Hidden participation in the public sphere: Understanding Malaysian university students' public discourse practices in cyberspace
First Monday

Hidden participation in the public sphere: Understanding Malaysian university students' public discourse practices in cyberspace by Mei-Yuit Chan, Shameem Rafik-Galea, and Ngee-Thai Yap



Abstract
A recent development in Malaysia was the unprecedented rise in young Malaysians’ participation in the country’s social and political affairs, facilitated almost entirely by the Internet. This phenomenon caught many by surprise considering that university students in the country had been barred through legislation from active involvement in political activities for more than 30 years. Through a survey of 514 university students in a Malaysian public university, supplemented by interview data and samples of students’ writing, this study investigated in which ways Malaysian tertiary students are participating in the public sphere through the Internet. Following Hauser’s (1999) conception of public discourse as personal, interactive, informal, and distributed voices among the citizenry, we argue for a perspective that explains how online interactions in the friendship frame among young people represent their participation in the public sphere in the context of contemporary society.

Contents

Introduction
Historical perspective on public discourse and university students in Malaysia
The Internet as public discourse space
What counts as public discourse?
Method
Findings
Redefining friend, friendship, and chatting
Conclusion

 


 

Introduction

Participation in the public sphere is the responsibility of responsible citizens. Engaging with a community, nation or the world through public discourse is part of the democratic process whereby members of the public contribute ideas and opinions on matters that affect the lives of the collective, in search of a better world for all. A measure of how successful a nation has been in fostering the culture of civic engagement among its citizens is by looking at the extent of participation in public discourse among its university students, the future leaders of the nation. For a country such as Malaysia, the issue of whether or not, and how university students are playing or demonstrating their role as concerned citizens is an especially significant one. Until the recent past, Malaysian university students have been criticised as being passive and apathetic (Weiss, 2011; Anonymous, 2010), and uninterested in anything beyond their immediate surroundings. This state of affairs has been attributed to the government’s concerted efforts that began in the 1970s to regulate the political involvement of university students, which included control over affiliation, assembly and the making of public speeches. However, in the last few years, with the emergence of the Internet, the country has seen an unprecedented wave of young people actively engaging in discourses touching on the public affairs of the nation using online social media. The Internet, by facilitating public discourse among young citizens, has produced an impact on the Malaysian political scene that caught many by surprise. Malaysia’s former deputy education minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, aptly captured the sense of shock experienced by the ruling party about their poor showing in the 2008 general election when he was reported to have said, “We lost the social media war. We were almost not there [in 2008].” (Zappei, 2013). The seemingly unexpected transformation of previously docile and uninterested young people into active and even aggresive social and political commentators, made possible by the availability of the Internet, is a phenomenon worthy of investigation.

The following examples of public comments, which would not have been possible before the era of the Internet, shows a civic and political awakening by the young in Malaysia. Droves of Netizens (presumably university students as indicated by the name of the Web site) reacted strongly towards an incident in which a university event facilitator had evidently berated a young law student over her insistence on posing a question at a forum that was held to discuss the topic “are graduates and politics aligned?”. The video recording of the controversial incident was posted on YouTube. Below are some examples (unedited, except for the removal of personal names) of comments posted on a Facebook page named Forum Suara Mahasiswa (Forum for the Voice of University Students) weighing in with their opinions on the issue:

Posted on January 29
Seems like we are still alive, this new article is written by [name removed] on the Malaysian mentality. Have a read!

The ‘Tidak Apa’ Mentality — The Biggest Threat Standing In The Way Of Becoming A First–World Nation by [name removed]

Yes, I know cats, dogs, birds and sharks have problems, but has anybody been paying attention to the news recently? There are tens of thousands of Malaysians suffering while most of us here are busy chomping down our roti canai and sipping ...

(full text available at Forum Suara Mahasiswa at https://www.facebook.com/notes/forum-suara-mahasiswa/the-tidak-apa-mentality-the-biggest-threat-standing-in-the-way-of-becoming-a-fir/313325498787785)

Posted on January 16
The art of listening:
Listen listen and listen, with all the attention on this word, it is easy to forget that not so long ago, the problem we had was nobody actually spoke!

Not many people dare to speak up because of the upbringing, culture and the punishing educational system which simply discourages free speech. I got my fair share of punishment even when I was ...

(full text available at Forum Suara Mahasiswa at https://www.facebook.com/notes/forum-suara-mahasiswa/the-art-of-listening-by-sihan-tan/305820396204962)

It is interesting to note that the second commentator made an interesting observation that “not so long ago” university students would not have spoken up either because of fear or apathy. This observation is most apt against the backdrop of Malaysia’s history of legislation on student activism (which has been lifted recently), and reflects an increasingly vocal generation who demand freedom of expression.

The role the Internet plays in enabling and enhancing public discourse among the young people in the country is undisputed; it is recognized by the government, political parties, journalists and the lay person. To what extent does this vocal crowd comprise Malaysia’s current university students and young graduates who had lived their university days in the shadow and washback effects of legislation on student public discourses, and in what ways are they part of the online public discourse scene in this period of change?

In this project conducted at a public university in Malaysia, data were collected through three methods, via a survey, focus group discussions with students, and collection of samples of students’ online written discourses. As the part of this project pertaining to the analysis of focus group interviews and student writing is currently ongoing, this paper reports findings obtained from a survey, supplemented with insight obtained from one focus group discussion and several examples of written discourses by students.

