Scholars' Association News
Issue 23
August 2012


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File: Digital Citizen
A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age
by Maria Maghiorou*

Zizi Papacharissi, Professor and Head of the Department of Communication, at the University of Illinois-Chicago and holder of a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, is a pioneer in the study of citizenship in the Digital Age answering questions like “Is the Internet democratizing?”,  “Do the new media empower us or do they trap us in our cocoons?”, “Why are blogs so narcissistic”? 

With her book A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age she offers an alternative explanation of how people connect to others in contemporary democracies.  The book «traces what civil life is like in contemporary democracies where media play a central role in connecting the representatives to public”. In other words “this study is about metaphors that no longer work, and new language that emerges to describe newer civic habits”.

Zizi Papacharissi argues that in the private sphere citizens feel more secure in preserving their individual autonomy and the integrity of their civic identity. In contemporary democracy the citizen acts politically from a private sphere of reflection, expression and behavior. Within this private sphere the citizen is able to become an agonist of democracy, if needed, but in an atomized mode. Connected, the citizen operates in a mode and with a political language determined by himself or herself. Within the private sphere, the citizen is alone, but not lonely or isolated.   

To the author’s point of view, the particular breed of narcissism has a democratizing effect since the subjective focus of blogs and similar forums encourages plurality of voices. Besides, atomized uses of online media by individuals in their homes do not constitute a public or a public sphere but they do successfully make the political environment more “porous”.

While the political use of new media is vast, it does not fit the mold of the Habermasian public sphere and while citizens are increasingly drawn to digital media they are attracted mostly to interest group and non-partisan web sites. Citizens go online to compliment their communication while politicians make use of digital media to supplement their agendas. Ultimately, this is a model of use with a democratizing effect, but does not bear a direct resemblance to the public sphere.

According to the ‘liquid’ society, Zizi Papacharissi speaks about the ‘liquid’ citizen whose diminished participation in the public sphere reflects a move to newer modes of civic engagement, in short of an agonistic pluralism, which is aimed at radically transforming existing power relations (being in contrast to the dialogic pluralism of the public sphere).

In order to examine how the Internet shapes and is shaped by contemporary democracies, Zizi Papacharissi addresses issues like the following: How do citizens of today understand and practice their civic responsibilities? Are resulting political behaviors atomized or collective? What happens to our understanding of public and private as digitalized democracies converge technologies, spaces and practices? Is there a public sphere anymore?

In answering such questions, Zizi Papacharissi structures her arguments within six chapters:

  1. Civic Engagement & the Media Conditions of contemporary democracies
  2. Public and Private Expression (the Dichotomy, a Trichotomy)
  3. Converged Media, converged audiences, converged publics (convergence of spaces and practices)
  4. Citizenship & converged environment: the liquid citizen (a combined model of flexible citizenship)
  5. The Public Sphere, Expired? (on the democratizing potential of convergent technologies)
  6. A Private Sphere (five new civic habits)

Here she analyses the new( hybrid) public ‘space’, partially commercial and partially private, where she traces the five new habits which are:

  • The networked self and the culture of remote connecting
  • A new narcissism: blogging
  • The rebirth of satire and subversion: You Tube
  • Social Media news aggregation and the plurality of collaborative filtering
  • The agonistic pluralism of online activism

She finds that in late modern democracies online digital media reveal an electorate that is rather fatigued with political conventions of the mainstream than disinterested. 

Zizi Papacharissi is the editor of the recent volume, published in 2010, by Routledge
A Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. This collection examines social connection and self-presentation in digital democracies. Leading scholars from a variety of disciplines focus on the construction of the self. More particularly, this new work on online social networks examines what happens to self-identity when it is presented through networks of social connections in new media environments.

Zizi Papacharissi is also the editor of another volume, published by Routledge, in 2009: Journalism and Citizenship: An Uneasy Alliance. The volume is about a symbiotic relationship, which is not always synergetic: citizens are able, via association, to perform their democratic duties. Alternative ways for mobilization, public discussion and news coverage leave journalists confused about their own place in a dormant public sphere.

* Maria Maghiorou holds a PhD in Political Science.
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