As the internet becomes more powerful and accessible, it increases its dominance as the primary vehicle of public opinion. To understand this trend, we can trace it back to the birth of the press and the idea of public opinion. In Chapter 4 of On the Internet, Hubert Dreyfus describes philosopher Søren Kierkegaard‘s position on the forming of the “public sphere” in the mid-eighteenth century and the expansion of the press.
Kierkegaard cautioned that the press was causing society to form a sense of public opinion, where more and more people could engage in political discourse. The locus of this discourse shifted from that of the ancient poleis and republics into the coffeehouses, where people could discuss issues with relative anonymity. According to Kierkegaard, this widespread political accessibility allowed citizens to practice politics without risk. “The new massive distribution of desituated information was making every sort of information available to anyone, thereby producing a desituated, detached spectator” (75). These detached spectators were able to comment on any issue without any personal experience or responsibility (75). Kierkegaard believed that issued are resolved through “some sort of commited action” (75). The press ruined progress and constructive thought by allowing detached members of a society to form opinions anonymously with no risk or commitment.
Since Kierkegaard’s criticism of the press, the internet has increased anonymity and detachment exponentially. It requires no stretch of the imagination to say that Kierkegaard’s criticism of the internet would be very harsh. Instead of hiding from political power in coffeehouses, we hide behind our computer screens where we can post opinions to millions of people anonymously. Public opinion is now stronger and more accessible than ever.
Centuries ago, a citizen had to publicly put his or her name and reputation at stake to shape public opinion. Today, it is shaped by largely nameless, detached bloggers and commenters. Most people I interviewed regarding their internet practices admitted that writing anonymously on the internet requires less commitment than more transparent communication. There are internet users who contribute to public opinion with little more than a second’s thought.
While the internet may be a door to many thoughtful and credible resources, it is hard to fault Kierkegaard’s opinion that increasingly powerful vehicles of anonymity in the press and public opinion lead to tons of uncommitted and unproductive information. The internet is the most powerful vehicle that this world has known.