 

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Historical perspective on public discourse and university students in Malaysia

Public discourse and the state of social and political activism among university students in Malaysia can be best understood from the history of the country before and after 1971. Before the enactment of the Universities and University Colleges Act in 1971 that put in place curbs on students’ right to assembly, particularly to associate with political groups, students in Malaysia’s oldest university, the University of Malaya was renowned for its students’ active participation in the public affairs of the country. University students at the time were held in high regard as engaged citizens and future leaders of the nation and commanded considerable influence (Weiss, 2011). A natural development in this culture of student activism was the establishment of the famed Speakers’ Corner in 1966, built and maintained by and for students (Nor Juliana Haron, 2011). However, the period after the Universities and University Colleges Act saw a drastic turn of events where the Speakers’ Corner was abolished, and all subsequent student gatherings and public speeches were monitored and controlled by university authorities. Students were effectively tamed with the threat of expulsion and other disciplinary actions (Weiss, 2011; Gooch, 2012).

Thirty years of control by the Act has had its toll on the perceived quality of the nation’s bank of leadership capital. Voices have emerged lamenting the lack of initiative, crtitical thinking, creativity, and leadership and communication abilities in Malaysian university graduates. Students have been described as apathetic (Weiss, 2011) and lesu (“laidback” in Malay) (Anonymous, 2010), an effect attributed by some to the Act and the overall official strategy of active depoliticisation of university students (Weiss, 2011). In response to changes in the local and global social and political scene, brought about by the advent of the Internet that liberalized information, knowledge, and communication, the Malaysian government, in 2009, made amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act to allow greater freedom for university students to participate in the public affairs of the country.

Following the amendment of the Act, the Speakers’ Corner at the University of Malaya was revived (Nor Juliana Haron, 2011). However, the reception from students was lukewarm and the platform failed to attract the attention of student opinion leaders and activists. One very pertinent reason for the students’ lack of interest in regulated public discourse channels is the emergence of a more convenient and efficient public discourse platform that students had begun to discover — the Internet. The flourishing of Internet access in the country had begun around 2007, the year when blogs and instant messaging became widespread and highly popular among youngsters. This was reflected in the Internet access statistics provided by the World Bank, showing 2006 as the year when Internet access in the country passed midpoint at 51.6 percent, and increased to 55.7 percent in 2007. Access in the country has since reached 65.8 percent in 2012 (World Bank, 2013). Where the authorities were thinking old–style discourse delivery, young people had abandoned the very mode that was denied them before and had instead embraced an online platform with its promise of unfettered participation. This was aptly attested to by a leader of a university’s student union who revealed that phone and Internet–based platforms were preferred by students when carrying out campus election campaigns (Anonymous, 2010). Hence, student disinterest in a soapbox speech delivery mode was not an indication of their apathy, but rather, a reflection of their discovery of a different way of performing public discourse.

 

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The Internet as public discourse space

Public discourse requires effective media through which public deliberation on important public issues can be conducted. Such media must be able to provide access to information as well as a means for open critical debate (Mummery and Rodan, 2013). Largely inexpensive and accessible, as well as fairly uncontrolled and uncensored, it affords freedom of public speech and congregation or assembly to an unlimited number of people. No doubt the potential of the Internet in playing this role has been widely recognized despite an ongoing debate over whether this democratizing of information and communication truly represents meaningful participation in the public sphere (Papacharissi, 2002).

The space provided by online networks is especially meaningful for university students residing in countries such as Malaysia that once had strict legislation on public assembly (Weiss, 2011), contributing to a still prevalent atmosphere of apprehension among students. The current generation of university students, being the “Net” generation (metaphorically, born and bred with access to the Internet), not suprisingly have taken to online networking and have emerged as a formidable force changing the social and political landscape of the country.

The voices of Netizens being regularly reported in alternative as well as mainstream national newspapers, have been accorded legitimate status as the voice of the people (for example, Lai, 2012; Anonymous, 2013; Anonymous, 2012; Smith, 2012). In attesting to the power of discourses on the Internet to influence public opinion and social and political action, the vice–chancellor of a local Malaysian university mooted the idea to offer a course specifically to teach students how to blog “ethically” and “accurately” (Anonymous, 2008). Apart from the voice of young people now being heard and given legitimacy in the public sphere, more importantly, Internet discourses have been recognized for its role in mobilizing much active and impactful civic and political action in the country recently (Smith, 2012; El Teoh, 2012; Asohan, 2013; Lim, 2013; Kaur, 2012; Yapp, 2013), through its power to liberalize information, catalyze active debate and garner support for citizen action.

In view of the Internet as the preferred platform for public discourse among young people, it is pertinent that any research purporting to investigate Malaysian university students’ public discourse practices look at their participation in cyberspace. Evaluating discourse practices conducted through only traditional channels to which students have limited access would not capture the full extent of student involvement.

 

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What counts as public discourse?

The term “public discourse” itself is not unproblematic. The general understanding of public discourse specifies it as an activity in which members of the public get together to discuss and deliberate in a reasoned and civil manner, issues that affect public life, for the common good of the community (Anderson, 2008; Calhoun, 1992; Habermas, 1990; Hauser, 2007; Sellers, 2004). The discussion is of a formal nature with specific rules of participation, must employ rational arguments (not emotions), and serves a persuasive function to influence public opinion. The influential Habermasian theorizing of the public sphere conceives of it as constituted by a collective of private individuals who come together to form a public to deliberate on issues of common concern, specifically to achieve a consensus (Habermas, 1990). To accomplish real or meaningful consensus, certain universal conditions which make up the procedural prerequisites for effective and democratic communication must be met. These conditions that underlie good communication include allowing every speaker to assert and dispute propositions in the discussion with reasons, and disallowing any form of coercion to prevent a speaker from exercising his rights (Habermas, 1990).

