Can we equate the coffee shop discussions of 18th-century England that Habermas says was the ground for a public sphere to the virtual discussion platforms on the internet?
I definitely think so, as the principle is the same: to share ideas and trade them amongst those individuals involved. Habermas’ “public sphere” is the notion that a group of private people can band together to form a “public.” Politically, this sphere inspires critical debate to take place among the particular society it is present in.
Since dawn of the digital age and the advent of the internet, communications has been revolutionized, as people aren’t just limited to coffee shops, salons, the Tree of Cracow or town squares–debate and rational exchange can take place online. Discourse communities are formed online where people who have a certain interest, ideology, outlook, opinion, hobby, etc. can form sub-cultures and exchange ideas via the internet. Social media sites have been paramount in creating a place and a space for these conversations to take place online, in addition to accelerating this discourse. When discussing the power of social media for social activism, Malcolm Gladwell introduces Granovetter’s theory of weak and strong ties, which says that people can influence each other and both strong and weak ties hold society together. It’s these interpersonal ties that foster valuable discourse and exchange of ideas, especially online. According to Granovetter, there is strength in weak ties – they are our source of information and new ideas. Granovetter’s research has shown that a bunch of very strong ties isn’t always the best for inspiring new communication. According to him, “‘sociability is a routinized gathering of a relatively unchanging peer group of family members and friends that takes place several times a week.'”
“Granovetter then goes on to imagine how such a density of strong ties (but relative paucity of weak ones) might inhibit social activism” (Lehrer, 2010). On the internet, availability of both strong and weak ties is more pronounced. On social media sites, you have your close friends and your acquaintances. In the coffee shop, these weak ties may not be as available, because you might just be meeting with your “usual” group of friends or associates.
It’s important to note that in 18th century England, elite members of society went to coffee shops. Today, anyone who has an internet connection can have an online presence.
(great article on Wired talks more about this)