Information and communications technology enables a raft of networked communications platforms. Email, IRC, and various social networking platforms are all designed to facilitate communication between individuals. Of course, we must also be aware that communication platforms shape the content of interpersonal communications. By creating a vessel for content, content must also fit within the vessel.
Consider three stages of human communication technology:
Discourse Cacophony – with written language and symbol as the only communication technology, much human communication takes the form of spontaneous utterances in natural language. Discourse means nothing other than holding a conversation. With the sense of individuality arises the individual voice, idiosyncrasies in style and phrasing, so we have a wide diversity of potential expressive acts, all mutually intelligible within linguistic communities.
Discourse Hegemony – with the invention of the printing press and other mass communication technologies, discourse changes yet again. Books and television are largely one-way channels. Telegraph, radio, and telephone allow for two-way communication more or less along the lines of natural conversation. Nevertheless, the power of mass media to reach large audiences with a uniform message is staggering, and much public discourse is released through such channels. Popular feedback is stifled because mass communication channels are disproportionately available to the economically advantaged. Money in effect buys speech power (or communication power). Even if free expression is held as a popular right, most people are not able to exercise that right beyond the limits of direct interpersonal communications.
Discourse Plurality – with the rise of networked communication, the nature of communication changes yet again. To existing technologies we add a communications infrastructure capable of linking more people across longer distances. The most remarkable development in this stage is real-time multiparty communication available to a wide audience. On social networking platforms, conversations between individuals are broadcast to audiences who can then participate in the conversation.
At the Discourse Plurality stage as we have realized it, communication is, as usual, formed by the platform. With a variety of platforms available, the architecture of the chosen platform matters. Twitter allows for only 140 characters, Reddit and Slashdot are governed by reputation economies, and Google+ emphasizes broadcasting and rebroadcasting content. Personal blogs are no more constrained than a written letter, but may be less visible to a broad audience.
To take up the Rawlsian question of which platform is most appropriate for public reason, or the parallel Habermasian question regarding communicative action and discourse ethics, is to misunderstand how individuals use these platforms. The architecture of a platform makes it more suitable for some expressive acts rather than others, and the culture of users that develops on each platform creates a unique communication environment. In this communications environment, we need to understand public discourse as distributed conversations taking place across platforms.
We have moved beyond the simple public speech or debate and into a communication culture of analysis and meta-analysis.