This chapter considers Wikipedia’s relationship to the ‘real’ world. The question arises how far can the Internet, and more particularly the Wikipedia community, be seen as contributing to a newly emerging public sphere, as defined by Jürgen Habermas and Michael Warner.1 Habermas postulated that the bourgeois public sphere, an arena in which free discussion and polemics could take place, largely but not solely through the medium of print, first appeared in England towards the end of the seventeenth century. The distinction between Habermasian ‘public opinion’ and more passive ‘mass opinion’ might be summarized briefly as follows: public opinion is effective when the public may broadcast opinions as well as receiving them; has a chance to answer back to any opinion expressed publicly; finds outlets for effective and legal action, even in opposition to authority, and remains independent, and protected from penetration by governmental or proprietary interests. Mass opinion prevails when far fewer express than receive opinions, and when political or cultural elites control the process of opinionformation. According to Habermas:

Habermas sees the functional public sphere as disappearing with the evolution of the mass media in the second half of the nineteenth century. The public at this point turn into passive consumers of what is put before them, in both the cultural and political spheres, and the possibilities for real debate and decision-making gradually evaporate. The Western ‘public sphere’ has been largely structured by the mass media during the twentieth century, and this has resulted in a relatively controlled and weak arena for cultural and political debate. Public communication has tended to be one-way, contained within a hub-and-spoke system in which

cultural content is produced centrally and broadcast to consumers on the periphery. Hence, a genuine public sphere is a rare beast indeed.