With the rise of the Internet and the reign of social media, the number of public spheres available to us as private citizens has multiplied. “What is a public sphere?” you may ask. A German guy called Jurgen Habermas fantasised about an 18th century coffee house where anyone could go for news and to debate about ideas. Hannah Arendt likened the public space to a Greek polis. Both examples are limited in the gender and class represented and, as a result, academics have disputed this theoretical framework on many levels. Nevertheless, I agree with Habermas and Arendt in that there are places available for anyone to speak their mind about “activities of the state, or issues of larger socio-political significance”.
If you want your opinion to be heard, just Tweet about it.
Kyle Schwartz is third grade teacher at an inner city school in Denver, Colorado. Every year she runs a writing exercise for her students, giving them an opportunity to tell her something they wish she would know. On March 27 this year, Kyle began sharing some of her students’ messages on her Twitter account. The social media trend has exposed some startling truths about the circumstances children are living in.
Many other teachers saw this and started running the same exercise in their classrooms. The hashtag #iwishmyteacherknew “caught fire”, with many news media websites publishing articles on the phenomena. Even the Sydney Morning Herald had something to say, showing how pervasive this topic of conversation has become.
Twitter has provided a public sphere in which these socio-political issues can be discussed and addressed. By trending on Twitter and catching the interest of news media websites, the discussion and awareness has spread beyond one classroom, a teacher and her students, to classrooms across the world. A Plus writer Mandy Valez is one of many writers using this as an opportunity to raise awareness about the state of living for children, citing statistics such as “one in five kids are supported by food stamps”.
In contemporary public spheres, there is always a level of mediation to be considered. There are certain gatekeepers who decide what does and doesn’t get to be discussed. In this example, the first gatekeeper would be Kyle Schwartz herself. She picked through her students’ responses and posted each individually over a period of a few weeks. Any ensuing discussion on Twitter would be mediated by certain formulas or algorithms built into the website code to scope out socially inappropriate content. Following that, the writers from various news media groups choosing to talk about this topic become mediators in sharing the information however they see fit, within the parameters of their editors.
From what I can see, this example of public discussion seems to be fairly unmediated in that most topics of discussion remain ongoing. I think this is because the subject matter was unexpected and garners sympathy from most viewers. A sympathetic topic of discussion is less likely to be silenced and, who knows, maybe some real change may come from this. At least these students’ secrets are finally out.