The Public and Private Spheres in Times of the Social Media

The Public and Private Spheres in Times of the Social Media

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The border between the private sphere and the public sphere is of a constitutive meaning to liberal-democratic societies: When everything is public, there is no freedom – there is a lack of space in which we, as individuals or groups just belong to ourselves, in life and death, and where we are allowed to be self-willed and do not have to justify ourselves. And when everything is private, there is no political freedom where we negotiate as citoyens of a heterogeneous society on what concerns all, beyond our immediate surroundings and what must be decided and complied with by all, directly or by means of representation, with a majority. To what extent should the private sphere limit the public one and vice versa – that was a subject of debate since the beginning of modern civil society in the 18th century, one that came to very much differing answers, historically speaking. Two major traditions have been established in the process: a liberal-individualistic one, represented in Germany by Immanuel Kant and Wilhelm von Humboldt and in England by John Stuart Mill, as well as a communitarian school of thought that was decisively shaped by German “state philosopher“ Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel. The liberal-individualistic tradition represents the precedence of a person‘s individual freedom before the community (state, nation, ethnicity or family) as a right to protection of the free and the equal against the unjustified rule and control through the collective. That is why the liberal-individualistic tradition aims to define the boundaries of the state and the public sphere and prevail against it. This tradition is opposed by the Hegelian-communitarian one which stresses the person’s ties and commitments within the community. Here, too, exists a right to privacy. However, this right should serve the broad picture – the state and the society. Privacy needs to justify itself before a political judgment is passed on whether the perception of individual freedom is socially responsible and whether it qualifies for solidarity and on the reaching of boundaries of the private sphere and where the right to information, disclosure and intervention in the private sphere is justified and necessary in the public interest. The classic areas where the argument on boundaries of the private and public sphere takes place are the gender relations, parental rights, but also rights such as informational self-determination. That way, the boundaries of the private sphere in couple relationships and families are today drawn where the state diagnoses a “private failure” of sorts (for example when parents neglect their children, sending them repeatedly to beg instead of sending them to school) and claims for itself – leaning on democratically agreed upon laws – the right and duty to intervention. In matters of gender relations, the right of not having to justify one’s own behavior in private matters is criticized as power of de-thematization of unjust power relations between genders. In Germany, for example, the state renders the question on whether men take part in the upbringing of their children a public affair. Incentives are given in order not to force, but move fathers to raise children, so benefits are offered, such as school meals, books, sports facilities in order to influence the child-raising behavior of parents who are considered incompetent to raise their children as healthy, self-aware and independent members of society. There is a similar attitude regarding the right to informational privacy which is understood in countries with liberal constitutions as an individual right to freedom as opposed to official surveillance of place of residence, postal office and electronic communication, and has to be defended repeatedly as such. Germany’s Constitutional Court limited in its 1983 ruling on the state population census the state‘s information requirements through the individual’s informational self-determination. However, at the same time it has defined – in a Hegelian-communitarian tradition – the person as being in need of communication. According to that ruling, since informational freedom could be perceived only in a communicative community with others, the maintenance of this community limits the individual freedom.

Informational freedom can and should be perceived only in a communicative community with others, says the Constitutional Court, following the Hegelian-communitarian tradition. This freedom of informational self-determination is not only a protective right before the state but also a societal institution, such as the freedom of thought, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion or parenting freedom. These civil liberties are not only exercised in the society with others, they also present a task for the legislator, as well as the individuals, namely that the expression of thought, the communicative self-determination or the self-willed style of upbringing should be carried out in the interest of developing a society of the free and equal – i.e., in the public interest.

This is a strong demand which clearly differs from a fearful liberalism that retreats solely to the rule of law and individual freedom. The liberal-individualistic tradition must (within the limits of the constitution and the general morality) accept each form of thought expression or exposure of information online as a justified expression of individual preferences. The Hegelian-communitarian tradition has no such obligation. It differentiates between issues that are valuable for the debate, by contributing arguments, conviction and persuasion in the development of a society of the free and the equal, and those that are meaningless for their lack thereof, as well as those that are harmful, for they call upon discrimination, hatred and war, thus justifying public intervention. That is, in that case, not censorship as the suppression of “unpatriotic art“ but the securing of a society of the free and equal, and a liberal public as prerequisite for the freedom of individual opinion and the freedom of arts and literature.

