In this paper I extend Jürgen Habermas’s Culture-Debating to Culture-Consuming process to the looming horizon of social media, along with Baudrillard’s account of information and meaning. I do this by further studying Habermas’s theory of the transition between those two phases, and relate the current state of affairs to Carlo Ginzburg’s theory of the iconic circuit and my research on virality. I finally explain the benefits and drawbacks of this state of affairs in the context of Baurdrillard’s account of meaning in the era of mass media, as it implicates the share-holders and rule-makers of social media in deciding its consequences as a technology.


In ‘The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’, Habermas tries to explain a present (the book was first published in 1962) where the public was unable to independently form opinions, instead being led by the nose by the media to points of artificial consensus when necessary, summed up in the phrase ‘publicity is generated from above, so to speak, in order to generate an aura of good will for certain positions.’ He explained this occurrence through a historical study of the public sphere and public opinion, from its emergence in newspapers and coffee houses, to the formations as he saw them in 1962.

Habermas frames this process through the dissolution of the responsibilities of the private individual and family, both through the welfare state, and ‘welfare’ policies of employers that providing housing, medical care, child care, and so on. Paradoxically, Habermas says that the privateness of the individual participants in the public sphere is what allowed it to function according to rational and critical debate, and that as the privateness of the person and family was beat back, critical debate gave way to the artificial publicity of the present.

This was concretely manifested in the change between a culture-debating public to a culture-consuming public, brought on by a thoroughly individualized and interiorized view of leisure time that came with the welfare state and company relieving the family ‘intimate’ sphere of its economic responsibilities.

Now obviously observations about the welfare state are more applicable to Habermas’s native Germany than to the United States where I am writing this, but the similar role of private employers in the process remains the same. Habermas further backs this up in terms of the development of architecture in suburbs and apartments that helped to dissolve the privacy family life had, encouraging instead individual retreats to privacy in leisure.

Habermas illustrates the transition to culture-consumption instead of debate in terms of the social-psychological consequences of the weakening of the social circles of the family intimate sphere and the literary salon, leaving the alienated individual as prey to mass media.


Habermas’s analysis expresses a concerning history and state of affairs. However, social media has the ability to usher in a new kind of relationship between culture and the public, to create a media-producing public. Though due to it being an incredibly flexible and powerful tool for advertising and data-collection, it is often considered as the antithesis of an informed and intelligent public, this doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is because social media, like the online culture it builds upon, is fueled by user-generated content. User-submitted videos, comments, images, and so on are at the heart of every successful social media enterprise, their primary means of competition with mass media like television, movies, and the news, also now distributed over the internet.

Of course people have been able to produce media long before the invention of the internet, the change is that social media provides (generally free) distribution of almost any image and video to any user, not only an established personality like a famous artist or pundit. Instead, any user is able to upload and share almost anything they want, to almost anyone they want.

The history of art has long been heavily influenced by the means of producing art— the education, materials, and time required, and the means of distributing art— where it can be hung, sold, displayed, marketed, etc. We only have to look at the exile of the muralists in Mexico under the Gil presidency (Oles), or the way salon culture gave rise to the production of rococo painting and ornamentation in France (Stokstad, Cothren) to see the influence of patronage on art production. The role of distribution and display is even more obvious in the era of mass media, with the viewership, critical appreciation, and preservation of art objects heavily determining its inclusion into art history itself. The role an art’s audience, circumstances of reproduction, and market for sale play in its historical and critical reception has been discussed by Carlo Ginzburg and A W Eaton in the context of erotic art, with Eaton arguing that a piece of art being privately distributed to wealthy and intellectual elites instead of being publically circulated could make all the difference between it being considered pornographic and warranting a ban, and being a critically celebrated piece of classic art.

Mass media takes this even further of course, in that the technologies and institutions of mass media have a much greater ability to both fund the production of ‘high quality’ media like films or books, and to distribute the media once produced, leaving those not approved by the institutions at a stark disadvantage. We can correlate this development with Habermas’s account of the decline of the intimate family sphere, a private sphere still oriented towards an audience, a place in private to develop and share ideas through discussion.


As I discuss in my paper ‘Virality and Chaos’, social media is remarkable in that there are constant sea-changes in content, with pieces of media totally lacking in institutional backing striking huge audiences by better drawing the attention of viewers in an adaptive and experimenting system constantly seeking to draw more of its viewers attention.

