Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Architecture of Political Spaces: Trolls, Digital Media, and Deweyan Democracy



The problem of trolls exemplifies the challenges of building democratic communities in the digital environment of social media. Distinguishing trolls from activists can be difficult; democratic theorists have yet to adequately address how to prevent the former while remaining open to the latter. In this article, I outline a theory of democratic politics that takes space as a central element in shaping democratic interactions. Using the work of John Dewey, I draw out two key characteristics of democratic space: boundedness and flexibility. Using these criteria, I then evaluate Kinja, Gawker Media's commenting platform, both before and after trolls attacked the site in 2014. I find that in altering its boundaries to successfully protect against trolls, Kinja introduced a new problem: a lack of flexibility that continues to affect the possibility for democratic discourse on the platform. I conclude by suggesting how this theory of democratic space might shape future research.


Corresponding author

Jennifer Forestal is Assistant Professor, Stockton University, 101 Vera King Farris Drive, Galloway, NJ, 08205–9441 (


Hide All
I am grateful to James Farr, Ellen Mutari, Menaka Philips, Chris Sardo, Joel Schlosser, and participants at the Northwestern Political Theory Workshop for their insightful feedback on earlier versions of this article. The article is also much improved thanks to comments from the three anonymous APSR reviewers and the APSR editors.



