Empowering Latinos. Weblogs as Tools of Democracy in the United States

Term Paper, 2005

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0




1. Introduction

2. What are Weblogs?

3. Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action

4. How Can Then Weblogs Promote Public Discourse?
4.1 Communicative Action in a Real Life Setting
4.2 The Ideal Speech Situation in Real Life
Equal Accessibility to Create and Participate
Absence of Power Differences

5. Weblogs and Immigrant Communities in the U.S.

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Just a little over ten years ago, the first website became accessible to the public and even though the World Wide Web of today is still in its teens, it has become a phenomenon of virtually global impact. By the mid 1990s, people started to discover the joys of online communication via so- called weblogs or blogs, but blogs really evolved at the turn of the millennium, when the international blogosphere virtually exploded. Anyone could create one, anyone could participate in one, and everyone had at least heard of one. Blogs revolutionized online communication by creating worldwide communities of technology nerds, ambitious writers, and simply those who found an outlet for their exhibitionist tendencies.

Decades earlier, in 1981, renowned German philosopher and sociological theorist Jürgen Habermas published his seminal work Theory of Communicative Action, in which he formulates a theoretical framework for societal progress achieved through communication.

In the United States of today, progress and the means of communication are inherently White, in fact knowledge and societal power are White. This research is designed to look at the question of democratic empowerment among the Latino minority, this is, whether weblogs provide the Latino immigrant community with means to connect, exchange information, and thus gain social and political influence by the power of knowledge. Is it possible for Latinos in the U.S. to use the medium of weblogs according to Habermas’ theory and change the distribution of knowledge and power in American society?

Habermas’ approach will be described as the theoretical framework for this research paper. It will then be determined how the Latino community in the U.S. could or could not use the weblog as a tool of empowerment.

2. What are Weblogs?

In order to talk about the democratic implications of weblogs, it is first necessary to introduce a definition to work with. As it is still a developing technology, there is no standard definition for weblogs yet. The glossary in We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs gives a good example of how vague current definitions are. The entry for “weblog” gives the following definition: “Web pages with timestamped sections of text, ordered chronologically from newest to oldest” (Bausch 2002, 294). Even less informative is their glossary entry for “blog,” which reads: “An abbreviation of weblog, and the act of writing a weblog“ (Ibid., 289). Taking into account that two of the three authors co-founded Pyra Labs, the company behind the most popular weblog software called Blogger, the lack of a concise and more revealing definition is staggering. Even more so, the majority of the American public does not know what defines a weblog. A Pew Research Center Study released in 2005, asked people whether they new what the term ’blog’ meant. While 38 percent of Internet users said they had a good idea, a majority of 62 percent said they did not. Those Internet users who did not know about blogs were relatively new to the Internet, less regular Internet users, and usually less educated (Pew Internet 2005, 4).

In a 2001 article of ONLINE magazine, Darlene Fichter defines a weblog as ”[...] an online journal - a Web page with a series of short entries in reverse chronological order” (Fichter 2001, 68). Yet, weblogs are much more complex than personal Web pages with frequent updates. Today, professionals in law, journalism, or computing are increasingly using weblogs to exchange and share information in their area of expertise. Blogs provide a low cost, easy to use, and more or less informal online publishing platform. Although blogs are still often used as personal journals, certain groups succeed in using them as an effective tool to create spontaneous virtual communities in which observations are passed on, questions are answered, and issues discussed (Anjewierden 2005, 1-3).

The typical blogger in the United States is fairly difficult to describe, but as the blog has evolved from an amateur diary to an extensive information platform for professionals, the results of the 2005 Pew study are not surprising. It] concluded that bloggers are likely to be well- educated, young males with broadband Internet access and years of Internet experience (Pew 2005, 2). Yet, even this classification overlooks the large number of women and minorities that have begun blogging.

3. Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action

The Theory of Communicative Action forms the main work of the German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas. His work was first published in 1981 and is an attempt to develop a modern approach towards societal ethics. This research paper does not allow for an extensive evaluation of Habermas’ theory, but this section will summarize his main assumptions, arguments, and conclusions, in order to apply them to the analysis of communication processes through weblogs.

Habermas approach is sociological as much as it is philosophical. It is closely related to the theory of modernity (Habermas 1984, vi and xxxi), even though Habermas himself is considered part of the postmodern Frankfurt School. According to Habermas, the normative foundation for society is found in speech because it is one of the most fundamental forms of interpersonal communication, which, in turn, is a prerequisite for social interaction (Ibid., ix-x). Habermas makes a distinction between three forms of speech, but only one of them classifies as true communication (Ibid., 285):

- instrumental action (success-driven and non-social)
- strategic action (success-driven but also social)
- communicative action (seeking consensus and social)

Normally, people try to convince others through speech to act according to their own vested interest. This form of instrumental action eventually leads to the implementation of some interests at the expense of others and to distortion of truths. For Habermas, communicative action is the only form of discourse with real potential for societal progress. This interpersonal communication, especially through speech, is the only form of human rationality, a form that defies coercive instrumental rationality (389-392).

"The focus of investigation thereby shifts from cognitive-instrumental rationality to communicative rationality. And what is paradigmatic for the latter is not the relation of a solitary subject to something in the objective world that can be represented and manipulated, but the intersubjective relation that speaking and acting subjects take up when they come to an understanding with one another about something" (Ibid., 392)

Any consensus reached in communicative action is a stabilizing and driving factor for society at large. More precisely, people who reach a consensus over something have agreed on what true knowledge is. This true knowledge is different from each individual’s previous knowledge and will change again, whenever they communicate with others about the same issue and reach a new consensus. Societal progress in democracies is based on this never-ending consensus on true knowledge.

