Social Media in the Public Sphere

Over the past decade there have been drastic changes in the way the world communicates. The change has taken place in both the devices that are used and the content that is conveyed. One of the most notable developments in communication is the proliferation of social media sites. The original goal was to create an online community where people could freely and easily connect with one another. It was also meant to be a place for self-expression, allowing users to highlight specific aspects of their personalities. The popularity of social media is increasing every year as more sites are created to cater to individual uses.

In recent years, as the number of sites and users has multiplied, social media has far surpassed being a forum for simple interaction; it has become one of the driving forces in the creation of a successful public sphere. It encourages the mass creation and discussion of culture. The sites are used as marketing tools, political arenas, and foundations for social movements, each of which demonstrate the unexpected power that social media has in current society.


Advertisers need to break through not by pushing yet another ad, but by giving people something they actually would want to watch, interact with and share. That often involves approaching advertising differently, taking risks and not doing things that are proven to work. 

– Christian Haas

Businesses have found that social media is one of the most efficient and powerful ways to reach a consumer. There are two major benefits to creating a marketing campaign designed for social media: one, it gives the consumer a chance to interact with the brand; and two, it is the audience that pushes it through the network. These campaigns are formatted to take advantage of both the interactive and the personal aspects of social media. If the advertisement resonates with the audience, the users will share it with their networks as another form of online interaction. The act of sharing becomes a form of self-expression; it shows the online community where the user’s interests are. There are many examples of successful viral marketing campaigns, such as Audi’s “Art of the Heist” and “Mad Men Yourself”. Both campaigns were effective because they encouraged audience participation and inspired consumers to share the content with others.

Audi’s Art of the Heist

Audiences are not only used as carriers of content but also as producers of it. Companies such as Frito-Lay and Amazon have begun inviting consumers to create and enter advertisements into contests where the winners are featured nationwide. Jonathan Zittrain argues that such contests have impacts beyond improved consumer-brand relations. “These public solicitations to manipulate corporate and cultural symbols, pitched at varying levels of expertise, may prove to be further building blocks of “semiotic democracy,” where we can participate in the making and remaking of cultural meanings instead of having them foisted upon us.”[9] Yochai Benkler states this active public participation in the creation of culture as one of the fundamental differences between the former industrial information economy and the current networked information economy.[1] Social media, though often dismissed as frivolous, is a main facilitator in this production and distribution of new cultural artifacts.

Doritos Crash The Super Bowl 2014 Contest Winner

Marketing and its relationship with social media is perhaps one of the best areas to look at as far as the way the public is involved in cultural production. Advertisements are incredibly informative about the society in which they are created and social media allows the public to decide which advertisements become popular. People have control over culture in a way that was impossible before the transition to the networked information economy.


 The use of social media in today’s campaign is not only important — it is critical. Millions of people are involved in using social networks daily. It is the opportunity to be in touch with large numbers of voters quickly, constantly and at a low cost. 

– Hubert Massey 

Social media has quickly become one of the most effective tools in political campaigns. It provides a free and easy way to disseminate information about a political party at a rather quick rate. According to one study, 33% of users post political content, 43% have looked further into a political issue because of content on social media, and 63% have recently been involved in a political activity. And these percentages are growing each year.[2] Politicians are also beginning to actively use social media to increase supporters. President Obama, generally seen as the first politician to effectively use these networks, posted a photo on Facebook following his reelection that quickly became the most liked image on the site. Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State, tweeted on Super Bowl Sunday and gained nearly 29,000 new followers.[7] With over 73% of online adults in the U.S. using social media, it can be a invaluable political tool to reach voters on a more personal level.

President Obama’s Reelection Post
Hillary Clinton’s Super Bowl Tweet

However, it is not only politicians that have begun using the sites as a means to disseminate ideas. Benkler argues that a networked information economy allows the public to be actively involved in political discussions. “We are seeing the emergence to much greater significance of nonmarket, individual, and cooperative peer-production efforts to produce universal intake of observations and opinions about the state of the world and what might and ought be done about it.”[1] It is no longer a handful of sources deciding what to publish for the masses. Individuals have the ability to efficiently seek out information and report it to their networks. In other words, political discussions are not isolated to phrases that are repeated from major new sources; people are able to fact check, discover new information, and form opinions that have not necessarily been stated by the mass media. Benkler describes this process as the “emergence of filtering, accreditation, and synthesis mechanisms as a part of network behavior.” [1]  These mechanisms are another part of the creation of a healthy public sphere. Through publication on social media, individuals are able to add to the political discussion and potentially alter the culture that results from it.

