E-Democracy vs. Open Democracy

The cathedral and the bazaar…1 redux (Part I)

By Laurence Allard and Olivier Blondeau2

In a contribution to a collection of essays put together by Pascal Perrineau, Le Désenchantement démocratique, Thierry Vedel sketched the broad outlines of e-democracy, its origins, the different visions it carries with it and the issues it raises.3 His analysis is based around three points aimed at correcting the main flaws of representative democracy:

  • citizen information, meant to make up for the lack of transparency in the political process, which the author sees as a reference to the enlightened citizen dear to the hearts of liberal philosophers such as Thomas Jefferson;
  • debate and discussion compensating for the narrowness – or closure – of the public sphere. The internet is perceived as an open public space that can welcome “the expression of multiple ideas and demands that cannot manifest themselves in the rigid and institutional framework of representative democracy”;4.
  • deliberation and decision-making to compensate for the bypassing of citizens in the decision-making process. To quote Vedel again, “the notion of e-democracy is based on the quest for more a participatory or consultative form of democracy via the implementation of systems or procedures that give citizens a heightened role in the elaboration of public policy”.

Looking in greater detail at the above three points, Vedel questions the capacity of the internet – and the Web in particular – to provide answers: respectively, on the illusion of an active and enlightened citizen and the myth of political transparency, on the simplification implicit in taking debate as a proxy for democracy and, last of all, on the risks inherent to a society without mediators, which believes that intermediate bodies (political parties, unions, the media) pervert the functioning of political systems.

Plug-in democracy: from ideal to standard

If we take a closer look at the various e-democracy mechanisms5 tested in France since the early 2000s – often consultations within the framework of public works projects (roads, airports, waste management systems, etc.) – we see that not only are the three points cited above present on each occasion, but that they have given rise to a “procedurisation” of e-democracy mechanisms. The procedurisation of online democracy has translated into the sequentialisation of the activities contained within the various mechanisms (investigate, debate, deliberate). As such, each point is a stage in a linear and chronological succession. Time is devoted first to gaining information, then to discussing the issue at stake, and finally to making a decision.
Aware of the main criticisms levelled against e-democracy debate mechanisms, their designers, while sticking to their procedural approach, have consistently attempted to correct the flaws inherent in this schematisation of democracy. The initiators of such public debates, and the agencies that advise them, often call on social scientists or information and communications specialists before giving thought to the type of tool that will work within these bounds: we would add reputation-management or -rating systems used to assess the relevance of specific pieces of information and the use of wiki tools – which encourage collective authorship or annotation of documents in order to allow a consensus to emerge – as a means of constructing mechanisms such as social-networking websites to foster the aggregation of collectives allowing expert opinions to be voiced, to cite only these examples. Each stage of the procedure thereby became a “brick” of software, building on the previous one in a very linear fashion.
This way of approaching e-democracy, defined within the framework of an ordered and linear procedure, in many ways fits in with common practice in web design: in the world of content-management systems (CMS), a website is a collection of bricks (modules, plug-ins, add-ons, etc.), each developed independently and intended to offer specific functionalities. One module is designed to allow collaborative authorship, a second is used for ratings, while a third provides the link with social-networking content-sharing websites.
The creators of these websites generally use CMSs that are available free of charge on the internet (WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, etc.), which each come with their own “bank” of additional modules. The use of these CMSs, which are often open-source and free, not only allows users to make a huge saving on software development – a claim trumpeted by the very designers of these CMSs – but also to benefit from the debugging work done by other users of the same CMSs (who often happen to be web designers) and the huge amount of work going into developing new modules offering functionalities that were not initially available, or to make the software interoperable with social-networking or content-sharing websites (YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, etc.).
The search for the Holy Grail – the term “killer application” would actually be more appropriate in the world of the internet – would in that respect entail the development of a standard system allowing a linear and standardised organisation of public debate consistent with the ideal of democracy, perceived as a clearly defined procedure. The difficulty – and numerous researchers concur on this point – is that this system has not achieved a critical mass ensuring its relevance and guaranteeing its representative nature. It must be acknowledged that this occasionally forces the designers of these websites to hire teams of contributors to a debate on these public debate websites, thereby making a mockery of public participation.
It must be understood that one can go further than simply looking at democracy – or e-democracy in this case – from a procedural perspective. Our decision to do so stems from clearly defined philosophical and political options. Our aim is not to take part as such in the debate between proceduralists and substantialists, but rather to observe practices that inform democracy, not as a procedure or a value, but rather as an investigation into itself, an experimentation – a way of looking at things that is in our view consistent with current trends in e-democracy in the United States, since the arrival of Barack Obama and his team in the White House. It is no doubt this alternative to proceduralist democracy covering the field of pragmatic American philosophy – one that is rarely understood in France – that contains the reasons some people have such difficulty comprehending the innovations represented by the migration from the notion of e-government to that of government 2.0 – and why others have trouble using these innovations as a source of inspiration. None of French politicians’ many and varied field trips to the United States, claimed by their parties as being aimed at finding inspiration in the methods of Barack Obama, will do. At the very best, they hope to achieve something akin to a B-series film – to use a cinematographic analogy – prompting parties to claim to use the same methods as Barack Obama, or even to claim to have inspired them, as did Ségolène Royal, a former French presidential candidate, only a few months ago. Ségolène Royal had no doubt forgotten the earlier role of a certain Joe Trippi, who advised another losing presidential candidate, this time in the United States, Howard Dean.

