Reciprocity in the Age of Reversal and New Public Spheres

When talking about reciprocity within the web, we are talking about dialectical exchange between people viewed as equals. Baudrillard’s “Requiem for the Media”, a critique of Enzensberger’s “Constituents of a Theory of the Media”, poses a starting point from which we may begin to understand how to better organize social structures within the web for reciprocity. Baudrillard disagrees with Enzensberger’s notion that the reversal of transmitter-receiver relationships using media technologies will allow for reciprocity. It is not enough to just change who can transmit messages, we must change the very way in which messages are transmitted.

1.  The Reversal of Transmitter-Receiver Dynamics 

The reversal of transmitter-receiver dynamics has already occurred with the rise of blogs, Youtube, and the like, allowing everyone a free means to produce messages and distribute information. 4chan’s users regularly produce content that circulates the internet independent of any standardized production or acknowledged authorship. The group Anonymous circulates messages and organizes direct action campaigns without central leadership or an authoritative source of distribution. There are blogs on every subject, from every point of view, pet grooming to radical politics. This has not necessarily opened up web platforms to true communicative exchange though.

Reversibility provides for the same attention economy present in big media on an individual scale. Often we see bloggers compete for views; and if not for ad cash, then for reputation. Content becomes reductive, slick images, conversations of quick quotes and quips or copy-pasted text, video meant to shock or amaze. This reduction is certainly not universal but it does represent a rather grim norm. A billion opinions ejaculated into the void. A billion screaming voices asking to be looked at, demanding to be taken into account. Everyone has their soapbox and having seen these dynamics opened, Baudrillard’s insistence that, “reversibility has nothing to do with reciprocity,”[1] now holds more truth than ever.

Everyone having a voice doesn’t necessarily mean we are talking with each other and it certainly doesn’t guarantee anyone is listening. Free access has little to do with interest. A multitude of sites and freedom of choice creates inequalities in whose voice is noted and whose is not. Searching for any news worthy event leads us more often than not to several pages of mainstream news organizations take on the event. It takes a good bit of digging to find an actual individual’s blog post on the same event. The argument has been made that what “matters” on the web will float to the top of discussion. Content is democratized thus allowing reciprocity, we hear, votes are made with comment rating, hyperlinks, and bounce rate.

When done through comment rating we see further reduction as a comment is decontextualized from its original place in a discussion. Speech on the internet needs to be left intact and historized even if that history is only two hours old. It would seem ridiculous IRL to reduce an entire night of discussion to a few simple comments everyone involved liked. Comment rating allows users to push what they like to the top but it doesn’t encourage dialogue between users. It, in fact, fractures dialogue in its reduction of discourse to a few quotes. Often these comments prove to be the type of quick sentiments that tie together popular opinion or bait a fruitless argument. Neither outcome encourages reciprocity.

Hyperlinks as votes seem equally ridiculous and fragmentative. Voices of individuals in referencing their points and facts ultimately hyperlink to larger voices of institutions and media giants which with systems like PageRank in turn increases the search engine rank of the large voices and pushes individual voices further back.

The information we can gather about a site from its bounce rate is equally useless unless the bounce rate is extraordinarily high, meaning it provided none of the information just about everyone who stumbled on to it was looking for. Bounce rate is determined by dividing the number of users who only visit one page on a site and then leave the site over the number of pages on a site. This also means sites with less content but the same number of bounces as a site with more content get a lower bounce rate. Bounce rate is great for marketing purposes but extremely poor in establishing content value to a user. A site providing valuable essays or individual opinion is over looked because people visit it for specific content or conversation on a page and leave, returning later for other content and conversation. Value is subjective but bounce rate fails to aid in addressing what a particular user may value in a site, or the sites relevance to a search.

Content is thus not democratized but structurally monopolized through these systems. Reciprocity is not created, and exchange is abstracted at all points of access. When dealing with the web it is hard to speak in such generalizations, when everything has an exception. Wikipedia has surely democratized its content. All users have the ability to be editors and debate focus of content. Wikipedia is also well moderated though too. Wikipedia has become a part of many people’s interactions with the web, so its entries usually get a high search rank. Wikipedia is definitely not the entire web though. However, democratization in platforms is a step towards reciprocity.

