Private vs Public, a dichotomy or a scale?

Here’s something I’ve been playing around with since I had to give a presentation on Ethics 2.0 before Christmas; is the line between private interactions and public interactions online really that clear cut?

During my research, my participants and I talked a fair bit about privacy settings online, what their expectations were in regards to audience, and what it meant to share information and posts in ‘public’. This was largely bought about by the fact that most of the participants posted and shared updates publicly. A few even thought that using privacy settings was ‘uncool’ and would lessen their potential social impact.

Setting aside the legal discussions about public and private (a tad glib, I know, as there are, and have been, much-needed discussions in this area too), there is much to be said about how users are interpreting what it means to be ‘public’, and about how their definitions of ‘public’ may well be different to not only our definitions, but also to those expected and implied by the Social Networking Sites themselves.

The public that the teenage participants thought they were sharing with wasn’t public writ large, or a general public, but what may be best considered a ‘specific public’. Whilst there was an awareness that the information put on Social Networking Sites was out in the ether for everybody to potentially read, the participants didn’t feel that meant that everybody would read it, only those interested in the subject in the first place. As one of my research participants put it when we discussed a post she wrote on a fanpage,

“sure, anyone can access if they want, but they’re not going to are they? You wouldn’t know about it if I hadn’t told you, right?”

For my participants at least, there seems to be an understanding of public to private as a scale, not as a clear-cut dichotomy. At one end of the scale, everyone in existence would have access to the post, at the other, nobody would see it. For my participants, there was an awareness of this scale, their positions on I with each post, and a careful consideration of what audience would potentially access each post and update.

This scale also seems to inform the content, timbre, and wording of their posts as well; some things that they think will have larger reach are slightly more considered or tapered so as not to give too much personal information, or to appeal to a larger-than-usual audience, whereas post to their more ‘specific publics’ and to smaller scale audiences could contain more personal information, stronger opinions, and subjects tapered to the pre-decided desires of that audience.

This is echoed in many ways by a spate of researchers who have struggled to gain access to otherwise public websites in order to conduct research (LeBesco 2004, Bakardjieva 2005, Johns, Chen & Hall 2003). When the researchers attempted to gain access to these communities, they were often faced with adversity from users on the whole felt that, yes their conversations were public, but not for researchers.

SO perhaps it’s time to reconsider what exactly is meant by public online, and what the expectations of that term are for everyone involved, not just from a legal perspective but also from a user-driven perspective.

There’s been a recent spate yet again, in what appears to be an oddly cyclical occurrence, of users creating their own copyright agreements and end user agreements, and sharing them on Facebook in an attempt to reclaim some aspect or other of their rights to privacy, whilst at the same time hardly ever using the mechanisms given to them to do so (such as site-built privacy settings, locking their profiles etc). Users sometimes seem unwilling to use privacy settings to control the reach of their updates, yet feel like this doesn’t mean that their updates are for everybody to use how they want. There clearly is (naïve or not) an expectation of privacy whilst still being public, a feeling that they want to share their updates publicly, but have them seen by a ‘specific public’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s