Debugging e-democracy?

Aside from the perfectibility of the various mechanisms adopted, researchers have put their fingers on two types of flaw in experiments in e-democracy conducted in France over the last ten years or so. The first relates to the issue of democracy as a procedure, the second concerns the dissymmetry inherent in a form of democracy envisaged as a discursive regime in a rational sphere.

a telling illustration of the ambiguity of the promises of e-democracy in this Council of Europe video recounting an e&http://www.fondapol.org/home/research/all-publications/publication/titre/e-democracy-vs-open-democracy.html?page=4#8209;democracy forum organised in October 2008.6

In a pure and perfect system, in which citizens are free, equal and not bound by any prior commitments, the procedural approach could prove relevant by allowing the emergence of a debate in which deliberation, defined as the search for a rational consensus, is based on a persuasive exchange. It would nevertheless appear that, in practice, e-democracy experiments conducted in France have failed dismally in producing the anticipated effects. In this respect, while it is possible to join with Thierry Vedel in criticising the promises inherent in the notion of e-democracy, “which claims to use the power of machines to offset the powerlessness of human beings”,7 it makes fairly symmetrical sense to examine this equally idealistic stance that boils down to seeing democracy as a rational sphere based on the primacy of the discursive regime. Bear in mind that by posing this question, our aim is not to reify the “technophilia” hypothesis, according to which machines can “save” or “re-enchant” democracy – to use the formula dear to Bruno Latour – but rather to imagine how communications technologies, which are expressive and rational, put the spotlight back on democracy itself. ||

Rebooting procedure?

Studying the consultation process initiated by the French National Commission for Public Debate (Commission Nationale du Débat Public, CNDP) within the framework of consultative process around proposed sites for a new international airport (DUCSAI) – known as the “debate about a third airport for Paris” – Laurence Monnoyer-Smith emphasises the innovative nature of the procedure put together by the CNDP as an experiment. She notes that hybrid procedures of this nature (simultaneously on- and offline) were previously unknown in France: “In fact, most experiments conducted in France are based on one or the other of the two debate supports; trailblazing municipalities in terms of e-democracy tend to take certain political practices to Web, and occasionally even invent new ones, conceived specifically for the internet”.8
In her study of this experimentation, Laurence Monnoyer-Smith highlights the numerous flaws contained in the website’s technical architecture, which prompt people taking part in the debate to misuse its functionalities, and on occasion even to sabotage it. “We must”, she says, “note the great amount of creativity demonstrated by users in appropriating the consultation mechanism […]. One original way of using the proposed interface made it possible to transform the ‘message title’ function, initially intended to allow users to ‘ask a question’, into an argumentative resource in order to make their position immediately visible […]. In addition, people using the forum managed to raise and dwell on the issue of the utility of the project, which was not initially intended, meaning that this issue, avoided in all the public meetings starting in June, remained omnipresent in the debate. Lastly, the website was used as a space for discussion allowing catch-cries to be agreed upon for the various protests organised by associations opposed to the idea of locating the new airport in their region. It became a space devoted to defining their own strategies in terms of protest and putting pressure on decision-making bodies.”
Monnoyer-Smith’s work clearly shows how the democratic procedure, somehow encapsulated in the website’s technical architecture (one functionality or another), must be thought out correctly and cannot be left to chance, and how it must be the object of discussion and consultation between all people involved, in the absence of which the mechanism itself will run the risk of being diverted from its initial purpose, or even sabotaged by collectives or pressure groups using it as a soapbox.
No doubt worse is that fact that the question of these so-called “participatory” mechanisms comes under the sign of defection, an issue that Laurence Monnoyer-Smith does not raise directly in her article. The biggest risk for an e-democracy experiment is that it should ultimately fail to spark any interest. All that is needed for consultations of this nature to flounder is for the question to be badly put, for the procedure aimed at offsetting side effects to be overly constrictive, or for visibility about the impact expected from the debate to be poorly grasped. In such cases, the designers of this type of mechanism have two possible solutions, which we have observed empirically: either they decide to conduct the debate themselves by hiring teams of participants and modifying the IP address of their PCs, i.e. by simulating participation on the website, in which case the discussion is immediately transformed into a communication strategy, or they rely on the pervasiveness of social networks in a bid to bolster their audience. This entails taking the debate onto social-networking websites (SNW) by creating a group on Facebook, for instance, or by generating content on content-sharing websites such as YouTube, Dailymotion, Flickr, etc.
These remarks bearing on an excessively procedural approach to e-democracy imply that information and communication technologies (ICT) tend to spawn more problems than they resolve. It is not only necessary to obtain the agreement of all participants on the procedure itself, but also to get them to agree amongst themselves about the technical architecture of the website that will be used as a forum for the debate.
As such, we are seeing a big increase in the number of projects aimed at orchestrating e-democracy due to the lack of forethought given to the procedural aspects.
In France, we have seen the work of a company known as Sopinspace, which aims to foster new forms of public debate and web-based cooperation.9 Sopinspace defines itself as a company that “brings the best of internet technology and social processes to fuel new public debate, participatory democracy and collaborative applications. We hope to help build a public sphere that enriches democratic decision-making and collaborative activities”.10 In this case, the procedure that refers to the ideology of technology-based cooperation – Sopinspace has developed an application for making comments on texts, known as co-ment™ – is reified using the classic angle of the rational public sphere: players are both inclined to “cooperate” with each other, and also possess all the requisite cultural and social skills to allow them to make an equally valuable contribution to a debate essentially taking place under a discursive and argumentative regime. Not only is this naive as far as democracy is concerned – it ignores the existence of intermediate bodies (unions, associations, political parties, the media, etc.), lobbies and personal agendas – but it also represents an ideological stance with respect to cooperation itself.
It is no secret that the notion of cooperation cited abundantly by the promoters of the open-source movement is largely overestimated. A recent study showed for instance that the very example (Wikipedia) used by Philippe Aigrain to back up his theory of cooperation, confirming numerous other studies, is based on a myth.11

