Three Generations of the Networked Public Sphere | rheacock | December 10, 2013


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Three Generations of the Networked Public Sphere

John Kelly

Practitioners of “big data analytics” have seen their jobs get easier in some ways over the last half dozen years. Back when blogospheres were the object of study, analysts had to spend countless days writing code to scrape web pages, pull RSS feeds, parse the data, and figure out how to tell the intended prose of authors from the mechanical chatter of platforms. Just storing the results required a heavy lift of database design before one could even start collecting useable data. Now, in the era of APIs, JSON, and no-SQL databases, analysts can more easily collect a huge quantity of data and playfully explore how to work with it as the terabytes accumulate.

This (relative) ease of workflow for analysts is a side effect of great advances made in standards and code, most of it open source, that underpin the modern Web. However, the job of analysts is also harder as the object of their study—what Yochai Benkler calls the networked public sphere (NPS)—has become vastly more complicated.

Five or six years ago one could map blog activity around some issue or scope, call it a picture of the NPS, and get away with it. No longer. In the short period of time since online communications began competing with mainstream media as the primary carrier of effective discourse around public affairs, we have seen three generations in the evolution of the NPS. And the ecosystem is still evolving.

The first generation was the open Web, a.k.a. the blogosphere. Before blogs, there was a primordial soup of forums and bulletins boards, harboring active discursive life but not meaningfully connected to other online discussion spaces—hence no networked public sphere. Blogs, along with Web-native news and old media websites, created an interconnected tissue of discussion and hyperlinked reference and navigation, thus forming the foundational layer of the NPS. 

The second generation came with the rise of the great global social platforms, Facebook and Twitter. While earlier platforms existed, some specific to particular parts of the world, the hegemony of these giants is the defining feature of NPS 2.0. Whereas the early blogosphere was mainly the playground of technical, media, and political elites, the second generation saw the expansion of the NPS to include vast numbers of regular folks (Facebook), connecting them in a dense global network of lightning-speed topic coordination and link trading (Twitter). The NPS now encompasses the globe and many of its people, making national publics directly visible to one another in ways they never had been before. 

We are now entering the third generation of the NPS, in which some parts of the interconnected global public are looking for ways to reestablish more distinct communities. This trend is evidenced by the rise of niche platforms—the growing ranks of Tumblr, Pinterest, and the like—that allow people to collect more easily around shared interests and practices and to avoid the constant surveillance of their entire social networks. In other words, once parents and coworkers started showing up on Facebook, many people (and not just teenagers) realized they needed some less universally connected places to go.

The key thing to understand about these three generations of the NPS is that they supplement, rather than supplant, each other. Those who claim “blogs aren’t important anymore because of Twitter” are way off the mark. Blogs remain critical NPS infrastructure, just as Facebook and Twitter remain hegemonic in the face of Quora and The oceans didn’t empty out when life evolved onto land. The NPS is becoming more complex—its ecosystems diversifying but still interconnecting—which is why the job of understanding it is getting harder even as the job of collecting its data and applying computational analysis gets easier.


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December 10, 2013


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