than just a colorful image.  Media and cultural studies often examine the marketplace of ideas theory and the public sphere when examining how mass media work in a democracy.  The Internet seems a natural place to look for both.

Often discussions about the marketplace of ideas and the public sphere are confined the question to whether or not they are worthwhile goals- many critics see them as impossible or rife with flaws.  The marketplace of ideas notion of traditional mass media seems out of sync with reality.  High entry costs into the mass media, central ownership by large corporations, the popular media’s tendency to marginalize radical and little-known ideas, etc., all act as barriers to a free flow of ideas.

The Internet, however, could theoretically create or function as a public forum.  Every media consumer can become a media producer on the Internet, and in some ways (newsgroups and mailing lists, for example) the line between consumers and producers of media are blurred.  Unlike other media, the cost of making a web site viewed by millions is not necessarily larger than a web site viewed by only a handful.  Communication is instantaneous and choice is not limited to what is provided by a few large companies.  Radical groups in every subject from terrorism to literary theory are able to publish as easily as mainstream political parties.

But is the Internet the true public forum, or even a real marketplace of ideas?  A quick look at Internet usage statistics shows relatively few large producers dominating traffic.  According to Nielsen/Netratings, for example, AOL Time Warner recorded 65,954,683 unique visitors in March, out of an estimated 101,965,365

active Internet users that month.1 With well over one billion web sites on the web to visit and the average user only visiting 10 unique sites a month, most of the traffic is going to a limited number of places-just as most readership goes to a limited number of magazines, newspapers, television stations, etc.

But why are web sites with less money and fewer corporate ties having a harder time getting viewers?  What barriers have arisen to make it hard to get a large audience, and why has the Internet followed the lead of central corporate ownership like the rest of the mass media?  How is the Internet like a public forum and how is it not?

Thesis

The Internet does not function as a de facto public sphere or marketplace of ideas but it does have enormous potential.  Barriers such as the Digital Divide and website funding problems keep the Internet from being a completely free forum while most users most of the time seem to have no interest in entering the public sphere at all.  A few notable examples, however, prove that the Internet has the power to allow public communication, debate, and opinion formation to flourish when users take advantage of it.

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