As Vassilis Kostakos points out, contrary to the widely held belief that citizens are making a massive contribution to the authorship of the uniquitous contributive online encyclopaedia, less than 1% of contributors are responsible for more that half the content. The work of Eric Von Hippel and others has also shown that the vast majority of projects for the development of free software, with only a few exceptions – and this is not to undermine the merits of this type of software – are the work “collectives” that in fact rely on only one or two people. Without seeking to discuss the semantic drift in the world of free software over recent years from the language of liberty to the language of cooperation, it would appear that the latter notion, applied to software production and now in a sense taken into the political sphere, is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than an empirical observation.

Refreshing discursive regimes

One of the hopes of e-democracy was that it would help renew the audience, prompting younger generations more at home with digital expression and communication technologies to become involved in public debate. Here again, the results have been mixed, to say the least. Undeniably, e-democracy mechanisms have helped bring debate to a wider audience, thereby providing scope for participants outside the realm of public meetings. “This new mode of participation by citizens”, says Laurence Monnoyer-Smith, “helps overcome classic constraints in terms of time, distance or availability, which can severely limit attendance by workers, parents or people with reduced mobility”.12 But it does not resolve all the issues involving the public: as in public meetings, and even if the relative weight of rational argumentation is less overwhelming than other forms of expression, online participation remains hinged on the social capital of the people involved and their discursive regime, which can take on alternative forms and supports of expression. Laurence Monnoyer-Smith, taking her inspiration from our own work, concludes her article with the hypothesis according to which “it would be helpful to give thought to the manner in which the new objects circulating in the public sphere, via the internet in particular, can be included in the debate, in order to mobilise people who are allergic to traditional forms of political discussion. In this sense, any frozen public debate procedure actually hinders debate and its appropriation by a wide audience; this is the source of the ambiguity of its institutionalisation”. However, as early as 2001, Dominique Reynié stressed the need to give thought to “expressive universes” not included in contemporary work on the public sphere: “In other words”, he wrote, “would it not be preferable to view public opinion as the result of a specific configuration fostering interaction between a group of very disparate elements, from the production of data to the context in which they are published? As such, and again as an example, 19th century public opinion emerged in a world characterised by a plurality of elements: the press and its extraordinary growth into a daily, mass-circulation press as lower prices enabled poorer people to join the ranks of the readers”.13
We wholeheartedly agree with Laurence Monnoyer-Smith’s deceptive conclusion when she cites our work on expressive objects such as remixes of TV newscasts or websites hosted by France’s first blog platform (Skyblog) devoted to the November-December 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs, but would stress to an even greater extent the limits of such standardised participatory debates, in both their conception of democratic exchanges and their transformation into websites using the very same CMSs.

Slide video honouring Bouna and Zied by flo93

In fact, expressive objects that deal with real political issues and demonstrate the empowerment of citizens are often thought of as “dirty objects” by people who have had a long history of involvement in the institutional cathedrals of e-democracy, those who, perpetuating the tradition of the literary public sphere that emerged in some circles in the 18th century, find the argumentative model to be undermined by the SMS language often favoured by newcomers to politics. However, these “dirty objects” are the expression of a form of political sociology that the sequentialist proceduralist school has so far failed to take into account, namely individual expressivist tendencies, which make it necessary to look into the plurality of political engagement, the porosity of political causes and the great variety of objects of political expression. In order to get a better grasp of areas of debate on the internet and the mechanisms involved in online political participation, it is important to take into account the newcomers’ backgrounds in terms of their social identity, as well as the decisive cultural shift brought about by the emergence of ICTs. ||

Expressivist politics

User-generated content bas become the biggest source of content on the Web: blogging, obviously, and, more recently, profiles on social-networking websites.14 Content of this type comes in all sorts of varieties: personal, political and cultural. As such, it can be seen as “expressive content”: individuals appropriate the media’s agenda (a specific political event), a range of cultural forms (TV series, advertising, games, etc.), differentiated sources of information (newspaper articles, online encyclopaedias, blog posts, academic research, etc.), either by expressing their opinions on the same topic (in a written text, in a video remix, by putting an advertising photo into a different context, etc.), or by reusing them via various procedures or processes (embedding, republishing a link, sharing content deemed interesting) in their own content (a note, a tweet, a comment, a hashtag, etc.).

Region-killing steel vendor, in honour of Gandrange steel workers laid off due to the closure of the AreclorMittal steel mill.