Hide All
“About Reddit.” 2014.
Ackerman, Bruce, and Fishkin, James. 2003. Deliberation Day. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Adams, Tim. 2011. “How the Internet Created an Age of Rage.” The Guardian.
Andersson, Krister P. 2004. “Who Talks with Whom? The Role of Repeated Interactions in Decentralized Forest Governance.” World Development 32 (2): 233–49.
Asen, Robert. 2003. “The Multiple Mr. Dewey: Multiple Publics and Permeable Borders in John Dewey's Theory of the Public Sphere.” Argumentation and Advocacy 39 (3): 174–88.
Asen, Robert, and Brouwer, Daniel C.. 2003. “Introduction: John Dewey and the Public Sphere.” Argumentation and Advocacy 39 (3): 157–60.
Barber, Benjamin. 1984. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
BauHaus, Lil. 2013. “Welcome to What's Next.” Jalopnik.
Benton, Joshua. 2015. “Gawker Media's Independent Kinja Posts Apparently Aren't Generating a Ton of Traffic.” NiemanLab.
Bertolini, Lauren. 2014. “(Re)Introducing Pending Replies.” Product.
Bimber, Bruce. 2014. “Digital Media in the Obama Campaigns of 2008 and 2012: Adaptation to the Personalized Political Communication Environment.” Journal of Information Technology and Politics 11 (2): 130–50.
Bode, Leticia. 2012. “Facebooking It to the Polls: A Study in Online Social Networking and Political Behavior.” Journal of Information Technology and Politics 9 (4): 352–69.
Bond, Robert M., Fariss, Christopher J., Jones, Jason J., Kramer, Adam D. I., Marlow, Cameron, Settle, Jaime E., and Fowler, James H.. 2012. “A 61-Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.” Nature 489: 295–98.
Boyd, Danah. 2012. “The Politics of ‘Real Names.’Communications of the ACM 55 (8): 2931.
Carlisle, Juliet E., and Patton, Robert C.. 2013. “Is Social Media Changing How We Understand Political Engagement? An Analysis of Facebook and the 2008 Presidential Election.” Political Research Quarterly 66 (4): 883–95.
Cohen, Cathy J., Kahne, Joseph, Bowyer, Benjamin, Middaugh, Ellen, and Rogowski, Jon. 2012. Participatory Politics: New Media and Youth Political Action. Oakland, CA.
Crick, Nathan. 2009. “The Search for a Purveyor of News: The Dewey/Lippmann Debate in an Internet Age.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 26 (5): 480–97.
Daulerio, A. J. 2012a. “Greetings, Today's the Day All Starred Commenters Will Die.” Gawker.
Daulerio, A. J. 2012b. “Hello, and Welcome to Gawker's New Commenting System.” Gawker.
Davis, Noah. 2012. “Can Gawker's New Commenting System Improve Quality Without Creating Chaos?Fast Company.
Denton, Nick. 2014. “Introducing Group Chats in Kinja.” Kinja: Product.
Dewey, John. 1916. “Democracy and Education.” In John Dewey: The Middle Works, Volume 9: 1916, ed. Boydston, Jo Ann. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dewey, John. 1939. Freedom and Culture. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Dewey, John. 1946. The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. Chicago: Gateway Books.
Dewey, John. 2008a. “Education and New Social Ideals.” In The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 11: 1935-1937, ed. Boydston, Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 167–70.
Dewey, John. 2008b. “Education, the Foundation for Social Organization.” In The Later Works of John Dewey, Volume 11: 1935-1937, ed. Boydston, Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 226–37.
Dewey, John. 2008c. “Ethics.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 5: 1908, ed. Boydston, Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Dewey, John. 2008d. “The School and Society.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 1: 1899-1901, ed. Boydston, Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1112.
Dewey, John. 2008e. “The School as Social Centre.” In The Middle Works of John Dewey, Volume 2: 1899-1924, ed. Boydston, Jo Ann. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 8094.
Doig, Will. 2008. “Homophobosphere.” The Advocate.
Donath, Judith S. 2014. “We Need Online Alter Egos Now More Than Ever.” Wired.
Ellickson, Robert. 1994. Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gutmann, Amy, and Thompson, Dennis. 1996. Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gutmann, Amy, and Thompson, Dennis. 2012. The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campagining Undermines It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hénaff, Marcel, and Strong, Tracy B., eds. 2001. Public Space and Democracy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Holmes, Anna. 2009a. “15 Questions–And Answers–About the New Comments.” Jezebel.
Holmes, Anna. 2009b. “Fasten Your Seatbelts. . . It's Gonna Be a Bumpy Sight.” Jezebel.
Jackson, Nicholas. 2014. “Just Kill All of the Comments Already.” Pacific Standard.
“Jezebel.” Gawker Media.
Karpf, David. 2012. The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kaste, Martin. 2011. “Who Are You, Really? Activists Fight For Pseudonyms.” All Things Considered.
Kosnoski, Jason. 2005. “Artful Discussion: John Dewey's Classroom as a Model of Deliberative Association.” Political Theory 33 (5): 654–77.
LaBarre, Suzanne. 2013. “Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments.” Popular Science.
Lamont, Tom. 2014. “Reddit: How to Win the Internet.” The Guardian.
Latané, Bibb, Liu, James H., Nowak, Andrzej, Bonevento, Michael, and Zheng, Long. 1995. “Distance Matters: Physical Space and Social Impact.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 21 (8): 795805.
Mansbridge, Jane. 1999. “Everyday Talk in the Deliberative System.” In Deliberative Politics: Essays on Democracy and Disagreement, ed. Macedo, Stephen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 211–39.
Messing, Solomon, and Westwood, Sean J.. 2014. “Selective Exposure in the Age of Social Media: Endorsements Trump Partisan Source Affiliation When Selecting News Online.” Communication research 41 (8): 1042–63.
Mitchell, Amy, Gottfried, Jeffrey, and Matsa, Katerina Eva. 2015. Millennials and Political News. Washington, DC.
Munroe, Randall. 2009. “Reddit's New Comment Sorting System.” reddit blog.
Mutz, Diana C., and Young, Lori. 2011. “Communication and Public Opinion: Plus ca Change?Public Opinion Quarterly 75 (5): 1018–44.
Newitz, Annalee. 2013. “Check Out io9’s New Design!io9.
Ostrom, Elinor, and Ahn, T.K., eds. 2003. Foundations of Social Capital. Northampton, MA. (July 14, 2015).
Parkinson, John. 2012. Democracy and Public Space. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1998. “Intergroup Contact Theory.” Annual Review of Psychology 49: 6585.
Phelps, Andrew. 2012. “Gawker: We Want to Elevate the Discourse about Frogs Who Sit like Humans.” NiemanLab.
Putnam, R. D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Read, Max. 2014. “Why Are All My Comments Grey? What Can I Do About It?Gawker.
Rose, Rebecca. 2014. “About Time: Twitter to Fix Policies After Trolls Attack Zelda Williams.” Jezebel.
Sanders, Lynn M. 1997. “Against Deliberation.” Political Theory 25 (3): 347–76.
Schwartz, Mattathias. 2008. “The Trolls Among Us.” The New York Times.
Silverman, Matt. 2013. “Reddit: A Beginner's Guide.” Mashable.
Snyder, Gabriel. 2009. “Gawker Comments Are Made of Stars.” Gawker.
Staff, Jezebel. 2014. “We Have a Rape Gif Problem and Gawker Media Won't Do Anything About It.” Jezebel.
Sterne, Peter. 2012. “Gawker's New Comment System: Will It Help or Hurt the Site's Young Writers?Coumbia Journalism Review.
Stoeffel, Kat. 2012. “Deadliest Klatsch: Nick Denton Gives Gawker's Drive-By Peanut Gallery a Promotion.” New York Observer.
Tufekci, Zeynep, and Wilson, Christopher. 2012. “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations from Tahrir Square.” Journal of Communication 62 (2): 363–79.
Ulbert, Cornelia, and Risse, Thomas. 2005. “Deliberately Changing the Discourse: What Does Make Arguing Effective?Acta Politica 40 (3): 351–67.
Warren, Mark E., and Mansbridge, Jane. 2013. “Deliberative Negotiation.” In Negotiating Agreement in Politics, eds. Mansbridge, Jane and Martin, Cathie Jo. Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 86120.
“What Names Are Allowed on Facebook?” Facebook Help Center.
Young, Iris Marion. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Young, Iris Marion. 2001. “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy.” Political Theory 29 (5): 670–90.
Zajonc, R. B. 2001. “Mere Exposure: A Gateway to the Subliminal.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 10 (6): 224–9.
Zhang, Weiwu, Johnson, Thomas J., Seltzer, Trent, and Bichard, Shannon L.. 2010. “The Revolution Will Be Networked: The Influence of Social Networking Sites on Political Attitudes and Behavior.” Social Science Computer Review 28 (1): 7592.


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed