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« 'Doing democracy' in online communication services »

Paper presented at the Euricom Colloquium:
«Electronic Networks and Democracy»
in Njimegen (NL), 9-12 October 2002


Christoph MÜLLER,
Institute for Sociology,
University of Berne, Switzerland



What is behind the claims that «The Internet» has to be considered as a new «Agora», a true democracy with every citizen having the same right of speech and the same vote? What are the preconditions of such political ideals to be fulfilled in the praxis? And what about the voices contesting this optimistic view, arguing that most parts of the Internet are used as a one-way media, like radio or television broadcasts, with very unequal access, both worldwide and on the level of a specific society?

Most of the claims stating the Internet as a new Agora are referring to multilateral, interactive communication services. Taking as example two chats and two Usenet newsgroups (symbolically) based in Switzerland, I will show some conditions and pitfalls of «democracy online». As the communication services I studied are purely text-based, not moderated, and with very little technical control options (unlike IRC, e.g.), they face some serious problems in establishing and in maintaining a social order.

In my presentation, I will show some aspects on how interactional rules and a social structure are «constructed» by the participants themselves. Theoretically, this part of my research is relying on Erving Goffman's studies of everyday human interaction. Although Goffman's work is explicitely concerned with face-to-face-interaction, it is interesting to find out in how far his conclusions hold for the case of text-based, computer-mediated communication. Methodologically, I am analysing the log files of discourses between the participants of a chat and a newsgroups I observed during two years.

In correspondence with ethnomethodological convictions, I will argue that «democracy» has to be considered as a process, as a kind of «work» that has to be done. Democracy is not «just there», in «The Internet». If democracy exists, it has to be «produced» and maintained by concrete users.

A living online democracy depends on many factors, including technology offering specific possibilities and constraints, and users shaping the technical means in order to follow their goals. Of course, communication services of the Interet do have the potential of being true democracies, but it is a hard job to «do democracy»!


Read the Draft version as a PDF-file (46 kB).


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