The discursive and cultural meanings of Israeli tokbek (talk-back – online commenting) and their relevance to the online democratic public sphere

Israeli journalistic websites has had a feature that later became popular elsewhere – the « comments » section where readers can inscribe responses to the report at its lower end. This form of commenting became known as tokbek, taken from the English term “talk-back.” While the tokbek had unlimited technological potential to promote new modes of civil engagement, it failed in achieving this goal – from its culture members’ perspective – and evolved to an anti-discourse that undermines any constructive dialogue. Grounded in the ethnography of communication, we provide a cultural interpretative framework for the analysis of this discursive failure. The main communicative action of the tokbek is to construct the commenters’ political selves, mainly based on “the Leftist” and “the Rightist” stereotypes. The tokbeks discourse thus facilitates a bashing ritual that communicates a radical pessimism about the very possibility of its own communicability. So doing, the tokbek ritual joins similar Israeli cultural performances that substitute democratic deliberation with a pseudo-political venting arena. These findings support the view that sharing a virtual space does not necessarily facilitate democratic deliberation. While not implying that the internet is incapable of promoting a democratic public sphere, we contend that cultural performance cannot be overlooked when discussing technological advancements and their relevancy to online political participation.