In case of families that do not do their societal upbringing responsibility justice, this strong demand may be acceptable. But is it also acceptable in the case of internet user behavior? Namely, both with younger and older internet users, the care about data protection as part of private sphere protection before the state still plays a major role. However, apart from that, today’s trend moves in the direction of the public sphere. Post-privacy is on today´s agenda, in relation to the other members of society. In most of the contributions to the debate, this is today – more or less consciously – substantiated through the use of the liberal-individualistic tradition’s arguments. Technical possibilities linked with individual user preferences are interpreted as an irresistible societal trend, to which the society is obliged to deal with and adapt to. The liberal-individualistic argumentation endorses and supports this trend by promoting, besides data protection, equal access and censorship freedom – unquestionably important goals. But can the trend towards the public sphere in the form of digital publicness also be interpreted as progress in the development of a society of the free and the equal? A few observations and valuations on this:


Retreat to the Public Sphere

What can one think of the fact that an increasing number of people use the internet – websites and blogs – to publish their consumption patterns, sexual preferences, the interior and exterior of their apartments and their opinions on political issues? And how should one evaluate the fact that people who do not want their houses publicized via Google Street are denounced and exposed by anonymous activists as deniers and concealers? What is here being labeled as public sphere, is in fact the publicized privacy. The liquefaction of the frontiers between the private and the public sphere – which since the 1960s has represented a demand for a society of the free and the equal – is a “retreat to the public sphere” that transforms the world into an intimate space of private expressions. The private sphere’s penetration of the public sphere was already described by English sociologist Richard Sennett in his book “The Fall of Public Man” (1977). There he traces the road towards an intimate society in which the private sphere increasingly superimposes the public one. Sennett does not only describe, he also criticizes this “tyranny of intimacy“ from the standpoint of the public sphere as a political space that should be strengthened through refocusing on the role optimization of the public appearance and the rhetoric of speech. How did this trend of disclosure of the private sphere come about? Sennett and other critics see in it the result of an individualization which is synonymous to the loss of a person’s integration in a politically conscious class, in which individuals orient themselves according to the abundance of choices that need to be made on a daily basis. For a while, class orientation was able to be replaced by the few radio and television programs which, due to the shortage of broadcasting channels, assumed the position of orienting key media. But ever since the multiplication of channels and the internet, radio and television have lost that position. Today, the “friends“ acquired through social networks seem to be partially overtaking their task, by using the likes of “I like you“ and “You are OK“ to inter-subjectively attest to the success of the lonely individual life – or also in form of anonymously spread rumors and damages.


Political Public Sphere

Social networks are forming public spheres. But what are they doing for the political public sphere, how are they contributing to the negotiation of matters that concern all and that were agreed upon by a majority and are supposed to be abided by everyone? They are making remarkable contributions, there is no doubt about it, in matters of resistance against state censorship, secret policies, lack of transparency and repression. The Maghreb and Egypt revolutions showed this impressively, irrespective of whether they are to be assessed as internet revolutions or revolutions supported by the internet. Social networking is strong in matters of polarization and short-term action. The mobilization against an enemy, dictator or adversary, political opponent, should occur in an unprecedented manner. Skepticism and criticism are advisable as far as the constructive part is concerned, including the exchange of information and opinions in the process of deliberation that is supposed to reach a result that is just and beneficial to the common good. For, social networks, blogs, Twitter etc, follow the logic of swarm intelligence: they coordinate and bring together decentralized scattered knowledge and make it useful as collective intelligence. However, the problem remains, as stated by Cass Sunstein in his book “ 2.0” (2007), the fact that in this collective knowledge, the common knowledge has the upper hand over the heterogeneous knowledge of the others all too often, which gets forced away or is not even taken noticed of in the first place. Sunstein argues that the political discourse in social networks does not reach considerably beyond the consumers’ freedom of choice. The author goes on to say that over 90 percent of the 1,400 examined blogs refer only to similar information accessible online and thus creating self-amplifying echo chambers of a fragmented public sphere. The political public sphere of the society of the free and equal, on the other hand, emanates from a heterogeneous population of mutually alien individuals who do not succeed in having preferences as consumers, but face the challenge as citoyens in an unwanted and unplanned encounter with other citoyens’ arguments and experiences to elaborate preferences and arrive at shared majorities. How is a digital public sphere supposed to be organized in order to satisfy such demands? Can it and should it represent a public institution of self-development of the free and the equal – differentiated by means of self-organized usage forms from the endless consumption world of private choices? This is where a major, exciting debate begins on the digital commons, the still uncompleted idea of a democratic self-organized space for the digital self-determination of the free and the equal.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has led this debate for many years, most recently in the book “The Wealth of the Commons. A World beyond Market & State“ (ed. David Bollier, Silke Helfrich), published in 2012 (see also: