There is intense interest in the Internet's potential to contribute to various sociological phenomena, primarily from American Internet enthusiasts. Foremost among these ideas is that the Internet will contribute to, or even be primarily responsible for, a new era of participatory democracy and a revitalisation of the public sphere.
A leading exponent of this notion is Howard Rheingold, an influential member of an early Internet community called "The Well", whose book Virtual Communities was published in 1993.
Rheingold's main argument is that "virtual communities could help citizens revitalise democracy, or they could be luring us into an attractively packaged substitute for democratic discourse" (Rheingold, 1993: 276).
Rheingold and others have promoted the Utopian vision of the electronic agora, an "Athens without slaves". He believes that the technology, "if properly understood and defended by enough citizens, does have democratising potential in the way that alphabets and printing presses had democratising potential" (Rheingold, 1993: 279).
I will investigate the theoretical bases of these ideas, and discuss factors that will affect their potential development.
I have chosen to use Rheingold's work as a starting point, because it taps into several important themes that have great influence on thinking about the Internet in theory, practice and government policy. The Internet is an American creation, and a large proportion of its users are still American citizens. This makes American theories and attitudes central to the development of the Internet, and Rheingold's work is influential among Internet enthusiasts and policy makers.
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