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I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.


[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.

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5 Comments

  1. Really really interesting outlook that – I didn’t know anything much about those two models until just now. I think I consider myself broadly on those scales a republican but often due to lack of self confidence will shy away from debating things. I think social networking can also sometimes (not always) really dumb down debate to the extent that someone says controversial and the main response on twitter is just abuse. No actual discussion, no engagement, no looking at nuances.

  2. Ian,
    Thanks for your comment. This might interest you: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/

    Yes, the level of abuse on-line can be disturbing but this isn’t new and it’s rather less on FB.(Twitter, I think, needs to be separately considered in this regard.) Years ago when I first started to look at what were then on-line “chat” sites, the depressing thought struck me that all this technology was being used to say “F Off” to someone a continent away. Most – though not all – of the abuse comes from anonymous “contributors”. This is where FB scores more highly. Firstly, there are far fewer messers unwilling to provide a name. Secondly, they can be “unfriended”. It’s a paradox really: censorship in defence of open debate. The point of my argument is that if a citizen opts for FB but wants to participate in public controversy, then he or she cannot be passive because on-line challenge doesn’t come to the citizen; it has to be sought out.

    • Colum McCaffery
    • Posted September 7, 2012 at 11:33 pm
    • Permalink
    • Reply
  3. Are you in Britain? I came across your blog because of the reference to my grandfather, Herbert Marcue, about whom I maintain a website. I don’t disagree with your thoughts on social media discourse, but I think you have the “liberal” / “republican” thing completely 180 degrees backwards–at least as the terms are usd in the US. here “liberals” (many of whom would prefer the term progressives) tend to favor government programs limiting the wealthy and helping the needy, while “Republicans” (note the capital) are “conservatives” who favor smaller, limited government (except when it comes to forbidding abortion and gay marriage, where they welcome gov’t intervention). Thus for a US reader your terminology is very confusing.

    • Harold,
      Thank you for your comment. Would you oblige by posting the address of your website?

      You are quite right about understandings of “liberal” and “republican”. When I teach, I usually have to explain that there is a traditional meaning within political philosophy which is quite at odds with today’s understanding particularly in the U.S. and indeed with an Irish understanding of “republican”. In the piece above I stick closely to the conventional a good example of which can be found under “citizenship” in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/citizenship/

      I live in Ireland.


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