One can readily accept that these conditions are conceived in the spirit of democratizing participation to the largest extent possible, allowing for minority voices to be heard and to minimize monopoly of discourse by the powerful. Anderson (2008), editor of an online forum hosted by the Witherspoon Institute, succinctly captures this common understanding of what public discourse is in his introduction of the forum that is aptly named Public Discourse — Ethics, Law and the Common Good (para. 1 and 3):

And we don’t shy away from the most controversial of questions, convinced that careful reasoning can settle many of the challenges before us. ... We call it Public Discourse: Ethics, Law and the Common Good for three simple reasons. First, the topics we cover all center on public life. Second, we approach these topics using methods of discourse that are inherently public, open and accessible to all fellow citizens. Third, we contend that at the heart of our public debates are ethical questions — questions about good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust. As to our approach, we rely on neither revelation, emotivism, nor majoritarianism. Rather we aim to address these questions rationally through critical reflection on man’s nature, his personal and communal flourishing, and the ethical principles that should guide his conduct.

Anderson’s formulation of public discourse resonates with Habermas’ ideas about the public sphere and how discourse should be conducted. However, this prevalent understanding of public discourse that specifies the nature of discourse, its goals and procedural rules, is not without its critics. First, the idea that public discourse must have some kind of formality attached to it in order to be legitimately recognized would naturally exclude marginalized groups from participating, thus defeating the democratic goal of public discourse (Fraser, 1990; Schudson, 2009, 1992). Such formal discussions favour participation by the educated elite, who have the social standing to gain access to formal meetings, and who possess the rhetorical resources to conduct themselves in accordance with rules of formal language register, and speaking and turn–taking conventions expected in the submission of “reasoned arguments”. Furthermore, formalization favor professionally crafted discourses over the less cogently put together expressions of individuals. These technically sophisticated discourses which represent the interests of power elites aimed at orchestrating public opinion pose a threat to a healthy and inclusive public sphere (Hauser, 1999; Mayhew, 1997).

Second, the insistence of logic over emotion as the basis of argument sets the stage for determining what counts as important and what does not in a discussion. In fact, the boundary between rationality and irrationality sometimes cannot be easily distinguished (Haas, 2004; Hauser, 1999). This rule of deliberation favors skilled rhetoricians knowledgeable about public affairs and governance and excludes people who do not possess these knowledge and discursive resources. Hauser’s (2007, 1999) notion of “vernacular voices” lends support to the assertion that formal and organized public discourses actually ignore the real voices of ordinary people who discuss matters that affect their lives in many different ways, not necessarily based on purely rational criteria, and in many different locations, not necessarily in predetermined places.

Third, the notion of “common good” is also contested. The term naturally begs the question “in whose opinion?” Schifino [1] pointed out the challenges to public discourse in supporting the democratic process:

Today, however, the democratic ideal faces what is arguably its greatest challenge — how can democracy work in a large, pluralistic society where communication is mediated, the public sphere is fragmented, and there is no agreed–upon common good.

What legitimately constitutes “the common good” is determined by people who have the social, economic, and political resources to frame discourses, to privilege certain meanings over others (Fairclough, 1995). For example, issues and concerns that have often been relegated to the private sphere in many societies are those that affect the less powerful strata of society. In highlighting the contested nature of “common concern”, Fraser (1990) cited the private to public trajectory of the issue of domestic violence, which was considered a private concern in the past until it eventually obtained its public and legitimate status as a crime in the eyes of lawmakers.

Finally, there is the issue of what consitutes a “public”. The assumption of the existence of a monolithic society is challenged by the realities of the modern public. Instead of a public, society is comprised of a plurality of “publics” that meet and engage with each other formally and informally, creating meanings and a sense of themselves, and in the process, forming pockets of forces that influence public opinion (Haas, 2004; Hauser, 2007, 1999). This concept of distributed publics conceived by Hauser (2007, 1999) as vernacular voices, is free from the restrictions of formal public discourse and recognizes individual citizens’ contributions to the public sphere.

It is interesting to note that the power of discourses by individuals and individual groupings disseminated through the Internet has manifested as the reality of the contemporary public sphere, regardless of any social or political recognition conferred it by the power elite. How the social congregations of youth, referred to with such docile sounding names as “friends” performing such harmless activities as “chatting”, have turned into formidable forces of public opinion and civic action underscores the importance of Hauser’s theory of publics and his reconceptualization of discourse in the public sphere. This theory of publics merely made what was formally invisible visible. A public, hence, can be defined at many levels, from small groups to the wider public of a nation or the world (Sellers, 2004). Following this, the “common good” — the goal of public discourse — is defined by the members of a community it is meant to serve.

Taking the inclusive view of public discourse as arising from fragmented publics and voices (following Hauser, 2007, 1999), discourses in the public space on the Internet that are produced for consumption at some public level are recognized as public discourse. From conversations in a chat room to forums and blogs, individuals communicate with each other not privately, but in the presence of an audience, a virtual community. As members engage with each other in all manner of style and formality, views and perceptions are exchanged and opinions formed among the “public” present at a site.

In this study, we adopt a view that while discourses on the Internet that discuss social, political and governance issues have stronger public discourse value in that they touch the lives of a wider public, discourses that appeal to smaller groups are not less important and should not be dismissed as purely private. This notion follows Fraser’s (1990) and Hauser’s (2007) observations about the permeability of the boundary between the private and the public.

This study begins from the standpoint that online public discourse may appear in different forms, whether in the form traditionally recognized as public discourse, or in a more distributed, fragmented and informal form that might have been previously dismissed as private conversations inconsequential to the wider public.

 

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Method

This study surveyed a total of 514 undergraduate students in a public university in Malaysia. A cluster sampling of classes selected from science–based and social science–based programs were made and a questionnaire was administered to all the students in selected classes. The data collection process took place over a period of two months.

This study adopted Hauser’s (1999) view of participation in public discourse as the act of expressing one’s views, and not just being present as a spectator or silent observer. Also, it focused on the rhetorical nature of public discourse, specifically the written mode of verbal communication, and excludes other forms of expressions such as images, sounds and videos. The students were explicitly told to provide answers in relation to any form of online communication they had participated in regardless of the language used. Hence, the data collected were not limited to discourses written in English but encompassed student online public discourses in any language. This point is particularly important, as society in Malaysia is both multilingual and multi–racial.

The questionnaire asked students to provide demographic information (age, year/semester of study, sex, program of study, and nationality), types of online communication they had been involved in, topics of their online communications and interactions, and their reasons for participating in online discussions. Students were also asked to provide the names and addresses of five Web sites that they could remember, which they most frequently visited and posted messages of any kind.

This last part of the questionnaire was intended to obtain information on the actual Web sites that the students could remember easily, representing those sites that are most important to them. When using this sort of recall method, there is a concern that some respondents might not be able to recall any or as many sites as they might have done if they had been given more time. This limitation is duly acknowledged; however, the advantages of such a method outweigh the limitation as “on the spot” recall would yield more accurate information about what really is important to a respondent. Sites that are unimportant and not frequently used, or otherwise not close to the heart of the respondent, would not be easily remembered and consequently be eliminated from consideration.

Next, a focus group discussion involving eight university students was conducted to obtain student perceptions on public discourse and information about their motivations for writing online, what they wrote about, and what affected their writing. They were also asked to submit samples of their online posts that they deemed as orientating towards a “public” at any level. Participation in the interviews and submission of sample online posts were voluntary, and the students were assured that all identifying elements (names and images) in their posts would be masked.

Respondent demographics

The study was carried out in a public university that is located in one of the most developed states in Malaysia, where ICT (information and communication technologies) is widely used.

Five hundred and fourteen undergraduate students from the university were surveyed in the study. Their age ranged from 19 to 37 years, with the majority of students between 20 and 24 years (f=478, 92.9 percent). The mean year of study was 2.17 years. This means that on average, the students were two–thirds of their way through their three–year university programs. The proportion of students according to semester of study was: second semester (f=130, 25.3 percent), third semester (f=196, 38.1 percent) and fourth semester (f=164, 31.9 percent), with 24 missing values. There were more female students (f=390, 75.9 percent) compared to males (f=122, 23.7 percent). In terms of the faculties surveyed, 129 (25.1 percent) students were from the science–based faculties and 385 (74.9 percent) were from the social science–based faculties (see Table 1 in Appendix 1).

 

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Findings

Online communication activities and public discourse

The first question to be answered is whether or not the students participate in any communication activities online, and if they do, what type of activities they are involved in. Not surprisingly, the results show that all of the students have participated in online activities of one kind or another, reflecting their Internet–savvy nature. To the question “Which online communication activity have you participated in?”, the highest number of students (f=489,95.3 percent) chose the “online chat”, followed by “written in my own blog/website/homepage” (f=344, 67 percent), and “participation in online forums/discussion boards” (f=320, 62.4 percent). The activities the least number of students participated in were “leaving comments in the reader comment box of online news articles” (f=59, 11.5 percent), and “writing letters to the editor of online news websites” (f=46.9 percent) (see Table 2 in Appendix 1). Online activities that were a part of the students’ university coursework requirements were excluded from this research. This paper looked at online activities that students maintained on their own initiative.

From the online activities indicated, it appears that the students participated the least in directly posting responses in relation to national and world news such as writing letters to editors and giving ideas and comments that relate to news articles (9 percent and 11.5 percent respectively), both of which address matters of importance to the wider public. At the other end of the spectrum, interacting in online chats appears to be the type of public discourse almost all of the students were familiar with and active in (95.3 percent).

Despite the mediocre number of students commenting on world and national news through the reader comment facility provided by news portals (f=59, 11.5 percent), the number of students who write their own blogs/homepage was quite high (above 60 percent).

It is also found that apart from writing their own blogs, about half of the students (f=241, 47 percent) were likely to engage with other blog writers by leaving comments on their (others’) blogs. This means that a moderate number of students demonstrate active community engagement behavior in the virtual public discourse sphere such as reading the discourses of others and responding to what they have read. At least in cyberspace, these students were not silent bystanders nor were they oblivious to discourses circulating around them.

Other than that, more than half (above 60 percent) of the students have participated in online forums or discussion boards. This result is indicative of the willingness of students to discuss ideas in the public domain.

Public discourse content

To discover the content of their online public discourses, students were asked to indicate the topics they discussed or communicated in their online activities. Student online communications were dominated by irrefutably social activities, studies, and friendship (f=365, 71.2 percent, f=364, 71 percent and f=363, 70.8 percent respectively) (see Table 3 in Appendix 1). These are clearly the leading topics of talk for students, as all other topics after these first three scored a distant 43 percent and below. Between 30 percent to 43 percent of the students indicated film stars, fashion, travel, food, photography, culture, health and family as topics of online communication. Less than 30 percent of the students selected the remainder of listed topics.

