The New Public Sphere AvatarThe *New* Public Sphere

There is a long history of civic rhetoric in the public forum. Aristotle, Quintilian, and Cicero all devoted their lives to development of the art and skill of rhetoric, and all worked toward a civic end. But it isn’t until Hortensia’s “Speech to the Triumvirs” in 42 BC where we can begin to see lines drawn—and simultaneously blurred—between rhetoric and activism, public and counterpublic speech, where true power dynamics are disrupted in a public space, and where dissident actions can lead to change.

In response to a proposed tax against the property of wealthy Roman women (which was ultimately taxation without representation, since women could neither serve as senators nor debate in the Forum), Hortensia marched in protest into the public space where women were forbidden. There she delivered a brief but poignant speech, effectively ending the tax for two-thirds of those affected. The effectiveness of Hortensia’s speech could be attributed to her training in rhetoric—she was the daughter of the great Roman orator Quintus Hortensius—or her boldness in challenging the Triumvirate, or her presence in a space not open to women. In reality, it was probably a combination of the three.

Hortensia never intended to be an orator or an activist. She delivered the famed speech only because “no man would dare offer the wealthy matrons legal aid” (Osgood, 2006, p. 542). Nevertheless, her move emboldened other women more than 150 years later who once again gathered in the Forum to protest the Oppian Law, a law that controlled the amount of jewelry women could own and wear in public. Though in this case there were many noblemen in support of its repeal, it wasn’t until the rebellious women blockaded the path to the Forum and began to boldly address consuls and magistrates directly that change began to happen. The growing support for the cause—and subsequent expanding crowd—emboldened the protestors who showed up every day until the law was eventually repealed.

In both of these cases, the protests proved fruitful: Taxes on wealthy women were reduced and the Oppian Law repealed. However, even if the public rhetoric had served only to educate others of an inequity or suppression of rights or challenge the existing power structure, we would probably all agree it would still have been activism.

Dissident behavior such as that of Hortensia and the Oppian Law protestors is often necessary in order for any degree of change to occur, and there is an equally long and fascinating history of dissident efforts in this world. In the age of digital activism, it’s important to recognize the parallels between social media and its revolutionary predecessors like dissident presses, street papers, ‘zines, or alternative media like that of Situationism or Dadaism3. If social media is examined closely, it becomes clear that the kind of activism conducted digitally encompasses many of the already valued face-to-face forms of activism.

Where street papers and ‘zines have long served as a vehicle for expression of ideas and individuals who do not fit neatly into a dominant place in mainstream society, online spaces continue to provide an opening and a medium for the establishment of such “counterpublics” (Asen, 2000; Hauser, 1998; Warner, 2005). Social media certainly fits many of the criteria for “public” outlined by Michael Warner (2005) in Publics and Counterpublics, which include that a public is 1) "self-organized," 2) "a relation among strangers," 3) "the address of public speech is both personal and impersonal," 4) "constituted through mere attention," 5) "the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse," 6) "a group that acts historically according to the temporality of their circulation," and 7) "poetic world making" (pp. 67-118).

Since social media provide opportunity for those groups who don’t necessarily fit the “dominant culture” or are not recognized in mainstream to discourse and message, they have become a purveyor of “counterpublics” (Warner, 2005, p. 113). An excellent example of this idea of counterpublic in the social media realm is the subaltern Twitter group GOProud, a politically conservative arm of the Republican Party that is openly gay. They have been all but ignored by the party elites and were even disinvited from the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), yet they have benefitted from the tools of the 21st century to unite and work toward a shared common interest. In addition to providing opportunity for individuals with shared interests to connect, the digital world provides the means for such individuals to cultivate their ideas and message in a way that might previously have been cost- or politically-prohibitive.

Social media forums—discussion boards, Facebook, Twitter, Volkalize, Blogger and Wordpress—offer community building and networking opportunities, prompting the establishment of new publics. They have become something of a blend between the Habermasian salon (a space where individuals converge to discuss and debate issues of a civic, community, or political nature) and Gerard A. Hauser’s (1998) public sphere, a “discursive space in which individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual interest, and, where possible, to reach a common judgment about them” (p. 21).

The new public sphere serves not only the interests of counterpublics, however. There are many ways that mainstream causes benefit from the reach of social media. Consider the Armyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral on multiple social media platforms in 2014 and raised not only awareness but millions of dollars for the organization that works to cure Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The peer-initiated challenge was to dump a bucket of ice water on your head within 24 hours of receiving the challenge or donate $100 to ALS. Many who received the challenge did both. More interesting is that this movement united celebrities, ordinary citizens, politicians, athletes, and sufferers of ALS almost instantaneously. According to a press release issued on August 29, 2014 (just 30 days after the challenge began), ALS had raised over $100 million for research and procured 300 million first-time donors (ALS Association, 2014).

Because of the highly interactive nature of online spaces, digital activism allows for vastly creative forms of rhetoric (both visual and sonic) that could not be accomplished simultaneously in print media or underground radio prior to the existence of Web 2.0. Add to this the massive distribution and circulation capabilities of online activism (through “liking” and “sharing” and “retweeting” activist messages), and it becomes clear why this new digitally mediated space is one with tremendous potential for outreach, education, and influence—indeed, social change.

Perhaps most valuable is that digital media, unlike its alternative and activist media predecessors, effectively disrupts the existing power dynamics in politics and media, making it an ideal situation for activists to do their work. This shift in dynamic puts the power in the hands of the user as one who transmits and circulates at her will, on her timeframe, and to the extent she desires. It levels the playing field to some degree, and it provides opportunity for voices to be heard that might otherwise be ignored by those holding the reigns in politics and media.

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