Social Movements

Hashtag activism is a gateway between politics and popular culture, a platform to educate the ignorant and draw attention to the operation of power in the world.

– Ben Scott 

Social media sites are increasingly used to organize users around a common cause. The benefit of the sites is that they are not constrained by distance; a person does not need to be physically near the issue to become involved in it. There are many cases in which the networks helped to unite people around the world such as the short film Kony 2012 produced by Invisible Children to bring global attention to the Ugandian guerilla leader and, more recently, the movement #bringbackourgirls in response to the nearly 300 girls that were kidnapped in Nigeria. Each movement has relied on the power of social media to find support in the global community.

Kony 2012, the most viral video in history (Grossman, 2012), was an experiment in social media. Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about the Lord’s Resistance Army, created the short film to determine the impact an online video could have on the global community. One week after its release, Kony 2012 had 112 million views worldwide [4] and is still viewed over 100,000 times a year [6]. The enormous success is attributed to the fact that Invisible Children “create[d] an action message that can be encapsulated into a hashtag” [4] and targeted an audience who has consistent interactions on social media.

Kony 2012 Social Media Presence

In 2014 #BringBackOurGirls gained popularity. Individuals around the world showed their support on various social networks for the hundreds of Nigerian girls kidnapped. In two months the phrase had been tweeted over 800,000 times and the Facebook page dedicated to providing information had 218,000 likes. Critics have disputed the idea that support on social media has a positive impact on the issue. Teju Cole, a Nigerian-America author, tweeted, “For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.”[3] The counter argument states that the goal is not create change, but to raise awareness. “Hashtag activism’s most important function is to divert public attention to new subjects, and in ways that stir conviction. It contributes to a process of “agenda setting” that drives the news media.” [8] It is debatable whether the online demonstrations of support have had any effect on the issue, however, #BringBackOurGirls is another example of how social media allows the public to shape the conversation and culture of a society.

Michelle Obama’s #BringBackOurGirls Tweet

One of the most significant differences between the industrial information economy and the networked information economy is that the public now has the power to set the topic of discussion. This is seen clearly in the movements that begin in social media. Instead of the mass media focusing people’s attention, the people are telling news sources what they care to hear about. “Today, hashtag activism is a form of agenda setting in which regular people may participate and lead—and sometimes excel.” [8] The fact that users are able to dictate the content of the news is another example of the way that social media contributes significantly to the development of the public sphere.


Social media awards significant power to its users to determine the course of public discussion. Although marketing, politics, and social movements each have different goals and motivations, each relies on popularity amongst the people for success. In the industrial information economy, that popularity was determined by the mass media, however, in the networked information economy, the decision is left up to the public. Social media not only gives people the ability to decide what succeeds in the network, but also the opportunity to produce the content. It provides the foundation for a public sphere where culture is actively created by the people. Social media, while not the only system that fosters active participation, is the most accessible. It is simple to use, requires few resources, and provides access to thousands of people (granted, not every user will reach thousands). Though it often goes unrecognized, the development of social media as a tool for more than self-expression and personal interaction is one of the most significant changes in communications.

Works Cited

[1] Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven [Conn.: Yale University Press.

[2] Civic Engagement in the Digital Age. (2013, April 25). Pew Research Centers Internet American Life Project RSS. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from 

[3] Cole, T. (2014, May 7). Tweet. 

[4] Grossman, S. (2012, March 12). 'Kony 2012' Documentary Becomes Most Viral Video in History. NewsFeed Kony 2012 Documentary Becomes Most Viral Video in History Comments. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from

[5] Honigman, B. (2012, November 29). 100 Fascinating Social Media Statistics and Figures From 2012. The Huffington Post. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from

[6] Kony 2012. (n.d.). Invisible Children Kony 2012 Comments. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from

[7] Schwab, N. (2014, February 3). Numbers Monday: Hillary Clinton Won the Social Media Super Bowl. US News. Retrieved June 16, 2014, from

[8] Scott, B. (2014, May 16). In Defense of #BringBackOurGirls and Hashtag Activism. . Retrieved June 16, 2014, from

[9] Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the Internet and how to stop it. London: Allen Lane.




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