2. Two Views on the Public Sphere 

Democratization (and even the illusion of democratization) within the web brings about a Public Sphere of the web. Jurgen Habermas sees the public sphere as force enabling participatory democracy as citizens engage in discourse of public matters. A Kierkegaardian perspective on the Public Sphere critiques the public as ignorant, lacking responsibility and disinterested in committed action. These two poles hold their own truths when put the question of internet reciprocity and the role of a Public Sphere.

Habermas believes the Public Sphere to be the space rooted in the history of Enlightenment reasoning and 18th century culture with the rise of the press, social clubs and coffeehouses.[2] This culture was prime for critical analysis and discussion of public matters. The rise of mass media however, he sees as turning this this active critical Public Sphere to a passive consumer sphere. Habermas’ Public Sphere is based around an active, critical, and educated populace. Democratic society requires this Public Sphere to hold it’s government accountable and citizenship engaged. Reciprocity is a necessity in Habermas’ Public Sphere.

The Habermas Public Sphere is guided by rules laid out in his Ideal Speech Situation. These rules–though basic–set about the framework of reciprocity for Habermas:

1. Every subject with the competence to speak and act is allowed to take part in a discourse.

2a. Everyone is allowed to question any assertion whatever.

2b. Everyone is allowed to introduce any assertion whatever into the discourse.

2c. Everyone is allowed to express his attitudes, desires and needs.

3. No speaker may be prevented, by internal or external coercion, from exercising his rights as laid down in (1) and (2)[3]

These rules, at first glance, appear to justify most internet speech as the Ideal Speech Situation. Every user has the literal competence to speak; through commenting, posting videos, writing blogs, etc. Everyone with a computer can participate in the internet, question or assert whatever they want by the same means. There exist plenty of platforms for expressing attitudes, desires and needs too. Also no one can be barred from the entirety of the internet. However, once again we find that this is not reciprocity. The Ideal Speech Situation applies to dialectical participation not simply participation.

When establishing these rules Habermas neglected to install responsibilities to his discourse, for there to be reciprocity, speech and the responsibility of response are required. If engaged in discourse among competent users we have a responsibility, not simply to other users, but to the notion of reciprocity to respond actively to questions and assertions of others. This is particularly true if these questions and assertions are made on our points and opinions.

Habermas sees structure as primarily responsible for deciding how members of the Public Sphere interact. He blames mass media for the disintegration of his 18th century rooted Public Sphere and ignores any personal responsibility that could be leveled on members of the Public Sphere individually. He sees, much like Ezensberger, new media and technological structures as his Public Sphere’s saving grace for their communicative and networking possibilities. While structures encourage and deter particular interaction this does not remove responsibility of a public’s chosen interaction within a structure, especially not in the case of a voluntary structure such as the internet. In all forms of communication the quality of discourse and reciprocity has to be leveled upon the individual members, despite structural inequalities and deterrents to this end.

Kierkegaard first recognized a lack of responsibility and quality in his view of the Public Sphere which Hubert Dreyfus insightfully points out in his essay on why Kierkegaard would hate the internet,

“The public sphere thus promotes ubiquitous commentators who deliberately detach themselves from the local practices out of which specific issues grow and in terms of which these issues must be resolved through some sort of committed action. What seems a virtue to detached Enlightenment reason, therefore, looks like a disastrous drawback to Kierkegaard. The public sphere is a world in which everyone has an opinion on and comments on all public matters without needing any first-hand experience and without having or wanting any responsibility.”[4]

Kierkegaard sees the Public Sphere somewhat in reverse of Habermas. Dreyfus locates this clash saying, “For Kierkegaard the deeper danger is just what Habermas applauds about the public sphere produced by the coffee houses and cosmopolitan press, viz as Kierkegaard puts it, ”a public …destroys everything that is relative, concrete and particular in life.”

