Participatory Democracy

Unlike previous mass media, electronic networks allow people to directly interact with the information with which they are presented. Consequently, citizens can have 'real-time' conversations with each others, regardless of geographical constraints. In addition, people with similar interests or goals can go to 'virtual' spaces to meet like-minded individuals and discuss issues of interest. In some cases, citizens can even converse with their political representatives about legislation on which they have an opinion.

This type of interaction adheres to the "ritual view of communication, directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs (Carey 18)." Ritual communication brings people together in a manner reminiscent of Athenian democracy or the old New England town meetings, where each citizen was provided with an equal right to speak.

The ritualistic capability for expression increases the participatory nature of democracy in cyberspace while undermining old hierarchies. Individuals play a more direct role in their own governance, through "the power of citizen-to-citizen (lateral) communications" which benefit both themselves and their community:

"Community building power comes from the living database that the participants create and use together informally as they help each other solve problems, one to one and many to many. The web of human relationships that can grow along with the database is where the potential for cultural and political change can be found." (Rheingold 249)

Rheingold's explanation of how communication between citizens can result in the production of an empowered community and the possibility for political action, echoes Habermas notion of the public sphere, in which individuals respect and take interest in each other's opinions while also looking out for the good of the community as whole.

But electronic networks such as the Big Sky Telegraph and the Blacksburg Electronic Village allow for democratic participation across geographical boundaries as well as within local areas. Virtual communities created on-line can serve as alternatives to or reinforcements of actual physical communities in their functions as public spheres. By utilizing the transcendence and speed of electronic technology these communities can also spur political action by citizens, especially on the grassroots level.