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Governance in the Digital Age

"Things Are Seething Under The Surface"

September 24, 2012 | by SGI NEWS

In the European salons of the 1920s, the intellectual avant-garde developed basic ideas that would inspire public opinion and political processes. Today, the Facebook community Salon Virtuel is carrying this idea to the internet. A conversation with the salon’s founder Marc Saxer about the influence of virtual discourse on democracy.

SGI News: In the world of social networking, the interchange often seems to be less about interaction than about getting one's own views heard. Is it possible to have fruitful political and societal debates in such an environment?

Marc Saxer © private

Marc Saxer: Social media are well suited for connecting people and setting the agenda. The flat hierarchies of the virtual world definitely speed up the spreading of ideas. Discursive rooms are no longer constraint to our immediate social environment. What’s more interesting is to understand how and why certain contents are spreading, while others do not. Messages only ‘go viral’ if there is fertile ground ready for them. No one can create this giant sounding board by himself. Which issues will finally resonate in the virtual world is even harder to guess than in the real world.

SGI News: How does that work on Facebook, the home of Salon Virtuel?

Saxer: Here we can observe a peculiar communication behaviour: To put it bluntly, a nonsense photo can prompt dozens of comments and „likes“, while a socio-critical text doesn't get any response at all. That certainly has to do with the way people are using Facebook, for example as a distraction from work or as pastime on the subway. In those settings, visual content is easier to digest than brainy text. Facebook is the modern version of the office coffee break. It's a place where you wouldn't necessarily discuss serious topics. Even if we are interested in a certain debate, most of us are too busy with our daily lives to respond appropriately. So the basic idea of the salon was to create a space for deliberation beyond the breathless vertigo of tweets and status updates. However, it turns out that the very idea of creating a virtual agora seems to be at odds with the needs and constraints of social media users. I've actually seen friends print out online articles in order to read them offline in bed, and comment on them at a more convenient time, often weeks later. So the irony of the matter is that in the hyper-connected social media, social interactions like political debates are harder to get off the ground than over a glass of red wine at the kitchen table.

SGI News: The internet allows new ways to communicate and interact which redefines the term "democracy". You speak here of Democracy 3.0. How could democratic governance look like in the future and what effects might that have on society?

Saxer: Our post-industrial societies are very diverse: our values, world views and identities are highly fragmented and pluralistic. On the one hand, citizens are demanding a new quality of participation that goes beyond what the institutions of representative democracies offer. On the other hand, the defining theme of the postmodern era – the fight for recognition – is demanding highly particular responses from the political system. Our current form of democracy, which was developed for the mass societies of the industrial age, can't meet these needs satisfactorily. That's why things are seething under the surface. Pioneers have long begun to experiment with new forms of democratic participation. The internet with its flat hierarchies, egalitarian culture and borderless space is the ideal compass to guide the process of institutional engineering. The mechanisms that have been developed for online cooperation and communication can serve as a model for the real world.

SGI News: For example?

Saxer: The approach of the Pirate Party is particularly interesting because they see themselves as a virtual party. In the eyes of a highly mobile society, the clubbiness of the mainstream parties is old-fashioned. However, for the reasons stated above formats like Liquid Democracy aren't realistic either because they are too demanding. In my blog, I didn't pretend to already know the institutional design of Democracy 3.0. But I think that the operating principles, the culture and the architecture of virtual space will provide interesting markers as to where the journey will go, and where it must go.

SGI News: The grass-roots democratic movements on the internet also have their dark sides: Radical views find a niche here, too, to which some people will always respond. How should we deal with this?

Saxer: That's a very big problem here in Thailand. Online hate speech, cyber-bullying and character assassination are unfortunately very common. One internet group called Social Sanction has made it its mission to expose presumed critics of the monarchy and pillory them. In social media, others even call for critics to be attacked, raped or killed.

SGI News: But the Arab Spring has shown that the internet also fosters an open society.

Saxer: People love to praise social media as the magic bullet of democratization. And there's no doubt that cyberspace carries enormous potential for emancipation. However, I think it is an illusion to see the virtual world as a purely progressive space. The virtual world merely reflects what's going on in the physical world: some people radically embrace freedom of speech after decades of repression; while others seek to protect the traditional order – on which their status, identity is based upon- with all means necessary. The only difference is that in the virtual world, the balance of power between those who seek to uphold the order and those who struggle to change is shifting. It becomes increasingly impossible for states to suppress any dissent. On the other hand, democratic deliberation is impossible if public debates are dominated by hate speech and cyber-mobbing. In the physical world, it took us centuries to build up complex legal and ethical systems which have created a balance between freedom of expression and social responsibility. Now we have to secure these democratic principles in the virtual world.

SGI News: How do you see the future of Salon Virtuel?

Saxer: Sometimes I get frustrated by the scarcity of real debate. But a recent visit to Berlin gave me new hope. Many social-media users have neither the time nor the inclination to respond to posts in a debate. However, the contributions are being read, reflected upon and often even realized in people's own work. That was encouraging.

Marc Saxer on Salon Virtuel:

"Since 2009, Salon Virtuel has been the virtual version of a salon I created during my time in Berlin. Since I've been living in Bangkok, it's been a lifeline connecting me to the world of German discourse. Ideally, the virtual version works like the legendary salons of the 1920s in which a broad spectrum of thinkers across all disciplines and political borders – some of them quite eccentric – used to come together to exchange views on a broad range of subjects. Here is the special thing about the Salon Virtuel in comparison to the professional or thematic internet forums: the posts should have the power to surprise, and should wildly oscillate between serious debates and utter nonsense. It should be like a large table, at which on one end political philosophy is being debated, while at the other end, people talk about love."

Marc Saxer is Resident Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Thailand

Interview conducted by Jörg Frommann

Translated from German by Teresa Payerle