Online third spaces and political action: not just talking the talk?

Authors: Graham, T., Jackson, D. and Wright, S.

Conference: (Mis)understanding political participation

Dates: 11-12 October 2013


This paper takes forward a ‘new’ agenda for online deliberation that argues scholars need to use more inclusive definitions of politics and deliberation, and look for political talk beyond formally political online environments (such as government sponsored forums and political party websites) and into online ‘third spaces’ where it would appear that the vast majority of political talk occurs (Wright 2012a,b; Graham and Wright, 2013). Third spaces are non-political online environments, such as a cookery discussion forum, where everyday political talk emerges (see Van Zoonen 2007; Oates 2009). Such talk is a: “fundamental underpinning of deliberative democracy. Through everyday political talk, citizens construct their identities, achieve mutual understanding, produce public reason, form considered opinions, and produce rules and resources for deliberative democracy.” (Kim and Kim, 2008:51) Similarly, Coleman argues that: “politics [is] an outcome of everyday communication rather than its structural constraint.” Such an account, in the vein of Dewey (1927) “seeks to place the narrative of politics within the mundane, micropolitical practices of everyday life”, what Habermas (1997) describes as the “unsubverted circuits of communication”. Such an analysis opens up the space for political activities beyond the official, defining the public sphere in terms of “its proximity to everyday experience rather than its embeddedness within official centres of power” (Negt and Kluge 1993). It is, thus, central to the conference theme: it treats the “common deliberations, decided primarily by persuasion” that have “tended to fall more into the bailiwick of political theorists, ethicists, and scholars who study the construction of norms” to detailed quantitative and qualitative analysis.

In this paper we draw upon a longitudinal qualitative and quantitative content analyses of three popular, general interest UK-based forums over the course of three years (2010-2013): posts), (66m) and (32.7m). We examine under what circumstances everyday talk becomes political, what topical discussions this is related to, and how citizens ‘do’ such talk (their communicative styles). We find that 45% of threads that discuss politician issues began in sub-forums that were not about politics. Secondly, whilst the primary communicative styles were arguing and debating we find these forums to have a strong community and social function, as there was significant evidence of community building and social bonding behaviours. Furthermore, we address one of the shortcomings of existing research into third spaces and everyday talk: whether talk can mobilise citizens into various expressions of political participation, or whether it remains ‘just’ talk. We find that 32% of threads where there is political talk result in citizens referring to explicit political action: either a call to action or reporting an action they have taken.

We reflect on the findings in light of the on-going debates surrounding the nature of political engagement in the UK, and the role of the media and political communications in fostering a democratic culture.

Source: Manual

Preferred by: Dan Jackson