Interestingly, topics that have strong public discourse value such as national issues, neighborhood/local community, politics, and charity fared badly (f=103, 20.1 percent, f=86, 16.8 percent, f=69, 13.5 percent, and f=55, 10.7 percent respectively).

Motivation for participation in public discourse

The two strongest reasons for participation (cited by above 70 percent of students) were related to friends and friendship, “to keep in touch with existing friends” (f=407, 79.3 percent) and “to make new friends” (f=383, 74.7 percent) (see Table 4 in Appendix 1). This makes friendship the single most important factor that compels students to enter into public discourse. Hence, public discourses were meant to reach a community of friends and potential friends. This explains to a certain extent why participation in the more personal blogs were preferred to participation in less “friendly” forums hosted on impersonal news portals. Opportunities for making friends or for conversing within the frame of friendship are much higher in blog sites than in interactions in formal and impersonal forums.

Another reason for participation that has a strong rating is “to give opinions on issues” (f=356, 69.4 percent) which implicates a higher public discourse value in view of its orientation towards issues and ideas, away from the self and the personal. This result is thus a positive sign that the students are highly motivated to contribute their ideas and opinions to public discourses.

Also high on the list of reasons for participation is “to relieve stress” (f=325, 63.4 percent). Relieving stress may seem a strange motivation for anyone engaging in public discourse, an endeavor most people would find stressful rather than stress–relieving. However, in view of an earlier finding that most of student online discourses are related to friendship maintenance and friendship seeking, it becomes less surprising that many of the students cited relieving stress as a strong reason for their participation in online communication, for interacting with friends can certainly be stress–reducing.

Two interrelated reasons, “to provide help/information to others” (f=257, 50.1 percent) and “to get help/information from others” (f=211, 41.1 percent) are also rated strongly as motivation for participation in public discourse. These reasons denote interaction, which fits in with the motivation of students focused on reaching out to other individuals.

Most important public discourse sites

To find out which online sites are popular public discourse sites, we asked students to provide names and/or Web addresses of up to five sites. These sites were recalled from memory, representing sites most important to them. The names of these sites were checked online by the researchers to determine their type. For example, if a Web site named “XYZ” was given, it was located via a search engine and accessed to verify its type — for example, a blog, a newspaper, or a forum. In case a site could not be accessed or its type determined, it was placed under the category of “others” (see Table 5 in Appendix 1).

Foremost in the findings is that more than two–thirds of the students (f=430, 83.7 percent) (Table 5 in Appendix 1) have Facebook accounts. As Facebook is famously associated with making, seeking, and keeping friends, this finding connects with two specific findings presented earlier: that social and friendship related topics were the most frequent topics communicated about, and that friendship was the strongest motivator for becoming involved in online interactions.

The next most important public discourse site is the blog, cited by 33.4 percent (f=172) of students, a figure lower than that of Facebook by a huge margin. Other sites, namely Low Yat Forum, MySpace, Yahoo Answers, YouTube, Twitter, and online newspaper comment sections, were also named by a small number of students (between 1.4 percent and 6.6 percent).

Unfortunately, about 20 percent (f=103) of the Web sites could not be accessed or their type identified from information provided by students. This might be due to incomplete or inaccurate names or addresses, or sites removed in the time lapse between data collection and analysis, a phenomenon not totally unusual given the fluid character of online entities.

Summary

To summarize the most important results from the survey, the items that received scores above 50 percent are listed below, and those that received scores of 70 percent and above are highlighted in bold.

 

chart

 

At a glance, it appears that students project a very personal social orientation, specifically revolving around friendship seeking and maintenance. The self–construction of student rhetorical selves illustrates their own interpretation of their discourses as inherently apolitical. However, if public discourse is to be understood as voices emerging through informal interactions with individuals, a closer look at these discourses, situated within the friendship frame, might provide a clearer picture about how students perform public discourse.

Findings from focus group discussion and samples of student online public discourses

Friendship discourses

To obtain further information and clarification about public discourse practices, eight students were invited to participate in a focus group discussion. As students are generally unfamiliar with what is meant by “public discourse”, the facilitator began by asking them which online platform they used the most for their online writing, what they wrote about, and why. As expected, all of the students responded by indicating that they used their Facebook accounts the most, and reported that they wrote mostly about themselves as well as friends, and, most importantly, to express their feelings and opinions. The main motivation for keeping a Facebook account was to stay in touch with friends and family, and to join study groups.

Examples given by the students about what they would typically post were “... things like today I will be in Penang, will be back in KL next week” (Student 1) and “... pictures when I go travelling to share with my friends and family who may not have the chance to visit those places” (Student 2).

When asked about how they expressed their feelings, the common answer was writing to vent bottled up feelings and to state their opinions on anything that grabbed their attention. As one student explained, “... I often keep my feelings to myself, and have nowhere to vent my feelings. The Facebook account allows me shout or scream out my feelings” (Student 3). Another student quipped, “... for example if I am angry because my mother scolded me, I let out my anger online because I can’t do anything that can get me into trouble” (Student 5). Following these answers, students were asked whether the traditional personal off–line journal/diary would have sufficed as an avenue for venting feelings. The answer was unanimously negative, as the whole idea, they maintained, was to make their feelings known to their friends (online community). Even if no responses were received in reply to their posts, the fact that they have made known their feelings to “friends” provided them with a sense of relief. Hence, venting one’s feelings online is in essence intended as communication with friends.

Social–political discourses

Next, students were asked if they remembered having posted an opinion related to current issues or community interests. The immediate answer from every student was negative. The students went on to voice their apprehension about being perceived as becoming involved in politics. This reflects student awareness of “dangerous grounds” they would be treading on in an atmosphere of fear. All agreed that they consciously avoided “controversial political issues”. For those students who had posted political messages, they had gone on to erase them.

The following are some excerpts from the discussion:

“... although I like very much to discuss politics, I don’t write about politics in my Facebook because things can get heated up” (Student 8)

“... I use a more private platform such as WhatsApp because I dare not put my thoughts about politics online, in case someone misuses or misquotes what I say” (Student 4)

“... I do sometimes post on issues related to politics and right after that I delete the post and all the comments. I do not want this to affect me later when I look for a job after graduation ...” (Student 7)

“... oh what a pity ... I have deleted most of my political posts because my father kept scolding me for writing about politics” (Student 2)

Following that, the phrase “public discourse” was introduced and students were asked whether they had ever posted anything with the purpose of addressing certain issues that they deemed important to their online friends or wider community, with an intention of contributing to the good of others. At this point, the students understood the implications of their writing — which earlier they had classified as expressing feelings and opinions among friends — as public discourse. Students were then asked to contribute samples of their writing which they thought reflected this public orientation from postings on Facebook or other online platforms. Consent to reproduce the posts in academic publications was obtained from the students with the assurance that names and images would be masked. Some students found it difficult to produce these posts due to their practice of “self–censorship” whereby they had deleted most of their posts remotely related to politics. Furthermore, they had to carefully sieve through a large number of posts to identify fragments of their own writing containing elements of public discourse. Collection of sample discourses is still ongoing at the time of writing. Four sample discourses were selected (see Appendix 2) for preliminary analysis and illustration purposes.

Sample public discourses

Student discourses (Appendix 2) were recognized as voices in larger discourses or narratives for a wider society, whose themes we identified as:

  • Racism (Sample Discourse 1) — appears to be a reaction towards divisive racial rhetoric in the country, dominating the public sphere after the 13th general election (2013). While no mention of political figures was made, Malaysian citizens reading the post will be able to identify entities implicated. The use of a narrative style, sharing past experiences, places the discourse at an intersection between public and private.
  • Freedom of speech (Sample Discourse 2) — a discourse that appears to be directly in response to the duality of abuse of the freedom of speech and the authoritarian silencing of speech. This post was recognized as a commentary on several cases in which action was taken by the police on bloggers said to have posted “sensitive” or “offensive” material. Apparently, to avoid becoming a “statistic”, the writer was careful not to indicate with which party his alliance might be. As with Sample Discourse 1, this discourse appeared in the form of sharing thoughts with friends.
  • Special children (Sample Discourse 3) — an effort to spread social awareness about special children. This was a straightforward post encouraging support for an event for special children. The student had not considered this post as a publicly–oriented discourse in advance of an explanation of “public discourse”.
  • Men’s rights (Sample Discourse 4) — men felt at a disadvantage because of their gender, on campus, where male students are in a minority (the translation for this post is provided in Appendix 3). A discourse on men’s rights, using humorous language and style, succeeded in attracting spirited debate among readers. As this post is devoid of elements that implicated governing authorities, there is no evidence that the writer practiced self–censorship. The discourse is positioned as a direct call for debate on this issue.

We conclude that what students regarded as expression of feelings in a friendly context can be seen as connected to and as a response to a larger discourse, underscoring their keen awareness of discourses circulating in their communities. However, students appeared to be mostly unaware that they were commenting and contributing to a wider narrative, having framed their communications mainly as sharing of thoughts and expressions of personal feelings with friends.

These findings, considered in tandem with the results from the questionnaire, hint at the complex nature of student participation in public discourse. First, students see their writings as something to be read by their friends, underscoring that these discourses are meant to engage members of a community. Second, students regard their writing as purely a form of self–expression, largely unaware that they are connecting with issues that are important to a wider society.

Third, the fear of possible negative repercussions has resulted in the more or less conscious practice of self-censorship among students that has prevented them from engaging in a more direct form of critique. Fourth, student participation would be hidden if participation in public discourse were defined in a strictly traditional sense.

These findings highlight an important point in order to truly understand the public discourse practices of university students. Formal, impersonal and hostile environments are avoided by students; hence, if one were to look for evidence of public discourse activities by students in such places as newspaper comments, intense political forums, or formal institutional Web sites, one might be disappointed. Students are more comfortable expressing themselves, and more likely to open up, when they are among “friends”, and “friends of friends” (in Facebook–speak).

 

++++++++++

Redefining friend, friendship, and chatting

The findings of this study strongly suggest that public discourse practices of university students implicate the act of chatting within a community of friends on friendship–related topics and motives, mainly through Facebook. Facebook, being the single most used medium among those students surveyed, has created a semantic shift that has blurred our understanding of the interrelated notions of friend, friendship, and chatting. To attempt to understand how chatting in Facebook among friends can constitute serious public discourse action requires understanding of how the meanings of these words have evolved in the Facebook era.

