According to Graham, the digital environment complicates what we understand about the public sphere. Most scholars interested in the public sphere begin with the conceptualization popularized by Jürgen Habermas. According to Habermas, the public sphere mediates between the concerns of private citizens and the state:
The public sphere, according to Habermas, initially developed in European countries in the 18th century as a mediator between private concerns (family life, business, and labor), and spheres in which the state had authority (police, law, government). The public sphere at that time was composed of a set of institutions through which private citizens could come together.1
Habermas sees the public sphere as a bourgeois space in that the well-educated class use institutions like coffeehouses to generate a public opinion. However, with industrialization, the power to define public opinion shifts a political and economic elite, who control mass media.
Scholars like Nancy Fraser and Michael Dawson offer a more nuanced view of the public sphere. Fraser argues that the public sphere is an exclusionary space that marginalizes people due to their race, gender, and class status. Members of marginalized groups create subaltern counterpublics in response.
Dawson expands on Fraser and Habermas to conceptualize the _Black Counterpublic:
Dawson goes further, and argues that the institutionalization of discrimination in American society not only excludes African Americans from formal institutions of deliberative democracy, but also from many of the subaltern counterpublics that Fraser points to. Thus, from the late 1800s until the 1960s a “Black counterpublic” existed that allowed African Americans to critique both the formal and informal levers of government.2
The conceptualizations of these three scholars best characterize our understanding of the public sphere in physical space. While Habermas purports that the hegemonic definition of public sphere emerges from bourgeois liberalism, Fraser and Dawson argue counterhegemonic definitions of the public sphere revolve around group concerns. For example, the Black counter-public emerges due to people being treated as the “other.”
The Public Sphere in the Digital Environment
Scholars see the public sphere one the digital environment as a matter of segmentation and polarization as well as a networked public sphere. Scholars like Cass Sunstein argues that segmentation and polarization produce echo chambers where people lose the nuance of opposing views:
Segmentation refers to groups of users producing and consuming content in distinct worlds, although they are in theoretically the same environment. These groups then become polarized, as they lose the nuance of opposing viewpoints.3
Alternatively, scholars like Yochai Benkler describe the digital environment as a networked public sphere. This networked public sphere occurs as a deliberative democracy wherein people consume information from nonmarket actors. What arises in this context includes clusters of nested, moderately read websites as a viable option to concentrated mass media.
For Black people, the confluence of digital and physical environments in creating the public sphere can result in a digital enclave. Graham defines it as “a digital enclave is a website that is understood to be for, and is mainly populated by a single ethnoracial group.”4Digital enclaves enable content produced by and focused on a particular ethnic group, emerging as a distinct and isolated space within a network of other sites that serve similar functions.