Political discourse is widespread in various forms (text, image, sound) and practices (writing, copying and pasting, sharing, etc.) on the internet, but in a much broader range of forms of expression than the simple discursive register of structured debate using certified expertise. Beneath the individual and social identities that provide the very basis of this form of expressive performativity (via the choice of a photo for one’s profile, a description of oneself and the various content that one can generate about oneself), the underlying message is that one “wants” to be on the internet.15 The logic of “expressive individuation” at work in user-generated content is only possible in reference to the social identity background of reflexive individualisation, which implies that today’s individuals must rely on themselves to find an answer to the question, “Who am I?”, in a period characterised by the de-traditionalisation of key identifying categories such as race, gender, class, etc. Personal and social identities are no longer endowed naturally, nor are they reproduced blindly.
Other writers have noted the uncertainty, distance and reflexivity of individuals vis-à-vis social models and roles;16 we would tend to highlight the positive and emancipating aspects of what we term the “comprehensive pole of sociologies of individualism”: the development of reflexivity, heightened autonomy, a closer relationship to personal interiority, greater scope to produce one’s identity and the transformation of “us” by leaving more room for the word “I”. Expressive individualism is as such the backdrop to the profusion of political expression on the internet. Sociologically speaking, recent studies in both France and the United States have highlighted the democratisation of this form of expressivism in terms of age, social class and residence.17. For a long time, the practices of so-called “digital natives” – the generation born after 1979, which grew up in the shadow of digital communication networks and the ubiquitous mobile phone close at hand – were typically representative of expressivist politics.18 Henry Jenkins, a fan-culture specialist and promoter of the notion of participatory culture in his latest work, Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide,19 has looked into this question. In an article entitled “‘Geeking out’ for democracy”,20 Jenkins looks at civic engagement among 15-30-year-olds, most notably by examining somewhat worn-out assumptions about the critical role played by the internet in the success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Jenkins bases his comparison on Robert D. Putnam’s controversial essay Bowling alone. The collapse and revival of American community,21 which says that the baby-boom generation found its civic engagement in the local bowling alley, and that its commitment is waning. The first social-networking website, Meetup, created in 2002, was inspired by Putman’s essay. Meetup’s founder is on record as saying “the primary inspiration was the book Bowling alone (…). We are providing a service that revitalizes the internet for local communities”.22
Basing his analysis on recent studies by the Digital Youth Project,23 Jenkins shows how the opportunities for political commitment of the so-called “digital natives”which is constantly online and blends learning, recreation (messing around, hanging out) and computer geeking, are stronger than ever. He stresses the permeability of the boundaries between cultural participation and civic engagement in the way this generation uses ICTs. Taking such studies a step further, we note that a telephone survey conducted in the United States in August 2008, with a sample of 2,251 adults aged over 18, led to the publication of a report that sheds a good measure of light on online practices.24 For instance, while the internet plays a greater role in the civic and political engagement of people aged between 18 and 29 than for other age brackets, socio-demographic criteria (education, income, etc.) are not a particularly important factor in their online practices. This runs counter to the findings of offline measurements taken by the American National Election Studies (ANES) since 1948.25 Some 34% of people in this age bracket post content with political ramifications on the internet. This “activity tending towards political or civic engagement”, to quote the fairly broad definition used in this report, can also sometime be nothing more than simple “slacktivism”: becoming a politician’s “friend” on Facebook with a simple click or supporting a cause by becoming a “fan”.26

Semiotic democracy?

If we look at the recent history of the media, with the development of networks for sharing and exchanging music files over the last ten years, it would appear that the role given to the public since the institutionalisation of a public cultural sphere in the 18th century and its industrialisation in the 20th century has been pretty much thrown up in the air. As summed up by Henry Jenkins, “audiences, empowered by these new technologies, occupying a space at the intersection between old and new media, are demanding the right to participate within the culture.”27
Mobile communication technologies entered the market against the backdrop of this mass “customisation” and personalisation, making the mobile phone for example authentic “technology of the self”, to quote Michel Foucault. Over the last decade, the mass media regime that has dominated since the 20th century has been sustainably destabilised by technological innovations that do not belong to it (the internet, p2p, etc.). This shift has given rise to an irreversible social transformation, the same one alluded to by Henry Jenkins, the first sign of which is the swapping of instituted cultural roles: a reversibility of the roles of author, broadcaster, programmer and spectator. Some American authors have described this reversibility of roles as a read-write culture, as opposed to the read-only culture, as described by Lawrence Lessig in his reflection on the Remix Culture.28Some accordingly consider that the internet has allowed people to write, just as the printing press allowed them to read. Technologically speaking, as digital literacy is in no way innate, even among digital natives, and as we said earlier, the ordinary forms of political expression that must be taken into account in terms of online debate are not limited to writing.
In an atmosphere of “semiotic democracy”, to quote John Fiske29 talking about pluralised interpretations of mass TV programmes, which appears to have become reality on the internet, internet practitioners’ “power to speak” in this expressivist age can be documented and set down in different registers, via varying information sources and in accordance with procedures that bear no relation to public debates constructed from nothing, dealing with remote or badly posed questions. Public debate, on the other hand, can be read, heard or seen – in a chaotic light, granted – but nevertheless amply expressing citizen empowerment.

