Georg Simmel’s Social Aesthetics and the Digital Public Sphere


  • Luca Serafini


In this paper I use concepts of Georg Simmel’s social aesthetics to investigate and describe several relational and communicative dynamics that occur in the digital public sphere—where the aesthetic dimension has now assumed great importance. Specifically, Simmel’s work proves to be more suited than Habermas’s for understanding the mechanisms of “typification” and “gamification” found in online interactions between individuals. I further argue that, on the Web, these mechanisms in particular are responsible for blocking the exchange of opinions and meanings on subjects of public interest, thereby betraying the universal, societal outcomes of Simmel’s social aesthetics.


Adut A. (2018). Reign of Appearances: The Misery and Splendor of the Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Baricco A. (2018). The Game. Turin: Einaudi. English translation (2020). The Game: A Digital Turning Point. San Francisco: McSweeney’s.

Baudrillard J. (1972). Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe. Paris, Gallimard. English translation [1981] (2019), For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Trans. Charles Levin. London: Verso.

boyd d. (2010). “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications”, in: Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. London: Routledge, pp. 47-66.

Boulanger D., and Christensen B.A. (2018). “Social Representations as Social Forms and Aesthetic Phenomena: Dialogue Between Moscovici and Simmel”, in: An Old Melody in a New Song: Theory and History in the Human and Social Sciences. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, pp. 161-182.

Carnevali B. (2020). Social Appearances: A Philosophy of Display and Prestige. Trans. Zakiya Hanafi. New York: Columbia University Press.

Carnevali B., and Pinotti A. (2020) “Social aesthetics”, in: The Routledge International Handbook of Simmel Studies. New York: Routledge.

Carr N. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Chadwick, A. (2013). The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Conte M. (2010). “La fiducia e l’ambivalenza umana nella Wechselwirkung di Georg Simmel”, in: Simmel e la cultura moderna. Perugia: Morlacchi, pp. 411-436.

Dahlgren P. (2009). Media and Political Engagement. Citizens, Communication, and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dal Lago A. (1983). “Introduzione a G. Simmel”, in: Forme e giochi di società. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Davis M. S. (1973). “Georg Simmel and the aesthetics of social reality”, in Social Forces, 51, pp. 320-329.

De La Fuente E. (2007). “On the Promise of a Sociological Aesthetics: From Georg Simmel to Michel Maffesoli”, in: Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 8 (2), pp. 91-110.

Di Caterino G., Veltri G. (2017). Fuori dalla bolla. Milan-Udine: Mimesis.

Drusian M. (2005). Acrobati dello specchio magico. L’esperienza degli adolescenti in chat. Milan: Guerini.

Esposito R. (2007). Third Person: Politics of Life and Philosophy of the Impersonal. Trans. Zakiya Hanafi. Cambridge: Polity.

Frisby D. (1985) “Georg Simmel: First sociologist of modernity”, in: Theory, Culture & Society, 2 (3), pp. 49-67.

Garnham N. (1992). “The Media and the Public Sphere”, in: Habermas and the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, pp. 359-376.

Giacomini G. (2018). Potere digitale. Come Internet sta cambiando la sfera pubblica e la democrazia. Milan: Meltemi.

Gurak L., and Antonijevic S. (2008). “The Psychology of Blogging You, Me, and Everyone in Between”, in: American Behavioral Scientist 52 (1), 60-68.

Habermas J. [1962] (1990) Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. English translation (1991). The Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger, with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas J. (1981a). Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Shurkamp: Frankfurt. English translation (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas J. (1981b). “Die Moderne. Ein unvollendetes Projekt”, in: Kleine politische Schriften Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, pp. 444-464. English translation (1983). “Modernity—An Incomplete Project”, in: The Anti-Aesthetic: Essay on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, pp. 3-15.

Habermas J. (1985). Die philosophische Diskurs der Moderne. Zwölf Vorlesungen. Frankfurt: Suhrkampf. English translation (1987). The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. Trans. Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Habermas J. (1992). Faktizität und Geltung. Beiträge zur Diskurstheorie des Rechts und des demokratischen Rechtsstaates. Suhrkamp: Frankfurt. English translation (1996). Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Trans. William Rehg. New York: The MIT Press.

Habermas J. (2006). “Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension? The Impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research”, in: Communication Theory, 16, pp. 411-426.

