Public Space in the Age of the Internet Revolution: Why Physical Urban Space Remains Vital to Democracy

By Joseph F. Swain.

Published by Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The 2011 uprising in Egypt took place not only in Tahrir Square, but also in virtual public spaces, in the form of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which played a vital role in the coordination and mobilization of activist groups. Wael Ghonim, a prominent activist in the revolution, proclaimed, “If you want to free a society, just give them Internet access.” The virtual-physical hybrid protest is becoming the new paradigm in political discourse and action around the world. But can Internet access equal political access, and if so, what role is left for physical public space? This paper will examine the requirements democracy places on the public sphere, and explore the capacities of virtual and physical space with respect to these requirements. Nancy Fraser’s theories of the public demonstrate that political discourse has different spatial needs depending on the stage of development. Subaltern-counterpublics need low access and visibility for withdrawal and regroupment, but high access and visibility to successfully disseminate their message. Protests in Cairo, Egypt and Seattle, Washington have shown that the speed and horizontal structure of virtual public space fills the needs of the first stage effectively. However, when political discourse moves into wider arenas, virtual space is not enough. The symbolism, imagery, and phenomenological experience of physical space play a more important role in effecting awareness and change. Despite the power of social media, effective political action must still go out into the square.

Keywords: Democratic Space, Social Networks, Political Action, Access, Visibility, Symbolism, Imagery, Phenomenological Experience, Egypt, Tahrir, Seattle, Facebook, Twitter

Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies, Volume 2, Issue 4, pp.65-78. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 757.518KB).

Joseph F. Swain

M.Arch. Candidate, Department of Architecture, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

Joseph Swain is a recent graduate of the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. He currently works for EMBARQ India, a program of the World Resources Institute, researching the design and implementation of bicycle networks in India. His interests include the design of democratic public space, Internet’s role in changing social behavior, the mathematical modeling of urban dynamics, and urban agriculture.