, Volume 63, Issue 2, pp 245–267 | Cite as

Aufstieg der Semiöffentlichkeit: Eine relationale Perspektive

  • Ulrike KlingerEmail author


Dieser theoretisch-konzeptionelle Beitrag reflektiert die bisherigen Bemühungen, Öffentlichkeit unter digitalen Bedingungen neu zu denken, um anschließend eine alternative Perspektive aufzuzeigen: Durch eine Verbindung von Öffentlichkeitstheorie und relationaler Soziologie wird es möglich, die Transformation von Öffentlichkeit als eine Transformation der Kommunikationsbeziehungen innerhalb von Öffentlichkeit zu verstehen. Dabei spielen vor allem semiöffentliche Kommunikationsbeziehungen eine große Rolle, die weder privat noch öffentlich, sondern graduell dazwischen verortet werden können. Die Unterscheidung von öffentlicher, semiöffentlicher und privater Kommunikation in Verbindung mit verschiedenen Formen sozialer Beziehungen erlaubt konzeptionelle Differenzierung, ohne den Öffentlichkeitsbegriff zu überdehnen. Abschließend skizziert der Beitrag einige Folgen des Aufstiegs von Semiöffentlichkeit für Kommunikation, Medien und Gesellschaft.


Öffentlichkeit Digitale Kommunikation Social Media Relationale Soziologie 

The rise of semi-public spheres: A relational perspective


In this theoretical contribution we reflect previous attempts to re-conceptualize the public sphere in a digital era and suggest an alternative perspective: to combine public sphere theory with relational sociology. By doing so, we are better able to understand the transformation of public spheres as a transformation of communicative relations within public spheres.

In the past decades, scholars have addressed these transformations by mainly two strategies: a fragmentation and/or a conceptual extension of the public sphere. The first approach, fragmenting the public sphere concept, deals with the question if and how new publics emerge as a result of digital communication tools. It sees the “remnants” of the mass-mediated public sphere as only one of many new public spheres—and not necessarily as a central one in network societies, resulting in a differentiation of new types of public spheres. The second approach, extending the public sphere, focuses mainly on how digital communication technologies change traditional, mass-mediated publics. In this view, the multiple forms of digital communication add to the mass-mediated public sphere: The public sphere now contains the diversity of mass media, the Internet and mobile media. Thus, the public sphere now encompasses all forms of mediated communication, resulting in more complex structures.

This contribution argues that the current “relational turn” promises new avenues to understand what changes within public spheres in a digital era. Relational sociology shares its roots with network theories, but it focuses on the edges, the links between nodes, thereby overcoming the nodocentrism of network approaches. Relations are seen as the constitutive elements, molecules of society and public spheres. In a relational paradigm, all analysis of public spheres begins with social relations. This means that it is no longer necessary to define a new “space” for new forms of interaction, such as virtual public spheres, digital public spheres or networked public spheres. Instead, we add new forms of interactions and social relations that constitute public spheres. In this view, social relations within public spheres are diversified, not public spheres as such. The argument continues with a discussion of different types of social relations: chains, triads and categorical pairs.

In connection with public sphere theories, social relations can be differentiated as public, semi-public and private. Based on the notion that public communication, whether personal or impersonal, always requires an addressee beyond the closest circle of friends, family and acquaintances, public social relations are defined as relations containing strangers. In this perspective, private social relations take place between social entities that know each other and are shielded from strangers. Public social relations, on the contrary, take place between social entities that are (still) strangers to each other and, in principle, open for participation. If private social relations must not encompass strangers, and public social relations must encompass strangers, then semi-public social relations can encompass strangers: either as addressees or only as observers and otherwise passively involved social entities. Thus, semi-public social relations are delimited, as are private social relations (not open for everyone), but the demarcation is permeable for strangers. The public sphere contains only specific social relations based on communication: those that can encompass strangers and those that must encompass strangers. Thus, we can define the public sphere as a dynamic configuration of social relations of various types that encompass strangers.

It is argued that with the waning dichotomy of public and private, semi-public social relations are a major consequence of the current transformations within public spheres. In connection with the different kinds of relations introduced above, we then discuss private, semi-public and public chains, triads and categorical pairs, illustrating them with examples.

A focus on communicative relations that constitute public spheres allows to understand—across micro, meso and macro perspectives—how different platforms and their affordances impact the formation of social phenomena, e. g., how protest publics emerge from low-threshold interactions and below the radar of mass media. Semi-public relations are key: Public spheres are no longer built only on addressing as many strangers as possible (in the form of an audience), as was and is the modus operandi of mass media. Social media enable individuals to communicate beyond their private networks: friends of friends, weak ties bringing visibility, relevance, reach for information from non-redundant, socially distant sources. Semi-public communicative relations enable the formation of protest groups from Facebook groups of friendship circles (e. g., the German right-wing nationalist movement Pegida), proliferate “fake news” and stimulate public discourse through hashtags (e. g., #metoo). A relational perspective of semi-public communication allows for a better understanding of viral phenomena. Due to the current transformations of the public sphere, we do not only experience more semi-public communication, but a diversification of semi-public communicative relations.


Public sphere Digital communication Social media Relational sociology 


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für Publizistik- und KommunikationswissenschaftFreie Universität BerlinBerlinDeutschland

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