Networked publics

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In the collaborative book "Networked Publics" edited by Kazys Varnelis, the concept is first introduced. As a working definition, the authors use this concept to describe the new kind of collectivities that are emerging with the new technological, cultural, social, and economical configurations. The new "networked" publics are not simply audiences or consumers. Instead, they are publics where people can actively participate and produce political commentary, propaganda, cultural criticism, knowledge, and information, by using digitally networked media. The term publics highlights the participatory character of the collectivities, their activities and interactions.

The notion of networked publics highlights the rise of new forms of many-to-many communication, where distributing, aggregating, and producing information and culture have become available to ordinary people. People experience their everyday lives imersed in networked media ecologies as a result of the digital technologies and networks (computers, microprocessors, mobile telephones, wireless devices, gps). The pervasiveness of networking infrastructures and their accessibility via computers and mobile phones has created a digital mobile lifestyle that relies in being "always-on" and connected. For maintaining the always-on relationships, users rely on smartphones, laptops, and other handheld devices.

The online world, supported by the internet, is a source of sociality and culture. As Ito explains in the Introduction to the book, "now publics are communicating more and more through complex networks that are bottom-up, top-down, as well as side-to-side. Publics can be reactors, (re)makers and (re)distributors, engaging in shared culture and knowledge through discourse and social exchange as well as through acts of media reception." (3)

Circulation of content is at the core of networked publics. Digital media technology has allowed new means and practices for distributing and creating content. There are new opportunities for sharing media and information with others, to connect with people who has similar interests, to discuss with friends in mediated spaces. People with access to Internet connection has the potential of distributing content to a wider and disperse audience/public. P2P distribution systems, M2M sharing platforms,and social networking sites (SNSs) provide the tools for circulating content within a social and cultural context. Digital and networked tools foster sharing among strangers and, as a consequence, contribute to the augmentation of interpersonal networks. According to Ito, "P2P distribution systems such as Napster, Kazaa, and BitTorrent, M2M sharing platforms such as DeviantArt, Flickr, Fanfiction.net, and YouTube, and social networking tools such as MySpace, LiveJournal, and Facebook radically expand opportunities for individuals to share media and information directly with others in a social context."

The infrastructure of the interne has been designed with an open end-to-end (E2E) architecture where information circulates from the ends, without that much filtering or gate-keeping about the types of content or the origin and destiny of the content.With the development of the Internet and its massive adoption, the E2E architecture has supported "cultures of peer-to-peer (P2P) media distribution and many-to-many (M2M) forms of communication." The internet architecture allows new and old forms of communication and distribution of content, both one-to-many forms of communication characteristics of the broadcasting industries and M2M distribution of amateur and niche content.

One of the consequences of the accessibility of tools for distributing content is, as Benkler has argued, the growing of non-market production and circulation of knowledge and culture.

The evolution of the Internet as a powerful medium for exchanging content in different formats. In two decades went from a medium of exchanging text to a complete multimedia platform where sounds, images, videos, voice calls, 3d worlds, and geographic data are constantly circulating.

In the conclusion, Varnelis, argues that "network culture" should be understood as a historical phenomenon that occurs after posmodernity.

Vernelis explains that we inhabit multiple overlapping networks and not all of them are networked publics. According to him, networks that are private and personal cannot be networked publics because they are extensions of intimate space. In contrast, networks such as "interest communities, forums, newsgroups, blogs, and so on are the sites for individuals who are generally not on intimate terms to encounter others in public," they are networked publics. Networked publics are audiences interacting and acting, communicating and exchanging in a public venue.

As Vernelis explains, "The public is an audience, by nature reactive, consumers of culture and politics, at home not in the one-way, space in front of the TV where response remains private or, at best, filtered through the Nielsen rating system, but rather in a public venue such as the theater, gallery, public square, café, salon, or periodical, a space in which the private individuals comprising the audience can make their voices heard in a dialogue." However, "Networked publics are by no means purely democratic spaces in which every voice can be heard. That would be cacophony."

According to Varnelis, the emergence of networked publics and the growth of non-market production are the most important change that network culture has created.

Individuals belong to several networked publics, inhabit at the same time and by tele-precense several worlds. As Vernalis explains, "In network theory, a node's relationship to other networks is more important than its own uniqueness. Similarly, today we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the interstices of multiple networks composed of both humans and things."

According to boyd, networked media technologies enable a type of publics that are both virtual technological environments and imagined collectives. As she explains, "networked publics" are "simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice."(39) As she explains, "I contend that networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies; they are simultaneously a space and a collection of people."(41)

Thanks to being structured by digital computer technology, "networked publics" have affordances that shape they ways in which users interact, engage, and participate in them. boyd elaborates a conceptualization of networked publics by explaining how their dynamics, properties, and affordances of shape participation and engagement.


Talking about "networking publics" implies that there are multiple publics that allow people to gather for different purposes and practices such as civic actions, cultural and social exchanges, and connecting with strangers. Public is a contested term used across many disciplines.

One approach, from communication and social sciences, understands publics as collection of people who share an identity, a consensus regarding the collective interest, a common understanding of the world, or an imagined community (Anderson, 2006). Publics could be small or big collection of people, group of friends or the members of a nation. "The Public," in singular form, usually refers to a big collection of people, the wide audience of a nation. Similarly, Habermas (1991) public sphere refers to a space accessible to a big group of people.

Other approach, from cultural and media studies, understands publics as audiences that gather around media. In this case, the group of people is bounded by a shared text, a world view or a performance. (Livingstone, 2005) This publics/audiences can be active and productive consumers, and articulate identities in relation to media texts. Publics can also be “arenas for the formation and enactment of social identities” (Fraser, 1992). Identities and interests are formed not only in private space but also in public.

boyd recognizes two major theoretical approaches but doesn't try to resolve the messyness of the term, instead, it argues that she focuses on how networking technologies "extend and complicate publics in all of their forms."(41) According to boyd, it is the structure provided by digital networked technologies what distinguishes networked publics. As she explains, "Networked technologies reorganize how information flows and how people interact with information and each other. In essence, the architecture of networked publics differentiates them from more traditional notions of publics." (41)

Following Lessig (2006), Mitchel (1995),and Negroponte (1995) boyd argues that digital architectures made out of bits are structural forces, that they define the types of interactions that are possible in a space, and shape the way people engage in a particular environment. According to here, bits are the building blocks of networked publics. Media that is made out of bits circulates faster and easily. In the city of bits that Mitchell describes peoples' everyday lives are shaped not only by the physical environment but also by their networks.

According to boyd, "Networked publics are not just publics networked together, but they are publics that have been transformed by networked media, its properties, and its potential. The properties of bits regulate the structure of networked publics, which, in turn, introduces new possible practices and shapes the interactions that take place. These can be seen in the architecture of all networked publics, including social network sites." (42)

Computer-mediated communication allows the creation and maintenance of online communities via forums, boletin boards, blogs, tumblrs. SNSs are a particular category of websites that have the following features:

"allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system." (42)


According to boyd the most important features that construct SNSs as networked publics are:

  • profiles
  • Friends lists
  • public commenting tools
  • stream-based updates