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super publics

I used the phrase “super publics” in my essay last night. I hadn’t introduced it before, although you’ll probably see me use it more and more as my dissertation emerges because i crafted it to help me work through a few things theoretically. I was asked about this term in various emails and i realized that i should probably do some explaining. I’d give a proper definition, but it’s still a work in progress, so instead, bear with me as i take a stab at what i’m going for.

Historically, we have talked about the public, as in the public sphere (Habermas). Implicated in this singular is the idea that there is a coherent entity that one could address or visit. More recently, academics have talked about publics, recognizing that there is no coherent public, but a collection of intertwined publics. In other words, a public in London is not the same as a public in Hong Kong. “The notion of a public enables a reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity” (Warner). Translation: publics are made up of strangers who are connected by information and, thus, share a coherent position as receivers of that information. For example, when Mayor Bloomberg speaks of addressing the public, he means all of New York. If he uses his “local” paper (the New York Times) to address his public, the audience who is part of Bloomberg’s public is arguably much larger (especially given the number of folks who see themselves to be New Yorkers). Yet, Bloomberg cannot speak of addressing the public in a global sense because he is not addressing the poor farmer in Kenya. Likewise, that Kenyan’s notion of a public doesn’t include New Yorkers when he speaks in his town’s public square.

Public is also used as an adjective. When it references government (“public services”), it is explicitly limited in scope by the scope of the relevant government – there is no universal public service. As an adjective, it can also connote qualities of exposure typically attributed to addressing an audience of strangers. For example, a public act is one that is visible to an audience of strangers, connected by exposure to that act (a.k.a. a public).

Digital life has really screwed with the notion of public, removing traditional situationism (Goffman) that connects strangers. If the Kenyan farmer is connected to the Internet and reads English, he can be a part of Bloomberg’s public via the New York Times. Yet, this does not mean that the New York Times would conceptualize him in their public, nor does it mean that his public acts would be equally visible by other constituents of the Times.

Digital architectures alter the structure of social life and information flow. Persistence, searchability, the collapse of distance and time, copyability… These are not factors that most everyday people consider when living unmediated lives. Yet, they are increasingly becoming normative in society. Throughout the 20th century, mass media forced journalists and “public” figures to come to terms with this, but digital structures force everyone to do so. People’s notion of public radically changes when they have to account for the Kenyan farmer, their lurking boss, and the person who will access their speech months from now. People’s idea of a public is traditionally bounded by space, time and audience – the park is a public that people understand. And, yet, this is all being disrupted.

In talking about “super publics,” I want to get at the altered state of publics – what publics look like when they are infused with the features of digital architectures. What does it mean to speak across time and space to an unknown audience? What happens when you cannot predict who will witness your act because they are not visible now, even though they may be tomorrow? How do people learn to deal with a public larger and more diverse than the one they learned to make sense of as teenagers? How are teenagers affected by growing up in an environment where they can assume super publics? I want to talk about what it means to speak for all time and space, to audiences you cannot conceptualize.

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

I want to demarcate super publics as distinct from publics because i think that they need some theorizing. In other words, i think that we need to understand the dynamics of super publics, the architectures that enable them, and the behaviors and cultures that emerge because of them.