To Kierkegaard the Public Sphere represents the lack of a committed and competent public. The Public Sphere is the place where people absolve their responsibility and resign themselves to useless punditry. The detached nature of Enlightenment Reasoning allows endless commentary on issues, no one stands behind Public Opinion and commentary becomes a substitute for action. This substitution then reduces any reversal of transmitter-receiver dynamics back to the one to many means of distribution.

The Public Sphere shifts its responsibility to the failure of “They” to fix the issues the Public Sphere comments on. Artie Vierkant in his essay, “The Image Object Post-Internet”, states,

“’They’ implies an alienation from production, a continuous deferral to action.  It is a vacant critique, either proposal for the perpetuation of the same image unchanged (“They should release this on another platform”) or proposal for an iconoclasm which will never take place, the genesis of the proposition being encased entirely in a passive mode of reception. This deferral is an act which accepts dogma, accepts a dominant image paradigm as an unchanging absolute rather than the result of a complicated history of new approaches.” [5]

The very use of “They” as a critique is not just a continuous deferral of action by the Public Sphere but also the negation of any importance that the Public Sphere could hold. “They” is thus not only the resignation from action and importance as a Public Sphere, but each individual that makes up a Public Sphere resigning any effect of their individual actions and their possible importance as individuals. Reciprocity collapses if speech has no commitment behind it into detached speculation and useless punditry.

3. The Possible Solution to Reciprocity on the Web Must Be Individualized   

True reciprocity cannot be structurally mass induced. It cannot rely on Ezensberger’s hopes in reversals and technological advancements, nor in Habermas’ dreams of Public Sphere potentiality activating and it cannot be found in Kierkegaard’s exclusive higher public of intellectuals. True reciprocity must become an individualized responsibility. If we are to seek discourse it must be a committed action. This dialogue should be democratic based around the rules for the Ideal Speech Situation proposed by Habermas and centered in the principles of accountability and action Kierkegaard found lacking in the Public Sphere.

Due to the reversal of transmitter-receiver dynamics we are still prone to the one to many mode of distribution. Blogs, commenting, status updates, video posts still abide by this mode of distribution. Producers of content on all levels gear distribution towards some faceless abstract target audience and in doing so push reciprocity to the side. If reciprocity is to exist we need to create more modes of distribution and discourse similar to IRL ones with one to one engagement. It is in this engagement we find reciprocity through the active pursuit of others to discourse with, collectively distribute content amongst and to produce collaborative efforts and projects.

Throughout our internet wanderings, we should be productively trolling for other users whose comments, videos, blogs, etc. pique our interest or ruffle our feathers. These users should then be invited to engage in dialogue on user run public platforms, opening dialogue to all other users interested in participation. Dialogue can be collectively moderated and through active involvement and a shared goal of reciprocity the user becomes collectively accountable for one another. A commitment to productive dialogue and a user base that is held accountable for one another, will spawn committed action.

There can be no standardized platform, no set solution to materializing web reciprocity. These platforms must be created as users see fit and evolved through the dialectics of the Public Spheres they create. They should overlap, intersect, link in and out of each other, as to not create a monopoly site or sphere of discourse. We must resist the blogger’s urge to focus discourse on these platforms around one to a few voices attempting to speak, to many, and resign ourselves as humble participants in dialogue generated through the platforms we create. It is our individual responsibility to create reciprocity and make the discussions, projects, we want to happen happen. No one else can be trusted with this task, but us.


[1]  Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Media.” Trans. Charles Levin. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign,p. 164-184.

[2]  Habermas, Jürgen. “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.” Trans. Thomas Burger.

(excerpts available: http://www.users.muohio.edu/mandellc/myhab.htm)

[3]  Habermas, Jurgen. “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification.” Trans. Christian Lenhart and Shierry Weber Nicholson. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. p. 86.

[4] Dreyfus, Hubert. “Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age.” <http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/html/paper_kierkegaard.html>

[5] Vierkant, Artie. “The Image Object Post-Internet.” < http://jstchillin.org/artie/vierkant.html >