Higgins M. (2008). Media and their Publics. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Highfield T. (2015). “Tweeted Joke Life Spans and Appropriated Punch Lines: Practice around Topical Humor on Social Media”, in: International Journal of Communication, 9, pp. 2713-2734.

Hoffman M. (2017). Habermas’s Public Sphere. A Critique. Lanham: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Isabella S. (2006). Tra gioco e realtà: comunità ed esperienza nei giochi di ruolo online. Cosenza: Pellegrini.

Jones P. (2007). “Beyond the Semantic ‘Big Bang’. Cultural Sociology and an Aesthetic Public Sphere”, in: Cultural Sociology, 1 (1), pp. 73-95.

Kaern M. (1990). “The World as Human Construction”, in: Georg Simmel and Contemporary Sociology. Dordrecht & Boston: Kluwer.

Kahneman D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Straus and Giroux.

Karlsruhen T. (2001). “Simmels Evolution der Kantischen Voraussetzungen des Denkens”, in: Simmel Studies, 11, pp. 21-52.

Kautzer C. (2019). “Mass Media”, in: The Cambridge Habermas Lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 263-265.

Klinger U., and Svensson J. (2018). “The End of Media Logics? On Algorithms and Agency”, in: New Media & Society, 17 (8), pp. 4653-4670.

Lash S. (1990). Sociology of Postmodernism. London-New York: Routledge.

Lippmann W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Lister M., Dovey J., Giddings S., Grant I, and Kelly K. (2009). New Media: A Critical Introduction. Milton Park: Taylor & Francis.

Lunt P., and Stenner P. (2005). “The Jerry Springer Show as an emotional public sphere”, in: Media, Culture & Society, 27 (1), pp. 59-81.

Maffesoli M. (1988). Le temps des tribus. Le déclin de l’individualisme dans les sociétés postmodernes. Paris: Méridiens-Klincksieck. English translation (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. Trans. Don Smith. London: SAGE.

Maffesoli M. (1990). Au creux des apparences. Pour une éthique de l’esthétique, Paris: Plon.

Maffesoli M. (1993). La contemplation du monde. Paris: Grasset & Fasquelle. English translation (1996). The Contemplation of the World. Trans. Susan Emanuel. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Maffesoli M. (2003). Notes sur la postmodernité. Paris: Éditions du Félin.

Maffesoli M. (2008). Iconologies. Nos idol@tries postmodernes. Paris: Albin Michel.

Mayer I. (2017). Georg Simmel Äesthetik. Autonomiepostulat und soziologische Referenz. Welerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft.

McGuigan J. (2005). “The cultural public sphere”, in: European Journal of Cultural Studies, 8 (4), pp. 427-443.

Mele V. (2013), Aesthetics and Social Theory. Simmel, Benjamin, Adorno, Bourdieu. Rome: Aracne.

Mitchelstein, E., and Boczkowski, P. (2017). “The gap between the media and the public”, in: Rethinking Journalism Again. New York, Routledge, pp. 175-187.

Papacharissi Z. (2014). Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pariser E. (2011). The Filter Bubble. New York: Penguin Press.

Peters C., and Broersma M. (2017). “The rhetorical illusions of news,” in: Rethinking Journalism Again. New York: Routledge, pp. 188-204.

Quattrociocchi W., and Vicini A. (2016). Misinformation. Guida alla società dell’informazione e della credulità. Milan: Franco Angeli.

Rainie L., and Wellman B. (2012). Networked: the new social operating system. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Ruggieri D. (2010). “La società come ‘rappresentazione’. Teoria della conoscenza e sociologia nel saggio Il problema della sociologia di Georg Simmel”, in: Simmel e la cultura moderna. Perugia: Morlacchi, pp. 92-116.

Sassatelli M. (2012). “Festivals, museums, exhibitions. Aesthetic cosmopolitanism in the cultural public sphere”, in: Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies. London-New York: Routledge, pp. 233-244.

Schäfer M. S. (2016). “Digital Public Sphere”, in: The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication. Malden: Wiley Blackwell, pp. 322-328.

Shifman L. (2013). “Meme in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker”, in: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 18 (3), pp. 362-377.

Shirky C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. New York: The Penguin Press.