For Facebookers, the word “friend” denoting someone with whom one has formed a close and trusting relationship seems to have lost its emotional salience. It is not uncommon for Facebookers to claim having 100 or 500 friends, many of whom they have no emotional attachment and whom they only know through an image. This phenomenon of discongruent labeling works to construct strangers as friends and, according to discourse theory (Fairclough, 2001, 1995; Johnstone, 2008), makes possible the creation of a sense of togetherness, trust and closeness among people who are strangers in reality. The discourse of friendship invokes the operation of a powerful ideological force that naturalizes certain ways of speaking and relating with one another. The juxtaposition of the personal over the public enables discourses among strangers to be articulated in a style that betokens close, trusting relationships.

Whereas the traditional understanding of public discourse (in the written mode) conjures up an image of an extended piece of expertly crafted writing posted on some formal platform, the results of this study show that the students prefer to “chat”, a word that denotes participation in a friendly conversation, characterized by shorter utterances and frequent turns in exchanges, usually using an informal language style, found in the friends’ comments section. Semantically, “chatting” collocates with “friend” and “friendship” as they share common underlying senses of familiarity, collegiality and leisureliness.

It appears that student online public discourses are constituted by pockets of conversation groups whose members, known as “friends,” assemble to share opinions, information and feelings, where what is privately shared among friends are connected in a huge network of “friendships” that blurs the boundary between the private and the public.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion

How discourses are conducted is affected by the medium through which they are distributed (Johnstone, 2008). Public discourse, performed through online media, is inherently different from discourse transmitted through traditional media. The notion of a digital “rhetorical community” [2] — defined as a public forum where “‘voices’ from different places all ‘speaking’ at once in the same ‘place’ and ‘speaking’ in fragments rather than complete discourses” — must alter our traditional perceptions of public discourse as having “a single rhetor seeking purposefully and intentionally to persuade an audience”. Participation in discourse in such digital rhetorical communities is characterized by a rhetor looking for “opportune moments” to enter into dialogues with other members of a community. Through these fragmented discourses in cyberspace, traditional structures and mechanisms of control, values and beliefs can be strengthened or destabilized (Zappen, et al., 1997).

Chatting, seeking friendship and communicating (hanging out) among friends, in the public space provided by the Internet, form the basis of online interaction among students participating in this study. As in all informal interactions of this type, friendship building and personal talk, intermingled with exchanges of opinions on current issues, constitute the chief topics of conversation. Students interpret their online actions as simply doing what young people do — meet with friends and talk about anything that takes their fancy. At the same time, their explicit denial of any involvement in political discourses and practice of self–censorship encourages a form of discourse that connects to social and political narratives, yet artfully masked as a sharing of personal views and experiences.

These units of dispersed publics, comprising informal talk, effectively act as a giant forum of public discourse, where vernacular dialogues generated by individuals rise to occupy the public sphere. The significance of this particular mode of engagement in public discourse, “hidden“ to an extent from self and others cannot be easily dismissed. It is precisely this unseen force, arising from a variety of fragmented discourses among “friends” in digital rhetorical communities, that will enable a constitution and generation of narratives of social production. End of article

 

About the authors

Mei–Yuit Chan, Ph.D., is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication at Universiti Putra Malaysia. Dr. Chan’s research interests are in the areas of discourse and communication.
E–mail: cmy [at] upm [dot] edu [dot] my

Shameem Rafik–Galea, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor with the Department of English, Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication, Universiti Putra Malaysia. Her research focuses on discourse studies, and language acquisition and use.
E–mail: shameemgalea [at] gmail [dot] com

Ngee–Thai Yap, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Modern Languages and Communication, Universiti Putra Malaysia. Her research focuses on speech perception and production, representations of linguistic and world knowledge, and second language acquisition.
E–mail: ntyap [at] upm [dot] edu [dot] my

 

Acknowledgements

This study was funded by a research grant (code: 06–01–09–0646RU) from Universiti Putra Malaysia.

 

Notes

1. Schifino, 2006, p. 1.

2. Zappen, et al., 1997, p. 400.

 

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Appendix 1

 

Table 1: Number of students according to faculty.
FacultyFrequency (f)
(n=514)
Percent (%)
Veterinary Science275.3
Medicine and Health Sciences254.9
Science5610.9
Forestry142.7
Agriculture51
Biotechnology and Biomolecular Science20.4
Total (Science–based faculties)12925.1
Languages and Communication27954.3
Economy and Management448.6
Human Ecology234.5
Educational Studies397.6
Total (Social Science–based faculties)38574.9

 

 

Table 2: Online communication activities of students.
Note: *Excluding activities that formed part of the students’ coursework at university/school.
NumberOnline communication activityFrequency (f)
(n=514)
Percent (%)
1Participated in online chats48995.3
2Written in my own blog/Web site/homepage34467.0
3Joined online forums/discussion boards32062.4
4Written comments in others’ blogs24147.0
5Written comments through reader comment box for online news articles5911.5
6Written letters to the editor of online news Web sites469.0

 

 

Table 3: Topics of students’ online communications.
NumberTopicFrequency (f)
(n=514)
Percent (%)
1Social activities36571.2
2Studies36471.0
3Friendship36370.8
4Film stars/idols22042.9
5Fashion21241.4
6Travel19738.4
7Food19437.8
8Photography17033.1
9Culture16331.9
10Health16231.6
11Family16131.4
12Jobs13526.3
13Technology13526.3
14Business12925.1
15Religion12023.4
16Arts and crafts11021.4
17National issues10320.1
18Neighborhood/local community8616.8
19Nature8316.2
20Politics6913.5
21Charity/helping others5510.7
22Investments326.2

