Saturday, 29 August 2009

The ‘public sphere’ – without a hashtag – is a concept from a 20th century sociologist named Habermas who had studied 18th century London for examples of how democracy functioned. No doubt he chose London because it was the most developed democracy in that century, and the only one for most of it. In Habermasian mode we’re confronted by groups of older guys smoking pipes at coffee houses – cafes, really – and talking about the news, which was printed on newspapers. The paradigm is skewed because, in those days, the franchise was the possession of a fairly elect slice of society at large.

Nowadays, the public sphere is made up of moments such as those brief, bitchy natterings around the coffee jar in the office kitchen, and of course, the family room where we sit down, absorbed, to watch the evening news. It also encompasses such things as blogs, Facebook news feeds, and Twitter pages. It refers to any place where there is an engagement between the individual and the political entity within the confines of which he or she lives.

Senator Kate Lundy’s #publicsphere Twitter hashtag accumulated about 2000 posts over the course of yesterday, as part of the interaction she organised between web experts and the public. Not a very large public, it must be admitted. At the peak morning viewing time perhaps 50 people were watching the Livestream videocast on the Public Sphere website.

Further interaction was provided by CoveritLive, a synchronous comment capture and publishing tool embedded in the web page. The embedded Twitter display feed was not necessary if you used Tweetdeck or another feed tool. Groups of experts gathered in Wollongong – where the event was primarily hosted – and in Melbourne (at Trinity College, Melbourne University) and Brisbane.

So we’re looking at a couple of hundred individuals all up. The “data set” (a nice catchphrase of Lundy’s) will be gathered together. A blog will be open for a couple of weeks. Then the results will be put onto a wiki. The outcomes will be, therefore, public all the way. But the size of the public is surprisingly small, given the forum’s enthusiastic use of the term ‘public sphere’.

Blogger Geordie Guy labels the event “a love-in pet project of Senator Kate Lundy” in his post of yesterday afternoon.

A ‘love-in’ it may have been but it was not without pain for viewers. The technology was not robust, which is somewhat ironic as one of the slots was filled by Dr Katina Michael talking about emergency warning systems. Follow-over comments on Twitter stemming from Katina’s presentation about the robustness of SMS and Twitter showed that the majority of attendees were techies. They wanted to participate in an area of expertise, and they did.

In fact the setup was so bad, at times, that I almost gave up. At one point they tried to cross to Brisbane. The audio worked but the video didn’t. Earlier, the audio and video worked but the audio was unintelligible for people viewing over the net. A learning experience, to be sure.

Some presenters stood out against a fairly bland crowd, but the epithet is more likely the result of poor delivery. Tim Parsons’ presentation was lively and interesting. He talked about how the internet is a way of life. A baby born today is on the internet, on Facebook, within hours of their birth. “Most new babies born in the developed world are on Facebook within hours,” he said. A group of 15- to 18-year-olds in the back of a bus is living “in a cloud of electronics".

But despite the technological challenges that taxed viewers and volunteer organisers alike, proof of the day’s power was not far to seek. #publicsphere was the top Australian hashtag of the day, beating that for UX Australia, a user experience conference held in Canberra, and video game Final Fantasy. “The strength of the public sphere is its transparency,” said Senator Lundy in her closing remarks.

Let’s hope the information captured yesterday filters out past the geeks and into the lumpen mainstream, so that the debate we saw online can, truly, become part of the public sphere.

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