Simmel G. (1896). “Berliner Gewerbe-Ausstellung”, in Die Zeit. Wiener Wochenschrift für Politik, Volkswirtschaft, Wissenschaft und Kunst, 8 (95), pp. 59-60 [GSG, 17, pp. 33-36]. English translation (1991), “The Berlin Trade Exhibition”, in: Theory, Culture & Society, 8, pp. 119-123.

Simmel G. (1900). “Philosphie des Geldes,” in: Philosophie del Geldes, GSG, 6, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt. English translation (2004). The Philosophy of Money. Trans. Tom Bottomore and David Frisby. London and New York: Routledge.

Simmel (1902), “Der Bildrahmen. Ein äestetischer Versuch”, in: Der Tag. Moderne illistrierte Zeitung, DXLI [GSG, 7, pp. 101-109]. English translation (1994). “The Picture Frame: An Aesthetic Study”, in: Theory, Culture & Society, 11, pp. 11-17.

Simmel G. (1903). “Die Großstädte und das Geistesleben”, in: Jahrbuch der Gehe-Stiftung Dresden, IX, Die Großstadt. Vorträge und Aufsätze zur Städteausstellung, pp. 185-206 [GSG, 7, pp. 116-131]. English translation (1950). “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, in: The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. and introduction by Kurt H. Wolff. London: Free Press, pp. 409-424.

Simmel G. (1905b). “Der Henkel. Ein äestetischer Versuch,” in Der Tag. Moderne illustrierte Zeitung [GSG, 7, pp. 345-350]. English translation (1958). “Two Essays: The Handle/The Ruin”, in: The Hudson Review, 11 (3), pp. 371-385.

Simmel G. (1908a). Soziologie. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. [The quotations in this paper are taken from Simmel’s original translations published as articles in The American Journal of Sociology.] (1910-11). “How is society possible?” in: American Journal of Sociology 16, pp. 372-391: 379); (1906). “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies”, in: American Journal of Sociology, 11, pp. 441-498: 442. The entire work of Soziologie is available in English translation (2009). Sociology: inquiries into the construction of social forms. Trans. Anthony J. Blasi, Anton K. Jacobs, Mathew Kanjirathinkal. Leiden-Boston: Brill.

Simmel G. (1908b), “Das Problem des Stiles”, in Dekorative Kunst. Illustrierte Zeitschrift für angewandte Kunst, 11 (7), pp. 307-16 [GSG, 8, pp. 374-384]. English translation (1991). “The Problem of Style”, in: Theory, Culture & Style, 8, pp. 67-71.

Simmel G. (1910), “Sociologie der Mahlzeit”, in: Der Zeitgeist, Beiblatt zum Berlner Tageblatt, 41, pp. 1-2 [GSG, 12, pp. 140-147]. English translation (1997). “Sociology of the Meal”, in: Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings. Trans. Ritter M., and Frisby D. London: SAGE, pp. 130-136.

Simmel G. (1911) “Die Mode”, in: Philosophische Kultur –Gesammelte Essais. Leipzig: Verlag von Dr. Werner Klinkhardt. English translation (1997). “The Philosophy of Fashion”, in: Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings. Trans. Mark Ritter and David Frisby. London: SAGE, pp. 187-206.

Simmel G. (1917). Grundfragen der Soziologie. Berlin-Leipzig: G.J. Göschen. English translation (1950). “Fundamental Problems of Sociology (Individual and Society)”, in: The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Trans. and introduction Kurt H. Wolff. London: Free Press, pp. 3–84.

Sorice M. (2019). Partecipazione democratica. Milan: Mondadori.

Statista (2019). “Media use in the US”.

Sunstein C. (2017). #Republic. Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Van Dijck J., Poell T., De Wahl M. (2018). The Platform Society: Public Values in a Connective World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Virilio P. (1989). Esthétique de la disparition. Paris: Galilée. English translation (2009). The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Trans. Phil Beitchman. New York: Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press.

Waitier P. (1986). “Individualisme et sociabilité”, in: Georg Simmel, la sociologie et l’experience du monde moderne. Paris: Méridiens/Klincksieck, pp. 235-253.

Weinsein D., and Weinstein M.A. (1993). Postmodernized Simmel. London: Routledge.

Wessler H. (2018). Habermas and the Media. Cambridge: Polity.