 

 

Table 4: Students’ reasons for participation.
NumberReasonFrequency (f)
(n=514)
Percent (%)
1To keep in touch with existing friends40779.3
2To make new friends38374.7
3To give my opinions on issues35669.4
4To relieve stress32563.4
5To provide help/information to others25750.1
6To get help/information from others21141.1
7To practice my writing skills20139.2
8To express my creativity19938.8
9To keep a log/diary of my life events16432.3
10To see my writing published online11121.6
11To belong to an online community10620.7
12To do business7815.2

 

 

Table 5: Students’ most important public discourse sites.
NumberWebsite name/type provided by respondentsGeneral descriptionFrequency (f)
(n=514)
Percent (%)
1FacebookThe most popular social networking site that combines capabilities for blogging, chatting, video sharing, video conferencing, community building and various other functions.83.7
2Low Yat ForumAlso known as Low Yat Net. One of the longest running and very successful Malaysia–based forums, which started off as a forum for IT (information technology) and computer–related discussions. It has since expanded to cover any topic under the sun.71.4
3MySpaceA popular social networking service similar to Facebook. Its strength is particularly in music, pop culture and gaming that attract young people.183.5
4Yahoo AnswersA site that allows visitors to ask questions on any topic and receive answers from other visitors.305.8
5YouTubeA video sharing Web site that allows members to upload their videos to be viewed by others, and to post and receive comments related to posted videos.193.7
6TwitterA microblogging service that allows members to share their thoughts with a community of followers. Members update their microblog entries (very concise messages) frequently and often receive immediate responses from other members.346.6
7BlogsWeb sites set up by individuals to share their thoughts on various topics. It includes a feature that allows readers to post their comments.17233.4
8Online newspaper comment sectionsOnline newspapers commonly have a comment section either in conjunction with a news article or a specialized section for reader interaction.81.6
9OthersWeb sites whose type could not be determined from information provided by respondents.10320.0

 

Appendix 2: Sample discourses

 

Sample discourse 1
 
Figure 1: Sample discourse 1.

 

 

Sample discourse 2
 
Figure 2: Sample discourse 2.

 

 

Sample discourse 3
 
Figure 3: Sample discourse 3.

 

 

Sample discourse 4
 
Figure 4: Sample discourse 4.

 

Appendix 3: Translation

Translation of Sample discourse 4

Main post

Cases of pushing and shoving to get on the bus have become a daily affair that we are experiencing. However, the thing that has not changed and every year there is violation of the rights of female students more than the male students. [the author corrected the error in his post saying he meant to say violation of the rights of the male students rather than the female students (see comment number 2 below)]. Please help us because we, the male students are traumatized by this kind of violation. Although we are in fear, we would like to remind female students who feel it is unfair that they have to stand while we sit, who miss the bus and pass unpleasant remarks, and who push male students to take advantage of the situation, we hope that you understand that, by doing so, we have no choice but to apply [to the university] for a bus reserved for male students only.

I am sorry to say this after you scolded that the male students rush to get on the bus as if they are trying to rush across the Causeway, because we, the male students, are always calm.

Thank you.

Just some light–hearted writing during lecture.

Based on true stories that have been passed from one person to another which of course may have been exaggerated.

Haha

Readers’ comments

  • Expression of inner feelings from a citizen who is also a minority on this green campus.
  • Lol. Typing error. Except male students. The female students push and shove to get on the bus with an expression on their faces like they want to kill someone. Epic scene fight 300. Haha.
  • There seems to be hyperbolic elements there. Imagine and visualize the situation.
  • There is always hyperbole in the process of spreading talk from one person to another.
  • Citizens of UPM ... be patient ... maybe we need to use armors after this.
  • Hahaha. Maybe we have to do something so we can catch the bus more easily.
  • It has been only one semester, and we are already at war? Omg
  • Being the suppressed minority. All hail the Queen.
  • That is normal.haha. But I have not been a victim yet.haha
  • Which queen are you talking about? Haha ... There is no queen in Russia ... haha
  • Heppppp ...
  • Hahaha ... if you are coming to KL, please let me know ... It’s been a long time since we saw each other. Let’s hangout and have some food.
  • That’s why last semester, we proposed to have a bus reserved for male students, not for female students as was originally proposed.
  • I sympathize with you. Be patient
  • Hahahaha ... Pity you.
  • Indeed. I have seen a car driven by a female student hit a motorcycle ridden by a male student ... But, that road is obviously for motorcycles ... can you see, how terrible the female students are, whether they are taking a bus or driving a car ... they are so fierce ... it is true as commented by ____. They should propose to have a bus for male students instead of the female students. Even though I am a female student, I am scared to take the bus and am embarrassed to see how the female students push and shove to get on the bus. Hihihi
  • So fierce the female students there.
  • That’s why I am glad that I am a student of agriculture faculty. We have buses only for us. ahahaha
  • Since it is too long, I can only say THANK YOU and HAHA
  • This is the fight for green campus

 


Editorial history

Received 12 August 2013; revised 18 April 2014; accepted 23 April 2014.


Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Mei–Yuit Chan, Shameem Rafik–Galea, and Ngee–Thai Yap. All rights reserved.

Hidden participation in the public sphere: Understanding Malaysian university students’ public discourse practices in cyberspace
by Mei–Yuit Chan, Shameem Rafik–Galea, and Ngee–Thai Yap.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 5 - 5 May 2014
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4829/4085
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i5.4829





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