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Overview

Digital Citizens: Democracy and Participation in the age of Social Media

People have a great deal of experience communicating with other people from which they are divided by local or temporal differences. Whether by telephone, fax or e-mail, technology has changed the way people communicate with each other. Today however, we are experiencing a phase of technological interpersonal communication which leaves previous developments in the shadows: Global networking via the internet.

Currently, it is particularly the social networks evolved from Web 2.0 like Facebook, Twitter, XING, Instagram, Pinterest or YouTube, and also the larger knowledge exchange platforms like Wikipedia and Blogs which are shaping our private and professional means of communication. (See Anastasiadis/Thimm 2012). These Web 2.0 applications are characterised in that the use and production of news items coincide. Anyone can produce an item of news today, since each and everyone can write a news article and post it to thousands of people around the world in just a matter of seconds. Barriers to access for “Netizens” are breaking down at every level. In this way, political events are almost being published in real-time. The culture of leaks doesn’t stop at government ministers (Plagiarism affair) or the Vatican (“Vatigate”) and transparency has become such a valuable asset in politics that, under this banner, there is now a new political party which has gained representation in the German parliament. On first sight, these appear to be isolated phenomena, but they point to a process of categorical change: People make their own media, out of which, political publicity evolves. At least since Stugart 21 we know that public protests are a serious and growing factor in local politics. A society with strengthened selfconfidence, an increasing global network, organised support and an informed public – “Digital Citizens” are banding together.

Medialisation of daily life

Everyone knows the children and teenagers on their way to school with small plugs in their ears or wearing over sized brightly coloured “skull candy”. They are one of the most visible phenomena of our “medialised” daily life. Whether music or text, we are permanently surrounded by media. Also the internet is no longer stationary but is becoming ever more portable. If one observes the way we use media, one can, as Friedrich Krotz says, talk about a meta process of social change, an irreversible process which embraces all aspects of society. Many medialisation forms are visible in our daily lives – the persons sitting next to us on the train, talking loudly into their telephone, the teenager texting on the tram, oblivious to anyone around him and the e-Reader standing in the queue at the supermarket. All of these activities occur in public space and give time and place a new meaning. With a ubiquitous network, it is almost irrelevant where one might actually be – the Tweets from party conferences and business meetings keep those interested up to date in almost real time. Services are also radically changing: Mobile medical care, economic infrastructure and logistics, and changing consumer behaviour through the use of mobile media, affects spatial interaction and influences architectural and town planning principles. The ever more urgent question is; what are the social effects of this all encompassing medialisation?

Digital participation culture through the social web

The decentralised participation possibilities in the social web and the rapid distribution mechanisms for political content are nowadays indispensable for networked people. This shows that especially with events like the protest against Stuttgart 21, “Arab Spring” or the anti ACTA movement, people are using participation possibilities to intervene politically and establish a new form of political activism and participation in political conflicts. Especially international crises, in which Twitter and Facebook have emerged as platforms for local and international counter-press, feed an optimistic outlook for democratic participation structures using digital networks. Thus Facebook, amongst others, on the well-known page “We are all Khaled Said” (see next page) made a not insignificant contribution to the global awareness of a local Egyptian protest, which alerted the public worldwide. Current events in Syria most often only reach the public over YouTube, which clearly demonstrates the strength of fast and unproblematic publication of “Eyewitness” accounts. When one considers however the debate about the role of net communication for political participation, opinion swings between media euphoric enthusiasm and gloomy pessimism. There are explicit media-enthusiastic views, which assume new options for participation and those who envisage a global café in the making. Here social networks are viewed as promoting democracy and as a platform for egalitarian discourse. Other opinions however, stress the inequality of the internet as a medium which has divided the rich northern hemisphere, with millions of users, from the poor south which up to now, has only sporadic internet access. It is also critical to note that due to the ability of the giant providers like Google and facebook to filter information, it is possible to restrictively manipulate our perception of events, thus limiting our ability to form [unbiased]opinions. The power of the algorithm is a factor in opinion making which should not be underestimated.

Conclusion

Whatever one might think about network communication – the fact remains that a new communication culture is emerging, driven by the aforementioned network options. Comparable perhaps to the letterpress, this medium has embraced every aspect of daily life – from individual social communication to business, political and cultural communication structures within society. Furthermore the internet is currently on its way to taking a further step towards total ubiquity in becoming portable, platform-independent, multi-lingual and available on a wide selection of devices. The dynamic continued development of social networks, which no one can really foresee, even today, may be one of the decisive components in the medialisation of society and continue to confront us with new challenges for a long time into the future.