The public sphere is defined as a network of all the communicative spaces within which public affairs are debated and a public opinion is formed. Such an infrastructure of political communication is crucial for democratic self-government and the social integration of modern society. Both functions seem to be threatened if the public sphere decays into a multitude of arenas that are just loosely connected (if at all) and do not form a coherent space for deliberation.
From a sociological point of view the fragmentation (i.e., stratification) of the public sphere seems to be the result either of social inequality (Fraser 1992) or of individualization in the postmodern age (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 2002). In contrast, communication scholars refer to the media dominance over public communication of current societies. In this view the fragmentation of the mediated public sphere can then be described in at least three distinct dimensions: fragmentation of media channels, fragmentation of content, and fragmentation of audiences (see also Dahlgren 2005).
The enormous growth and the differentiation of the national media systems are focused on in the first dimension. Instead of having only a few radio stations and print media of national importance, there is now a multitude of communication channels, which are all competing with each other. On the one hand, this leads to an extended social range and inclusiveness of the media arena within the public sphere. On the other hand, it also leads to an ongoing decay of this arena into a multitude of media branches and niches that serve a multiplicity of special interests. The Internet has a special share in the growth of the mediated public sphere. Some authors emphasize that the global infrastructure of the Internet will enable the expansion of the public sphere across national boundaries (Roberts & Crossley 2004). However, the development of a possible global public debate depends on who actually uses the Internet for what reasons and purposes (Sparks 2001). From a democratic point of view the Internet expands the possibilities of political groups and interests that have, up to now, been restrained by the high access barriers of the mainstream media. Thus, the Internet enables the development of new counter-publics and subsidiary publics. However, this could also lead to a locking out of social groups into secluded “cyber ghettos” (Dahlgren 2001).
The vast growth of the media sector, which is formative for the development of the media systems in all western societies, has effectively heightened the media’s capacity in addressing and generating media content. In order to fill the multitude of channels with content, more and more areas of human life have to be made a topic of media communication, including areas that are traditionally reserved for personal and private experiences. Fragmentation of media channels thus tends to result in a diversification of content. The competition among more and more media products, combined with limited public attention and the ever-growing market orientation of media products, leads to an overabundance of entertaining media content. The majority of information available in today’s media does not cater to public affairs deliberation but rather to private interests and the need for amusement. This also applies to the sphere of the Internet, where public debate is a marginalized phenomenon. The playing down of political communication is a quite paradoxical result of the media-driven expansion of the public sphere (McKee 2005).
Developments of media technology and content increasingly allow a more flexible and individualized media usage. This leads to a splitting up of the recipients’ attention and a segmentation of media audiences. With a growing range of media products and individualized forms of usage, the attention devoted to each single media product inevitably must shrink. Accordingly, political content is perceived in increasingly smaller portions. Moreover, the size of the media audiences that are absorbing identical content is declining, as special interest formats and specialized channels must focus on small target groups in order to be commercially successful. This means that the probability of all members of a society perceiving all relevant topics and problems is diminishing. Hence, if there are no topics of common importance, the probability that a mediated public sphere will resonate in daily interpersonal communication declines.
Most authors, including Jürgen Habermas, agree that a unitary public sphere is an idealization, for the public discourse has always been divided into a variety of class- and group-specific communication circles. Therefore the seeming fragmentation of the public sphere cannot be blamed on the media development alone. The crucial question, then, is whether or not the segmentation of the public sphere has to be regarded as a challenge to democracy. The optimistic – mostly postmodernist – view argues that special interest media and mainstream media are never hermetically secluded from each other. Exchanges between different media can be found on the level of the producers and on the level of the users. We may therefore expect that people’s demands and issue positions diffuse from sub-publics to the national political public and result in policy outcomes. In this perspective, the fragmentation of channels, contents, and user groups contributes to desirable democratic plurality (Dahlgren 2005). Seen from a pessimistic point of view, the very same fragmentation is worrying, as it is expected to widen gaps of issue knowledge and orientations within the population that cannot be closed with non-medial forms of communication. As a consequence, the mass media would lose its key function of connecting publics, and the public sphere would forfeit its power of social integration (Downey & Fenton 2003). Yet empirical evidence is still lacking for both the optimistic and the pessimistic view. More research is needed, especially on the communicative coupling between mediated and non-mediated arenas of the public sphere.
- Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002). Individualization: Institutionalized individualism and its social and political consequences. London: Sage.
- Dahlgren, P. (2001). The public sphere and the Net: Structure, space and communication. In L. W. Bennett & R. M. Entman (eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 33–55.
- Dahlgren, P. (2005). The Internet, public spheres, and political communication: Dispersion and deliberation. Political Communication, 22, 147–162.
- Downey, J., & Fenton, N. (2003). New media, counter publicity and the public sphere. New Media and Society, 5, 185–202.
- Fraser, N. (1992). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy. In C. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 109–142.
- McKee, A. (2005). The public sphere: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Roberts, J. M., & Crossley, N. (2004). Introduction. In N. Crossely & J. M. Roberts (eds.), After Habermas: New perspectives on the public sphere. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1–27.
- Sparks, C. (2001). The Internet and the global public sphere. In L. W. Bennett & R. M. Entman (eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 75–95.