The Architecture of Facebook and the Public Sphere

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2019

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Abstract

The public sphere as defined by the philosopher Jurgen Habermas is a discursive space, yet scholars also typically make mention of physical spaces tied to the public sphere. Sites such as the Grecian agora, the 18th century coffee house, or the New England meeting house, are often used as examples of public sphere space. These physical spaces are also evoked when theorizing the digital public sphere and online communication. The “digital town hall,” for example, was mentioned by Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, when discussing his vision for his social media platform. However, what is absent from these physical comparisons is a definition for public sphere space. What is the architecture of the public sphere? The need to define space of the public sphere has become more pressing than ever. As made evident by the 2016 United States presidential election, Zuckerberg’s social media tool did not provide a true public sphere. The public sphere is meant to bolster democracy by providing a space for citizens to discuss politics freely, but Facebook negatively impacted American democracy by allowing a foreign party to target Facebook users with politically focused advertisements. The contrast between the supposed design of this “digital town square” and it's impact demonstrates the need to define public sphere space. This thesis explores the architecture of various public sphere sites in order to materialize the public sphere and ground the communications model in the physical world. It will then focus on a virtual example of the public sphere in order to demonstrate how material boundaries of the public sphere can be translated to digital boundaries through information architecture and user experience design. This analysis will help to contextualize the social media tool Facebook and clarify why the design of Facebook prohibits it from becoming a “digital town square” or an effective public sphere space. The comparison between Facebook and other examples of spaces of the public sphere will point to solutions for designing virtual public sphere spaces in the contemporary digital age.

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Burke, Caitlin Cary (2019). The Architecture of Facebook and the Public Sphere. Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/20076.

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