Political remix

We believe remixes provide good examples for those who want to see from the inside how self-created content can become a support for political expression and participate in online public debate. Remixes, in their varied forms (from minimal modification of content to maximum recreation), are a frequent authorship procedure on the internet. They are a typical component of digital literacy, in that remixing is central to the Web, even in the very basic sense of copying and pasting a link to a video or another website so as to add these elements to one’s own content. During the riots in the Paris suburbs in November and December 2005, we looked at different types of remixes relating to these events and their media coverage, from the subtitling of TV newscasts to Skyblogs weaving photos of burnt cars or newswires into their textual fabric.30 To document the range of narrations of what were initially media events, we compared them to even more singular productions, such as the creation of games on Machinima,narrations using the repertoire of video games in the aim of explaining (primarily to an American audience) the reasons for the riots (racism), or the posting of slides put together from school photos of the two adolescents who were trying to hide from the police, and whose death in an electricity transformer sparked the riots. The French Democracy machinima,31 put together by a young man aged 22 at the time of the events, is a good example of empowerment by means of a form of cultural expression – 3D games in this instance – used as a contribution to the debate on the French suburbs.

French Democracy, Alex Chan, 2005

A comparison is provided by a recent American study aimed at contributing to the debate on participatory culture, weaving together open democracy experiments using mashups32 in the United States and political remixes of the 2008 residential campaign – bearing in mind that one out of every four Americans had viewed videos of Barack Obama, especially on YouTube. Starting with the idea that analysis of user-generated content as a form of political engagement has too often focused on blogs, the study’s authors opted instead to look at the rise of political video mashups, positing that such productions are an allegory to citizens’ capacity to act. Looking back over the history of citizen video remixes, from “Vote different’ (2007) to the famous “Yes we can” (2008), the authors identified three allegories for the reasons that prompt citizens to engage in the creation of a political remix:

  • the defence of a cause;
  • political protest;
  • testimony.

“Yes we can”, 2008

Seen through the prism of these three reasons, political mashups work as tools, weapons and observations. Note that the three allegories are consistent with the 1990s media-activist claims we looked at in our book Devenir Média.33
The interpretative dynamic and the opening of texts proper to contemporary remix culture are typical of “digital semiotic democracy”. Remix culture is today one way of taking part in political life, showing how the “we” of a country, group or cause can be borne by a singular collective voice in the symbolic sense of the word, as described long ago by the American philosopher Emerson. ||

The #hashtag of all causes: Twitter as a counter-public space

Another source of hot debate among online audiences is Twitter, up and running since July 2006, which ushered back in the synchronous nature of exchanges and expressions in real time. This service, which uses a partially open programming interface (API), has given rise to a big increase in applications and clients for mobiles or the internet, thereby heightening the pervasiveness of messages posted on this micro-blogging network.
It was an application user hack that first highlighted the empowerment dimension of Twitter’s political function. A number of users had the idea of generating non-natural keywords (by adding a # before a word or group of words), or hashtags – which in computer parlance refer to micro-formats that add an additional layer on top of IT languages such as html – to open a communications channel that could be picked up easily by certain search engines. Hashtags have been opened at the time of the Mumbai terrorist attack (#mumbay), the riots in Greece (#griots), and were even used to keep an eye on polling stations during the last presidential election in the United States and legislative elections in India (#votereport).

Screen capture from the VoteReport website.

The practice has become so widespread that users can follow discussion and information threads in real time just about every day on Twitter. Users take up causes, sometimes located a long way away in geographical terms, via different types of content (links to blogs, newspaper articles, videos, comments, impressions, etc.), on an issue brought to the attention of the public by the deliberate aggregation of their messages. This was made possible by the opening of this semantic channel created by implicit consensus (via trial and error and counter-proposals) or by personal initiative.
One way of protesting or thwarting collective expression is to propose a counter-hashtagin order to trick political adversaries. More recently, in France, at the initiative of a journalist on Libération, a daily newspaper, and a blogger, we were able to observe a movement on Twitter against the appointment of the president’s son at the head of the body that oversees the La Défense business district (Epad).
This gave Twitter a role in the public sphere in opposition to the media sphere. The notion of counter-sphere refers to the work of Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge in Public sphere and experience. Toward an analysis of the bourgeois and proletarian public sphere.34 In response to Jürgen Habermas’s excessively hegemonic model of the public sphere, which does not take into account the existence of publics other than the literate bourgeois public idealised as of the 18th century, the authors introduced the notion of the counter-public sphere. This notion is particularly popular among minorities in the United States to express the plurality of publics and their publicisation spaces. Dominique Reynié, in his Habermasian archaeology of the public sphere and critical opinion, also cites the work of Nancy Fraser, who, highlighting the exclusion of women from the idealised formation of the public sphere, made possible a revaluation of the importance of the exclusion function, not only in the constitution of the public sphere, but also in its workings.35
We use the notion of counter-public sphere not from the perspective of “inferior” audiences and minorities, but in the sense of a public sphere generated by Twitter users, whether they be individually registered in different communities or not. Moreover, we refer to the notion of public in a more pragmatic sense, in reference to that proposed by John Dewey of individuals rallying around an issue that they publicise in order to regulate.36 As such, a counter-public sphere can be built up via mobilisation around and identification with a cause, a reason to act, a motive or a public issue.
The counter-public sphere can also take the form of an alternative media sphere, when the internet is censored in some countries, as was the case in Iran in June 2009. As soon as the results of Iran’s presidential election were made public, the #iranelection channel became the semantic space that concatenated all messages dealing with the events. This is probably the process that contributed to the creation of a veritable communications counter-public sphere, reinforcing international mobilisation around the Iranian question.37
Some people believe that such collective expressions, which can spark street action such as flash mobs, result from a sort of viral effect (internet buzzes), on the basis of pseudo-scientific theories around “memetics”, or self-replicating genes, that grew out of a dangerous analogy with genetics, natural selection and eugenics. Trying to establish a relationship between one’s individual expressivity and a hashtag seen as a form of positivist immanence is a very strange way of denying subjectivities, their empowerment and the collective dynamics that take part in the publicisation of expressions. Implying that individuals tweet unknowingly on political issues and that the collective mobilisations that sometimes result from their tweets are a form of pathology is to imply that citizens are being played upon. Implying that they are moved by a stronger force clearly helps deny their capacity to act. Such is the political inconsequence involved in excessive reference to the notion of internet buzz. Which obviously goes against the very intentions of those who take part in them.