Considering this, along with the lowering costs of art education and the distribution of cheap and easy to use media production tools like cell-phone cameras, the line between institutional insider and outsider is smaller than ever, and there is also an abundance of money to be gained from attracting attention through this new format that is so much more up-for-grabs. For example, prominent Youtube creator Jeffree Star earned 150 million USD (self-reported, via Elle), much of it from marketing makeup to his viewers, and Kylie Jenner earned 540 million USD selling 51% of her Kylie Cosmetics, (Forbes) a business built off of her own image, heavily marketed through her incredibly popular Instagram account boasting 203 million followers.


This re-invests the private person, before they are institutionalized with education, hiring, and upper management, with the ability and incentive to make something for themselves in creating media and culture itself. Articles from The Verge and Kotaku both describe in detail the countless people who live stream themselves playing video games to small or non-existent audiences for hours a week, in hopes of everything between the substantial benefits of virality and fame, and a person to have a conversation with.

Reinvesting the average consumer of culture with the ability to produce media and benefit thereby can reverse the social-psychological development that Habermas framed as the culprit of the culture-consumer epoch, because it encourages them in their pursuit of their interests and hobbies, provides an audience, concrete or theoretical, to compare their creative efforts against. In Lacan’s seminar ‘What is Speech? Where is Language?’ O. Mannoni remarks that speech brings perspective to language, it is a ‘cut through this universe [of language]’, what I would call a concretization.

Without speech to an audience, even to an imaginary audience, we are unable to even prepare for debate, without a circuit of feedback we have no way to develop our discourse to participate in culture in the future. The Verge quotes a user MaverickRPDM, as saying that they found streaming valuable even without any viewers, as a way of improving their conversational skills.


However, things are not entirely for the better. Baudrillard warned that as the amount of information (in this case ‘content’, videos, comments, photos, etc) available to the viewers grows, meaning begins to disintegrate, and that it has to be reconstituted by the institution disseminating the information in its structure. In other words, the more overwhelming and chaotic the information a person has to consider, the harder time they will have forming a meaningful opinion about it, and the more they will rely on the structure the information is presented to them in for finding that meaning. ‘Only the medium can make an event.’

This state of affairs is also the one Habermas is discussing with the terms nonpublic opinion and manufactured publicity. As I discuss in my paper ‘Virality and Chaos’, virality and the features of social media that it characterizes, are not particular democratic, even as it is seemingly more and more up-for-grabs, because decisions about the dissemination of media are not made entirely on the basis of their popularity, but on a host of other factors that vary across platforms.

In light of Baudrillard’s warning, it is very important to note that though the current functioning of social media is very different from that of mass media, the owners and the advertisers who pay their bills still hold the keys. In my virality paper, I explore virality as characteristic of the flexible and experimental structure of social media, and this flexibility can be used to promote almost any kind of media in any format. This flexibility can just as easily become an openness to discipline as it can emancipate culture from the contraints of accumulated wealth and power.


Social media is a new technology for media distribution, and a new paradigm for communication and advertising. It defies the logic of return on investment, education, and institutionalization that dominate mass media, but it leaves the consequences of this in the hands of those operating the platforms. This should leave the reader deeply skeptical of the motives and methods of the private companies, and curious about what the right way to structure social media would be.


	title = {The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere},
	author = {Jürgen Habermas},
	date = {1962},

	title = {Art and Architecture in Mexico},
	author = {James Oles},
	date = {2013},

	title = {Art History: Eighteenth to Twenty-First Century Art},
	author = {Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren},
	date = {2008},

	title = {Virality and Chaos},
	author = {Quinn Bohner},
	date = {2020},

	title = {‘A Lady on the Street but a Freak in the Bed’: On the Distinction Between Erotic Art and Pornography},
	author = {A W Eaton},
	date = {2018},

	title = {In Case You Were Wondering, Jeffree Star Is Rich},
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	publisher = {Elle Australia},
	date = {2020},

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	publisher = {Forbes},
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	date = {2020},

	title = {Instagram},
	date = {2020},

	title = {LonelyStreams Shows You What Happens In Twitch Streams With Zero Viewers},
	author = {Eric Van Allen},
	date = {2018},
	publisher = {Kotaku},
	url = {},

	title = {The Twitch streamers who spend years broadcasting to no one},
	author = {Patricia Hernandez},
	date = {2018},
	publisher = {The Verge},
	url = {},

	title = {The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book II The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955},
	editor = {Jacques-Alain Miller},
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	date = {1978},