Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Arguing in Internet Chat Rooms: Argumentative Adaptations to Chat Room Design and Some Consequences for Public Deliberation at a Distance

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Arguing in Internet Chat Rooms: Argumentative Adaptations to Chat Room Design and Some Consequences for Public Deliberation at a Distance

Article excerpt

Once identified as a cause of citizens exclusion from public dialogue, electronic media in its most recent forms may foster greater opportunity for broader participation in discussions of public policy. The disappearance of citizen participation in the public sphere (e.g., Goodnight, 1982) has been associated with the rise of early forms of electronic media such as television, radio, and newspapers. The public deliberation in the mass media age changed the nature of argumentation in the public sphere (e.g., Sennett, 1977). Traditionally, public deliberation involved localized communication events which brought the community together and encouraged participation by ordinary members of the public. The shift to public argument in mass media resulted in non-interactive, distant, and passive communication events in which the public was neitiler given access, nor encouraged to participate (see Hollihan, Klumpp, & Riley, 1999). Instead, technical elites (those with technical or expert knowledge in a particular field) spoke for the audience members bringing the "voice of reason" to public debate. There has been a radical change since that time, however, in the media available to ordinary citizens for interactive communication at a distance, thereby reinventing the possibilities for engaging in public discourse.

The new media include "information and communication technology" (ICT) and services which range from PC-based Internet access to mobile connectivity through wireless devices. There are about 300 million PC based Interact users in the world, with 150 million in the United States, and 600 million mobile phone users world-wide, with about 50 million in the United States (Katz & Aakhus, 2002; Rice & Katz, 2001). The pervasiveness of ICT use creates new opportunities for citizens to engage each other in the public sphere. Despite claims that Internet use leads to social isolation and a decline in civic participation (Kraut, Lundmark, Patterson, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay, & Scherlis, 1998), more recent evidence indicates that Internet use increases and solidifies users' social networks and may even broaden the means of civic participation (Katz, Rice, & Aspden, 2001; Katz & Rice, 2002). Central to this finding are interactive, text-based ICTs such as email, listserv, message boards, and chat room platforms such as internet-relay chat (IRC).

Goodnight (1995) has argued that there has been a shift in the nature of "the public" from a sense of one broad generic public arena to multiple and various sites for public engagement. In this light, ICTs are not simple conduits for information exchange but means to construct a wide range of for a for communication at a distance. Fernback (1997) argues that the new media allows everyday citizens to "break our public silence" and become involved in public communication. Whether or not this is the case, an important issue for the argumentation critic lies in rendering these new media accessible to argumentation criticism. While the thought that technology might return the agora, or even the town hall, is a compelling image, Goodnight (1982), as well as others (e.g., Willard, 1985), suggests that communication scholars should search out and illuminate the possibilities and pitfalls involved in new communication media. Just as Habermas (1962/1989) suggests that social realities constrain the shape of public discourse, we suggest that technical realities (i.e., the design of communication technology) shape the way public deliberation is carried out in cyberspace. In this paper, we explore how the design of Internet communication spaces invites or discourages rational public dialogue.

We have chosen to examine the Internet chat room as an example of an engineered communication space. Of all Internet communication spaces, chat rooms perhaps provide one of the best opportunities for dialogue with some resemblance to everyday communication. While arguments about public issues occur on web pages, Usenet groups, and bulletin board systems, it is in the chat room where social actors communicate with each other directly and in real time. …

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