Since 1993, when Howard Rheingold proposed that his ‘virtual communities’ shared the same metaphor as the ‘public sphere’ for facilitating the connection between informal conversations and self-governance, academic and non-academic enthusiasts have been discussing the Internet’s potential as an electronic incarnation of Habermas’s democratic ideal. The call for this reality has only strengthened as Internet technologies enable more elaborate online media, tools to self-produce media are increasingly available to the average user, and forums for distributing and broadcasting the end products are free and readily available at the speed of electronic social networks. So-called Web 2.0, marked by a ‘revolution’ of user-generated content (UGC), promises truly democratized media production and, thereby, empowerment of the everyday user: the networked citizen.
Yochai Benkler uses successful networks of UGC producers, Wikipedia and Slashdot, as well as case studies of activism facilitated by blogs and e-mail, to argue that the ‘networked public sphere’ is a reality. In The Wealth of Networks, he argues that in a ‘networked information economy’ power lies in distributed networks of contributors empowered by online social software. Benkler even outlines the emergent norms of this public sphere, which parallel Habermas’s bourgeois norms for rational-critical debate. The key element is participation in UGC. But Henry Jenkins says that there is a growing ‘participation gap’ in terms of new users abilities to critically engage with Internet technologies. The key to Benkler’s public sphere is the fusion of producers and consumers of online media, and Jenkins argues that there is a widening gap between the two statuses.
Jenkins’ ‘participation gap’ is the latest in a series of digital divides, which represent the most fundamental criticism and barrier to the Internet’s potential as a public sphere. Pippa Norris has defined three digital divides: the global divide, the social divide, and the democratic divide. The first two divides focus on well-established discrepancies in the ability to access and use technology and information, at both the inter-state and intra-state levels. But the democratic divide represents a new extension of the ramifications of a digital divide: discrepancies in effective engagement in public life. At this level, a networked public sphere that possesses the media literacy recommended by Jenkins could actually augment civil society’s ability to act in areas of high Internet access. Conversely, those with no access could be left behind developmentally by way of democratic ‘capabilities’, in Amartya Sen’s terms. Thus, we may be left asking: Will Networked Public Spheres be Solutions for or Causes of the Next Digital Divide?