All entries for Wednesday 02 January 2013

January 02, 2013

"Old" and "New" Participation in Democracy (Part 1)

People participation is essential in Democracy.

Hang on! Democracy is such a slippery concept that defining how essential participation is to its nature is dependent upon the form or model it takes. Where democracy promotes individualism, communitarianism or deliberation, the corresponding expectation for participation flunctuates.

In this series, I intend to think through Democracy to define Participation. Many of the thinkers who consider the Internet (digital media generally) a breath of fresh air for democratic culture, mostly ride on the idea that these tools provide people with a means to contribute to how they are being governed by the state. Where media elites dominate and dictate the agenda (or set the agenda as it is in Agenda-Setting theory), the web provides the platform for a plurality of voices - men and women alike, minorities, subaltern, counter-publics etc (Kellner, 2000). Where states and corporate powers trampled on the people, the rise of the Internet has given them a voice to come together and fight back (Shirky, 2008). These a just a few of the optimistic examples.

I thought since we fling this term, participation, around so generously in discussing democratic culture and the public sphere, it is perhaps hightime one investigated what it once meant (pre-digital age) and what it means now. How has it changed? What does the change mean, if it has?

I casually threw the question out on Twitter some weeks back:

"What exactly is political participation in this digital age? Clicking, commenting, blogging?"

I received a range of responses. @Payme2cents said, "I'd take all those as social participation which are necessary. For political ones, you'd actually need to be in a functioning group". Similarly, Perkins Onome (@operko) responded thus: "'Political Participation?' Get on the van of politics, get your hands on the things of politics and decision making."

However, this on the other hand is a random tweet I found (not in response to my question):

My further search on the web yielded a few other people's thoughts about democratic-participation via digital media. Here is a blog post by Dyawhie on Indonesia: Why Democracy and Why Social Media. She said:

I have concluded some aspects that made combination of writing and social networking as the best personal way to promote democracy in a country like Indonesia...One of my friends purchased a plane ticket back to her hometown to vote in the general election. Some clicked their “like this” icon in Facebook. Some people told me that they enjoyed my writings and were waiting for more. Some other thought that the arguments are quite logical and informative...The fact that Indonesia has recently become the third largest user of Facebook is only strengthening my conclusion...

In India, social media is credited with exposing government's mishandling of the truth in the Delhi gang rape case; and in the Times of India, social media is democracy's direct pipeline. Here is an excerpt from this article:

Social media not only gives each individual a voice, it gives him a direct pipeline to people who matter. The sense of having an opinion that counts, of being able to reach out to the void beyond and find an echo in a kindred spirit, of being able to galvanise others and in turn be galvanised creates a new feeling of significance and belonging. Social media both individuates and aggregates. It makes the abstract real, the impersonal personal and the individual collective. The sense of being part of a growing and increasingly noisier crowd, of feeling the heat of one`s own passion and the gathering of strength from others like oneself, and the knowledge that the collective upsurge is visible to others, particularly those against whom the anger is directed is a potent and almost tactile experience of power. By the time the movement spills over into the streets, it already exists in a pre-cooked form in that there is already an assurance that many others feel the same way.

In the heat of all these discussions, there is a need for one to understand what has happened to participation. A public sphere thrives on participation, people deliberating with one another on issues of common concern - whether at a coffee shop or in a forum online. Is there a boundary to what is or not participation in democratic culture? Has the definition of participation changed - shrank or expanded?

These are the questions I will be asking (and searching for answers to in literature) in the second part of this post. First of all, I would identify how the different perceptions of democracy influence the expectations of how people should participate; followed by examples of what used to be participation (old) and what can we call participation today (new).

What would you describe as participation is in this age? Pleaase comment.


Kellner, D. (2000) Habermas, the public sphere and democracy: A critical intervention. [online] Available from: (Accessed November 29, 2012).

Shirky, C. (2008) Here Comes Everybody - How Change Happens When People Come Together. London: Penguin Books.

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