“The public sphere” is a concept developed by Jurgen Habermas in 1962, referring to a metaphorical “18th-century coffee house”, where the middle-classed gentlemen would meet to discuss popular issues of the day. It was supposed to ideally be an open space separated from the government where citizens can debate about common concerns; however, it did not quite live up to those expectations (Turnbull 2017).
Half a century later, the idea of a public sphere has shifted away from its initial drawbacks – how it was exclusively for the bourgeois and males while women and other minorities were largely excluded – and is getting closer to the form of a space for people from any background to participate in societal discussions which can even influence political action (Neil 2016). The rapid growth of Web 2.0 has given rise to a myriad of online public spheres to mushroom(*), among which was the Save Son Doong discussion in 2014.
In case you haven’t heard of it, here’s the story: In October 2014, Quang Binh province (Vietnam) publicly announce the plan for a cable car system through the national park, connecting Son Doong (Vietnamese Sơn Đoòng) Cave with other caves in the area. The news immediately raised protests, since Son Doong is only recently discovered (2009) and recognised by the British Cave Research Association in 2010 as the world’s biggest natural cave (Salem 2016), and its ecosystem is so fragile it would not be able to withstand thousands of visitors daily.
This wonderful short clip gives you a glimpse of Son Doong’s surreal beauty
At first, the discussion took place online across many platforms, mostly on Facebook in Vietnam. The turning point, however, was brought by an article, World’s largest cave in Vietnam threatened by cable car by Elisabeth Rosen for The Guardian. Only four days was all it took for the article to go viral, with 2.579 shares by Facebook users worldwide (Huynh 2014), and one of the most prominent newspaper in Vietnam quoted it as well.
The Guardian article was vital to the conversation at that time because it had scaled a national issue up into an international one, and Son Doong deserved that. With worldwide support, the campaign has been going on vigorously for the past two years, and in last January, the vice chairman of Quang Binh province finally spoke to the press, confirming that there will be no plan for cable cars construction (Hoang & Vy 2017).
The campaign generated such powerful resonance that even after that, inspired by the 2017 blockbuster Kong: Skull Island, of which many shots were filmed in Vietnam with the mesmerizing, breathtaking background scenery of Ha Long, a graffiti artist made this spectacular billboard in Hollywood.
And this, this is the proof of a victory brought about by the public sphere in Vietnam.
(*) If you want to find out more about the impact created by Web 2.0 on the media, take a look at my other post, “Audience 2.0 in the Wikipedia/UGC Era”.
Do, DMA 2017, Audience 2.0 in the Wikipedia/UGC Era, The Specs of Mia, weblog post, 17 March, viewed 28 March 2017, <https://thespecsofmia.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/bcm110-media-audiences/>.
Hoang, T & Vy, A 2017, ‘Vietnam province denies rumors of cable car construction in world’s largest cave’, VnExpress, 17 January, viewed 29 March 2017, <http://e.vnexpress.net/news/travel-life/vietnam-province-denies-rumors-of-cable-car-construction-in-world-s-largest-cave-3529802.html>.
Huynh, P 2014, ‘The Guardian: Du an cap treo de doa hang Son Doong’, Tuoi Tre Online, 7 December , viewed 29 March 2017, <http://dulich.tuoitre.vn/tin/20141207/bao-anh-the-guardian-du-an-cap-treo-de-doa-hang-son-doong/681708.html>.
National Geographic 2016, Journey Through the Largest Cave in the World | Expedition Raw, online video, 23 June, Youtube, viewed 29 March 2017, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVpk7LQML8g>.
Neil, D 2016, ‘Media, democracy and the public sphere’ PowerPoint slides, PHIL106, University of Wollongong, viewed 28 March 2017.
Rosen, E 2014, ‘World’s largest cave in Vietnam threatened by cable car’, The Guardian, 3 December, viewed 29 March 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/03/worlds-largest-cave-vietnam-threatened-cable-car>.
Salem, J 2016, ‘Explore Hang Son Doong in Vietnam, the world’s largest cave ‘, CNN, 6 December, viewed 29 March 2017, <http://edition.cnn.com/2016/09/04/travel/vietnam-hang-son-doong-cave/>.
Turnbull, S 2017, ‘The Media Theory Toolbox’ Powerpoint slides, BCM110, University of Wollongong, viewed 26 March 2017.