Tampere – some reflections

Back from Tampere; and after my first ever lecture; thanks for everyone who came. I’d like to take up now a couple of points in connection with the presentations of Tarmo, Ivan and myself, and the discussion that followed.

The setting. Ivan’s presentation was a good reminder how I took certain things for granted in my research, and thus how I haven’t emphasized their importance. More concretely, I’m talking here about how a look at the political public sphere in the US might not be comparable to that of the quasi-democracy of Russia. So I need to be mindful of the scope of applicability, so to say, of the results I uncover.

(Where this gets really interesting is the idea of a global public sphere – could even such a thing exist? I guess this is another topic to dwell into later.)

I chose the presidential elections as subject matter of analysis. I claim that the election campaign is an important topic, and I assumed that it is a topic that connects all political interests groups, however minority interest they represent. But as Ivan pointed out, this assumption might be flawed.

I might find in my research that social news sites help the case of reasoned, rational discussion, that they do have a democratizing power, and that they are not afraid to question whatever ideologies mainstream media organs promote. But there might exist minority interest groups – “subaltern counter publics” – that cannot be defined in reference to the elections. It might be that they are concerned with a particular set of problems that can only be measured in a dimension other than how they relate to the candidates or the parties. If this is so, research about the elections will not reveal how well these groups are represented on social news sites. Although I cannot think of any example right now, I guess I should be mindful of the possibility at least.

(And again I have to remind myself that the analysis of which ideologies particular news items support (or, for that matter, oppose), and to what extent, is missing from the first phase of the research. The more I’m into it, the more it seems that this first phase will yield, on the one hand, some interesting pieces of information on the technical practicalities of social news websites (probably mostly interesting for journalism studies), and on the other hand, a lot of information which will only act as background to the second and third stages of research. Whatever I find here will have to be interpreted.)

Sunset from the huge tall, erm, näköalatorni.

Discussion. Another underlying assumption I have relied on was that discussion is central to democracy. Well, sure, in the original Habermasian model of the public sphere this is so (although even Habermas himself points out how individual (lonely?) contemplation is necessary for everything to work out well – you first need to cherish your own subjectivity so that you’ll actually have one to turn to public issues); but that’s no excuse for not thinking about it. Which I will, starting with Schudson, as recommended by Tarmo.

About the key strength of social news sites. I will dedicate a separate post to this; again, thanks to Ivan, who pointed out that I might have followed a too simplistic approach in describing the consequential nature of comments on social news sites (as opposed to blogs and ordinary discussion forums).

About the little “experiment” – there, too, a separate post will follow (note to self: explaining in the first place, just what exactly this has to do with my research). But briefly: it was about testing the idea promoted by James Surowiecki, that crowds can be very “wise,” in that they can come up with surprisingly accurate solutions to even surprisingly complex problems, even if members of the crowd do not have the expertise that is commonly held to be required for such solutions. The outcome wasn’t quite what I expected; but I guess it was because I probably couldn’t really explain the problem itself. Anyhow, thanks for taking part in it. : )

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