Conclusion. The aggregative paradigm: the pragmatics of exchanges and the politics of links

We have just spoken about semiotic democracy, online experiments in democracy as a form of life. We nevertheless need to say that the field of pragmatic inter-subject exchanges and singular expressions is the only one in which we can document the issues that prompt public debate on the internet. Massive machineries, akin to cathedrals, developed in days of old by governments and promoters of public debate to experiment e-democracy, conceived as a sort of deus ex machina, have reached their limits, and even the most vehement defenders of old now agree that we must cast our eyes – to an extent at least – over other objects. These cathedrals are now only good enough to provide an ersatz of public debate or – worse – to douse the polemics and debates that sometimes emerge from the internet itself and its plural expressive spheres (we are obviously alluding here in part to the debate over nanotechnologies).
Refreshing the objects, supports and formats of public debate is, as we have just said, only the start. The issue is not simply one of new objects; what is really at stake is the emergence of a new relationship to public debate, citizenship and democracy – reinvented thanks to the appearance and development of ICTs. No one any longer sees – at least we hope not – the substitution of “the power of machines for the powerlessness of humans”38 as a means of resolving the crisis of political authority and institutions. At the very most, these technologies and their usages can appear as special-purpose laboratories, allowing us to observe and experiment with new procedures and forms, new supports and tools designed to inform citizens and public debate.

To speak from an Social Networking Site account, using one or several identities, to express one’s political subjectivity formed by a plurality of sources of information and knowledge, to formulate a singular opinion across varying formats and supports, deliberately to take up a cause via different technical procedures (hashtags, retweets, sharing, voting, commenting, remixing, etc.) are all ways of taking part in a public debate using the technical means individuals have at their disposal. The social dynamics of sharing and exchanging – the very dynamics made possible, technically speaking, by the dynamic Web and the xml format of user-generated content – could provide an architecture, with the means at hand, for citizen-inspired e-democracy.
We could term the bottom-up online democracy paradigm, the sociology of which is expressive individuation and the culture that of participation, the “aggregative paradigm”.
The aggregative paradigm takes into account the aggregation of political subjectivities by socio-technical procedures aimed at producing a broadly based reality out of a renewed dialectic between the individual and the collective. The top-down proceduralist way, as it appears through a number of different websites (see the public debate on nanotechnologies or campaign websites for France’s 2010 regional elections), may in that way come across as a means of rationalising democratic life in order to limit the uncontrollable effects of the “power to speak” tested on the internet.
This brings us to the two fundamentally contradictory paradigms of e-democracy, and a crossroads that begs the question of its very future. The proceduralist way implies the construction of a debate on the internet, while the aggregative way implies to debate with the internetIn the first instance, the debate procedure is linear and imposed on users. In the second instance, the audience forms around the debate, with the technical means and the profusion of symbolic resources at hand.

Tim O’Reilly’s illustration of the Gov 2.0 paradigm.

It was this variety of e-democracy pragmatics that the teams working for Barack Obama fertilised and simultaneously reinvented with their transparency and open government initiatives, which we will examine in the next article in this series. Barack Obama’s initiatives are not aimed at producing a machine capable of generating democracy and public debate – a democratic killer application – but rather at prompting citizens, companies, and local and federal civil servants to mobilise their technical and expressive resources to allow the public to become a “co-creator of ideas”, as his science technology advisor recently put it. The lexicon may appear surprising, given the extent to which it contrasts with traditional political discourse: the state and federal governments are learning to use the terms mashup, data, contests, crowd-sourcing, cloud computing, user-generated content, etc. as standard features of online debate. Far from taking an idealised view of democracy as their starting point, the promoters of open government and government 2.0 have turned the approach on its head, going back to the mechanisms, forms of debate and supports of vernacular expression that characterise the internet, and are seeking to use these new modes of expression to generate debate and mobilisation, thereby testing a form of governance linking the bottom-up and top-down approaches.


