I have been encountering a certain assumption recently, one that I do not think is warranted, but one that is nevertheless prevalent among the people that I know, even among those that I respect. The assumption is that new media in general, and social media in particular, have resulted in a less literate and less relevant public sphere. David Eaves and Dave Humphrey have both written posts recently that touch on this subject, and I concur with both of them, but I think that the whole debate generally misses an important fact: that is, the public sphere has always been mostly illiterate and irrelevant.
Anyone who has had a conversation about politics or economics or any other public concern knows this to be true. Most of what we say to one another about public life is uninformed, derivative, biased, poorly reasoned, and self-interested. This is true, I would argue, even in much of the traditional mass media, but it is particularly true of the conversations that occur around the kitchen table and the water cooler and the bar stool, because these are the places where the public sphere is at its most informal. This kind of conversation has not become more inane and uninformed due to the rise of new media. It has always been largely inane and uninformed. The only difference is that a vastly greater portion of the public sphere is now expressed through mass media, because a vastly greater number of people have access to mass media through twitter and blogs and forums and wikis and other technologies. The only difference is that the kitchen table and the water cooler and the bar stool have now found expression in mass media.
This is not a crisis. At least, it is not a greater crisis than it has always been. Yes, the public sphere is healthier when it is better informed and more articulate, but this healthier public sphere is not essentially compromised by new media, nor is it essentially enhanced by traditional media. To create a healthier public sphere it is necessary, not to restrict public discourse to traditional mass media, or to any other form of media for that matter, but to foster increased engagement and concern with public life through every medium that the public in fact employs. By all means, the public should be encouraged to use new media in ways that are increasingly informed and reasoned and articulate and to respond to new media critically, but this is true of traditional media also, now as much as ever.