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From Journalism to Medicine
9 February 2010

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet: that is the question

When the German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas started tweeting recently, the subject he chose was the internet. Or was it?

The 81 year old academic and intellectual is often cited as one of the most influential philosophers alive today and is known for his theories on media and communication.

JMSC Master of Journalism student and blogger Jonathan Stray was particularly interested in what this titan of media theory had to say.

“Habermas is a rock star of the theory world. It was surprising because he’s so old, but people were really excited by the idea of him tweeting. A lot of people have called Twitter idiotic, and noted that 140 characters is far too small to articulate real ideas. That’s why there was this craving for legitimacy. In a sense it (Habermas tweeting) would legitimise the medium.”

Habermas hails from the Frankfurt School of theorists, who subscribe to a neo-Marxist view of the world that seeks a third path of social development which is neither capitalist nor socialist. His pioneering work looks at the concept of the public sphere: a place where people could meet in public that was neither private, like the home, nor belonging to the government. He saw this particularly in the coffeehouses of 18th century Europe, and in the private media. However, he felt that commercialisation had destroyed this space.

Twitter seems to be a 21st century realisation of that abstract idea – a place where an instantaneous global conversation can take place, a restoration of the public sphere.

So, when the following tweets appeared: “It’s true that the internet has reactivated the grass-roots of an egalitarian public sphere of writers and readers” and, “But the rise of millions of fragmented discussions across the world tend instead to lead to fragmentation of audiences into isolated publics”, online philosophers sat up and took note.

It was certainly interesting to find that a man whose master work is The Theory of Communicative Action had decided to embrace Twitter in his twilight years, siging up as @JHabermas.

Sceptics jumped in – why would a man who had never shown any great interest in the internet before take to it all of a sudden? It turned out that the tweets were not original – they were quotes from his 2006 paper Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension?

To settle the argument over their origin once and for all, Jonathan Stray decided to take matters into his own hands and contact the father of communicative reason to ask him about these tweets in person. Stray called up Frankfurt University’s philosophy department, asked for Jürgen Habermas’ number and then dialled him up. Habermas answered and told Jonathan politely it wasn’t in fact tweeting him at all.

Stray is not too disappointed by the discovery.

“There was great excitement about what Habermas might have to say on media theory and what the internet means for democracy. The huge interest in this shows that people are thinking hard about what it all means and are desperate for theories to apply to this new medium.”

This tickled not only philosophers’ fancy but also journalists; the story was picked up by, amongst others, The British broadsheet, The Guardian. Jonathan Stray gets quoted in them all.

“It’s a strange experience to be on the other side of things, but refreshing because it’s a lot less work!”