1 The title is a direct reference to one of the founding texts of the open-source movement: Eric S. Raymond’s The cathedral and the bazaar, which marks a major turning-point in the world of free software. Unlike Richard Stallman, whose works emphasise the notion of liberty contained in his political philosophy of free software, Eric S. Raymond considers the open-source movement above all as a means of production based jointly on open sources and cooperation. The cathedral and the bazaar is a comparative analysis of the means of production of two operating systems: Unix, whose development was highly centralised, and GNU/Linux, which put together codes emanating from thousands of developers. The analogy with the issue of e-democracy is clear in our eyes, given the extent to which the open-democracy movement lays claim to the heritage of the open-source movement (open sources, role of the public, etc.) and extends it thanks to the people who keep it moving. See http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar.

2 This article is based in part on a study conducted for a Paris-based web agency. We would like to thank the agency for its warm welcome, its trust and its openness of mind. We hope the points we raise here will help feed our “conversation”.

3 T. Vedel, “L’idée de démocratie électronique. Origines, visions, questions” (The notion of e-democracy: origins, visions, issues), in P. Perrineau (dir.), Le Désenchantement démocratique (The democratic disenchantment), La Tour-d’Aigues: Éditions de l’Aube, coll. “Monde en cours. Essai”, 2003, p. 243-266. Available at: http://gdrtics.u-paris10.fr/pdf/ecoles/sept2003/01-03_vedel.pdf.

4 A. Melucci, Challenging codes. Collective action in the information age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

5 We started giving thoughts to questions relating to e-democracy back in 2003, when writing a report on a study we had conducted on the first public-consultation mechanisms, tested within the framework of planned work on a highway in France (RN19). See “La technique comme prétexte à une réflexion sur un renouvellement de la démocratie et de la pratique militante. Formats et procédures de débat public sur Internet” (Technology as a pretext for a renewal of democratic and activist practice: formats and procedures for public debate on the internet), conference “Les mobilisations altermondialistes” (Anti-globalisation activism), 3-5 December 2003. Available on: http://www.afsp.msh-paris.fr/activite/groupe/germm/collgermm03txt/germm03blondeau.pdf. Further work done in a Latourian perspective by N. Benvegnu, “Le débat public en ligne. Comment s’équipe la démocratie dialogique ?” (Public debate online: new tools for dialogical democracy), Politix, n° 75, 2006. Available on: http://www.oten.fr/IMG/pdf/Article_Debaten_ligne_NBenvegnu.pdf.

6 Directorate General of Political Affairs, Council of Europe, “E-democracy: who dares”, Forum for the Future of Democracy, Madrid, 15-17 October 2008. Available on: http://www.coe.int/t/dgap/democracy/Activities/DemocracyForum/2008/Proceedings_FFD08_EN.pdf.

7 T. Vedel, “L’idée de démocratie électronique. Origines, visions, questions”, in P. Perrineau (dir.), Le Désenchantement démocratique, op cit.

8 L. Monnoyer-Smith, “Le débat public en ligne : une ouverture des espaces et des acteurs de la délibération ?” (Online public debate: opening up spaces for the players in deliberation?), p. 3, Eleventh Conference of the French Association for Political Science, workshop n° 8, “Online political discussion. Theoretical issues and methodological questions”, Toulouse, 5-7 September 2007. Available on: http://www.congres-afsp.fr/ateliers/textes/at8monnoyer.pdf.

9 http://www.sopinspace.com/.

10 http://www.sopinspace.com/approach

11 http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/the_dirty_little_secret_about_the_wisdom_of_the_crowds.php.

12 L. Monnoyer-Smith, “Le débat public en ligne : une ouverture des espaces et des acteurs de la délibération ?”, p. 4-5, op. cit.

13 L. Monnoyer-Smith, “Le débat public en ligne : une ouverture des espaces et des acteurs de la délibération ?”, p. 9, op. cit.

14 D. Reynié, “La théorie de l’opinion publique à la recherche d’un nouveau soufflé” (The theory of public opinion looking for a new lease on life), Hermès, n° 31, “Perspectives anglo-saxonnes”, 2001. Available on: http://documents.irevues.inist.fr/bitstream/2042/14538/1/HERMES_2001_31_21.pdf.

15 Most creators of content are simply bloggers or users of social-networking sites, sharing photos, links, videos, etc., not forgetting the increasing number of people who create their own blogs and upload their films onto video-sharing platforms. In 2008, 71 million people contributed content to social-networking websites, 21 million blogs were updated regularly, 15 million videos were uploaded and more than 11 million people took part in virtual worlds. A person is considered active and as such included in these data when they generate content at least once every month. See A. Haddad, “82 millions de créateurs de contenu aux US en 2008 !” (82 million creators of content in the US in 2008!), Mashable France, social networks and virtual communities. Available on: http://fr.mashable.com/2009/02/20/82-millions-de-createurs-de-contenu-aux-us-en-2008. A total of 16 million Facebook accounts have been set up in France, although not all of them are active (source: Médiamétrie, September 2009), not to mention the 26 million profiles and blogs claimed by the Skyrock.com social network (source: Skyrock.com, July 2009). It is difficult to estimate with any degree of precision the number of Twitteraccounts in France, as account holders do not always give their localisation, and accounts can become a support for action elsewhere, as was the case during the recent events in Iran (see our previous article on this subject, at: http://www.fondapol.org/les-travaux/les-articles-web.html). It is estimated that 2% of French internet users have Twitter accounts, compared with 45% who have a profile on the “Copains d’Avant” website and 30% who have a page on Facebook. Broken down by age bracket, 39% of internet users aged between 18 and 34 have a page on Facebook, compared with 61% on Copains d’Avant (source: Ifop, August 2009).