Besides the participants’ willingness to engage, communicative action must meet certain criteria to allow for consensus. If all preconditions are combined, they form the so-called ’ideal speech situation’ (Nida Rümlin 1991, 214):

- all people involved must have equal opportunity to start a discourse
- all people involved must have equal opportunity to participate in a discourse
- there may not be any difference in power between the participants
- the participants must be truthful to each other

As for reality, an ’ideal speech situation’ is hard to achieve, or better, it is hard to discern it from other forms of speech settings, because it might not be obvious that certain criteria are not met. For example, one participant might act strategically and lie about his true intentions, or power differences might be invisible at first glance (Wijnia 2004, section 3).

Habermas Theory of Communicative Action is embedded in the larger frame of his work, in which he is dedicated to the ideas of liberal democracy and emphasizes the importance of norms, especially human rights (Froomkin 2003, 758). “Habermas argues that only a social system that guarantees basic civil rights and enables meaningful participation by all those affected by a decision can make legitimate decisions. [...] [His] work provides a standpoint from which social institutions that fail to live up to his very demanding standards can be critiqued in the hopes of making them more legitimate and more just“ (Ibid., 752-753).

4. How Can Weblogs Promote Public Discourse?

Concluding from Habermas’ theory, consensual discourse provides a strong medium for progress in democracies. However, two questions remain: How might ‘communicative action’ look like in reality? And how can the ,ideal speech situation’ be created? To answer these questions, the weblog technology will be analyzed in its abilities to bring Habermasian philosophy to life.

4.1 Communicative Action in a Real Life Setting

William E. Forbath, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin, makes the following bold claim about what might be the conditions for real life communicative discourse:

“For Habermas, not only lawmaking but also governance in its ongoing, administrative aspect must draw its energy and authority from the citizenry’s generation of communicative power. This bold vision would seem to call for a vast increase in the amount of “communicative power” presently flowing through this or any other contemporary democracy. As Habermas points out, communicative power is generated only “from below,” from mobilized citizenries. Thus, his vision seems to demand a substantial renovation of our existing public spheres, and the creation of many new spaces and institutional forms for citizenly engagement in the processes of lawmaking and governance“ (Forbath 1991, 1443).

Although this may have seemed megalomaniac only a few decades ago, the “substantial revolution of our existing public spheres” actually took place during the 1990s, when the World Wide Web revolutionized the way that people communicate. In Habermas@discourse.net: Toward a Critical Theory of Cyberspace, Michael Froomkin explains how communicative action could be carried out with the help of the Web:

"Habermasian new spaces begin with individuals in ’pluralistic, differentiated civil societies’ who gradually unite in communities of shared interests and understanding. Using democratized access to a new form of mass media - the Internet - these individuals engage first in self-expression, then engage each other in debate. In so doing, they begin to form new communities of discourse" (p. 857).

However, Froomkin himself notes that there are limits to the real life application. Because new technology enables humans to engage in activities that were impossible earlier, it cannot guarantee that people will in fact take advantage of this possibility (Ibid., 855-856). Another restriction might be that “[i]dentifying a practical discourse that meets Habermas’s conditions does not by itself prove the truth of Habermas’s procedural theory of justice. Rather, it removes the potentially crushing empirical objection that the theory is too demanding for real-life application” (Ibid. 752).

4.2. The Ideal Speech Situation in Real Life

In section 3 of this paper, four conditions for the ’ideal speech situation’ where named: equal possibilities for everyone to initiate and join a discourse, no power differences between, and truthfulness of all participants. Given this, consensus is possible through communicative action. To determine whether weblogs meet the standard for consensual communicative action, they will now be examined for their ,ideal speech’ potential.

Equal Accessibility to Create and Participate

First, everyone must have the ability to initiate discourse, meaning everyone must be able to create a weblog. As one might have suspected, overall accessibility is very low. This becomes clear when looking at worldwide Internet users and population statistics. According to a November 2005 update on internetworldstats.com, only 15.2 percent of the worldwide population actually has access to Internet service, setting the maximum for worldwide bloggers to 15.2 percent, as well. If split up by region, the data gives us a totally different picture: 68.9 percent of Americans and 35.5 percent of Europeans have access to the Internet and together they comprise 52,3 percent of the world population. From this viewpoint, the World Wide Web does not allow for equal access on every continent. However, the data also shows that Internet usage has increased dramatically over the last five years, indicating, for example, that Africa has seen a 426 percent growth rate. Although the number of people who benefit from this increase is comparatively small, it is a noticeable trend towards equal access in First World and Third World countries. Whether this also holds true for the United States in particular, will be analyzed closer in section 4 of this paper.

Another aspect of equal accessibility focuses on creation of vs. participation in a weblog. To participate in a blog by entering a comment was always relatively easy, while knowledge of HTML was essential for creating a weblog during the early developmental stages. Today, the invention of ready-to-use blog software has made it very easy for every Internet user to start their own weblog (Blood 2000).


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Empowering Latinos. Weblogs as Tools of Democracy in the United States
Duke University
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Empowering, Latinos, Weblogs, Tools, Democracy, United, States
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Anonymous, 2005, Empowering Latinos. Weblogs as Tools of Democracy in the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/153857


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