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Twitter as a public sphere?

Randall F. Clemens


Over the next month, I am going to discuss issues pertaining to education as a public good. The purpose—or purposes—of education has become a polarizing issue (for an introduction to this topic, see David Labaree’s “Public Goods, Private Goods”). Some argue for education to improve democracy; others argue for education to improve the economy. An individual’s opinions about the purposes of education often shape his or her thoughts regarding educational issues such as school choice, standardized assessments, common standards, and Race to the Top.

Because my views rarely fit either / or categorizations, I am going to state some of my basic assumptions upfront. 

  • First, we ought to strive for education as a global public good. That is—even though education as a public good is imperfect in its current form, and possibly any form—quality education available to everyone worldwide ought to be our principal goal. 
  • Second, education fulfills individual and communal interests at the same time. In other words, a college education may help an individual become socially mobile and democratically inclined. 
  • And third, while education ought to be available to everyone, the shape of education (i.e. curricula, testing, schooling options, etc.) ought to be publicly deliberated to meet local needs and interests. As such, forums for discussion are essential. This last point brings me to the idea of the public sphere.


For those unfamiliar with the origins of the public sphere, the most popular treatment of the concept occurs in Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. He provides three criteria:

  •     Everybody treats everybody as equal. Social status is irrelevant. 
  •     The participants agree to discuss and question issues related to the common good. 
  •     The forum is all-inclusive. 

The public sphere is situated within Habermas’s larger interest in communicative rationality, the idea that we may achieve mutual understanding through discussion. 

Where does the public sphere occur in contemporary society? Options range from community meetings and parent-teacher associations to newspapers columns, television shows, and radio stations. Opportunities for public discourse are key. However, considering the above criteria, each of the options contains shortcomings. The reason pertains to the core of the concept. As Nancy Fraser points out, the idea of the public sphere itself is fraught with problems, including issues of bracketing social differences, providing equal access, and ignoring subaltern counterpublics. 

Nevertheless, I have recently heard academics suggest Twitter as a new public sphere. The social media, they argue, is our 21st century version of the 18th century coffee house or salon. I understand the allure of social media as a public sphere, but I am not convinced.

So, what do you think? Is the increasingly popular social media a new public sphere?

Next week, I will discuss my thoughts regarding the promise and peril of 140 characters or less.