16 See U. Beck, Risk society: Towards a new modernity, New Delhi: Sage, 1992; C. Taylor, Sources of the self: the making of the modern identity, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989, in his study of the expressivist turning-point, and A. Giddens and his notion of “reflexive modernity” in Modernity and self-identity. Self and society in the late modern age, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

17 See, for the United States A. Lenhart, “The democratization of online social networks. A look at the change in demographics of social network users over time”, Milwaukee, AoIR 10.0, 2009. Available on: http://pewinternet.org/Presentations/2009/41–The-Democratization-of-Online-Social-Networks.aspx. In France, a quantitative study has helped fine-tune a discourse on France’s digital gap that had insufficient empirical foundations, see T. Beauvisage, “Computer usage in daily life”, 2009. Available on: http://portal2.acm.org/ft_gateway.cfm?id=1518791&type=pdf&coll=portal&dl=ACM&CFID=575755565&CFTOKEN=575755565.

18 According to a June 2008 report carried out by Credoc for France’s national telecoms regulator (Arcep), 14% of French people aged above 12 – i.e. 22% of internet users – claimed to have a blog or a website on which they post texts, photos, videos or music. This adds up to 7 million content-creating users. While only 6% of people aged above 40 keep a blog, more than one in two adolescents post texts on their own web pages (53%), and one in three people aged between 18 and 25.

19 H. Jenkins, Convergence culture. Where old and new media collide, New York: New York University Press, 2006.

20 Available on: http://www.henryjenkins.org/2009/05/geeking_out_for_democracy_part.html.

21 R. D. Putnam, Bowling alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

22 Cited by T. Scholz, “A history of the social web (draft)”, 2007. Available on: http://web.archive.org/web/20071025051023/http://www.collectivate.net/journalisms/2007/9/26/a-history-of-the-social-web.html.

23 M. Ito, (dir.),“Living and learning with new media”. Available on: http://digitalyouth.ischool.berkeley.edu/report.

24 A. Smith, K. Lehman Schlozman, S. Verba and H. Brady, “The Internet and civic engagement”, Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2009. Available on: http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/The Internet and Civic Engagement.pdf.

25 Voir http://tinyurl.com/lr8z2f.

26 On this notion, where he is slightly critical, see E. Morozov, “From slacktivism to activism”, 5 September 2009. Available on: http://neteffect.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/05/from_slacktivism_to_activism.

27 H. Jenkins, Convergence Culture. Where old and new media collide, op. cit. For our translation, see L. Allard and O. Blondeau, (dir.), “2.0 ? Culture numérique, cultures expressives”, Médiamorphoses, n° 21, September 2007.

28 L. Lessig, Remix. Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy, New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.

29 Routledge, 1988.

30 L. Allard et O. Blondeau, “La racaille peut-elle parler ? Objets expressifs et émeutes des cités” (Can louts talk? Expressive objects and suburban riots), Hermès, n° 47, “Paroles publiques. Communiquer dans la cite”, 2007.

31 Available on: http://www.machinima.com/film/view&id=1407. Machinima refers both to a range of broadcasting production techniques (3D creation software called The Movies) and a cinematographic genre (bringing together works created using these specific technical means).

32 A mashup is content made up a mixture of pre-existing sources.

33 L. Allard and O. Blondeau, Devenir Média. L’activisme sur Internet entre défection et experimentation (Become media: online activism between defection and experimentation), Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2007. Available on: http://www.devenirmedia.net/DevenirMedia.pdf

34 O. Negt and A. Kluge, Public sphere and experience. Toward an analysis of the bourgeois and proletarian public sphere, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, coll. “Theory and history of literature”, 1993.

35 D. Reynié, “La théorie de l’opinion publique à la recherche d’un nouveau soufflé” (Public opinion theory looking for a new lease on life), Hermès, op. cit, p. 26.

36 See J. Dewey, œuvres philosophiques. Tome II. Le Public et ses problèmes, (Philosophical works Vol. II: The public and its problems), Pau: Publications de l’Université de Pau; Tours: Farrago; Paris: Éditions Léo Scheer, 2003; with an enlightening introduction by Joëlle Zask, who points out notably that, for Dewey, the public is both a subject and an object for itself.

37 See the series of articles published or pending that we have devoted to this issue, the first of which went online on 11 July 2009 on the Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique website: “Iran or proxy warfare: towards a public culture of IT security?”. Available on: http://www.fondapol.org/home/research/all-publications/publication/titre/iran-or-proxy-warfare-towards-a-public-culture-of-it-security.html

38 T. Vedel, “L’idée de démocratie électronique. Origines, visions, questions”, in P. Perrineau (dir.), Le Désenchantement démocratique, op. cit.

The authors

Olivier BLONDEAU has a PHD from Sciences Po, is a researcher in Political Science and a political communications consultant, and Laurence ALLARD, professor in information and communication science at Lille-III University, are co-authors of Devenir média. L’activisme sur Internet entre défection et expérimentation (Éd. Amsterdam, 2007). They are in charge of “Politique 2.0”, a page looking at the latest political trends for the Fondation pour l’innovation politique.