chapter  12
13 Pages

The grey area. A rough guide: television fans, internet forums, and the cultural public sphere

ByPETER LARSEN

Studies in the wake of Jürgen Habermas’ Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962) and its English translation The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1989) tend to concentrate on the function of the political public sphere and seldom discuss its counterpart, the cultural public sphere. There is a similar pattern in recent discussions of new communication technology: the internet is described and discussed as an extension of the political public sphere, with focus on the possibilities for furthering deliberative and participatory democracy, while far less attention is paid to the transformation of the cultural public sphere brought about by the multitude of internet discussion arenas that have emerged during the 10-15 years, from the early Usenet groups and email lists to the current chat groups, blogs, message boards, and other forms of internet publishing. The following is an attempt to throw some light on this immense

and unruly field. After an overview and a brief analysis of communication within a sector of the computer-mediated cultural public sphere, I discuss the characteristics of such arenas in general and compare them to Habermas’ description of the ideal cultural public sphere. My point of departure is those internet spaces in which television viewers discuss their favourite shows. Television companies began establishing internet sites devoted to popular

shows in the late 1990s. On such sites there would typically be a short presentation of the show, notes about current episodes, some promotional photos and links to the main actors’ homepages. In parallel with these ‘official’ sites, a few eager fans of a given show would construct their own

sites, with an extensive account of every single episode, gossip about writers and actors, lists of memorable quotes, and so on. Page design as well as site topography and functionality have changed

considerably since then. In particular, the introduction of various comments applications has opened up the possibilities for interactive exchange of opinions among site visitors. Today’s official sites are elaborate, often lavishly designed constructions, and the fan sites have changed correspondingly into complex discussion arenas, in many cases hosted and maintained by internet marketing companies. In the following I concentrate on one such discursive universe, the one that has the US prime-time medical drama Grey’s Anatomy as its centre.