On the private/public distinction, publicy, and sociality

I am late to the discussion about privacy sparked by Facebook’s decision to go public (so to speak). A good many points have been raised by Zuckerberg’s claim that times have changed, including reflections on privacy, identity, publics, and sociality. Stowe Boyd has a new term for this: publicy. Tim Leberecht’s reflection on sociality is worth note. And Adina Levin points out some of the points raised by Stowe in a post on boundary formation. But rather than offer my position on privacy, I’d like to say a few things about the whole private/public distinction. I think that if the private/public distinction is proving to be worn out then we ought perhaps rethink our concepts. And in so doing, leverage those that exist already — I guess I’m not convinced that new terms are entirely necessary unless they attach to recognizable claims or arguments, but that’s my own personal taste in social web anthropology.

Like many of you, I think the opposition of private and public is now problematic at best, if not counterproductive. First off, privacy suggests to me individual rights of ownership, protections and security, safety from exposure and the risk of misuse and abuse of personal information. It centers on the individual and his or her protections. I prefer to think of the Self, which is for me already social(ized), and for whom “privacy” is negotiated constantly through interaction, communication, and other social and relational transactions.

Viewed from the Self, rather from the private, the notion of public is orthogonal. Public, to me, suggests the public sphere, and the formal, institutional, legal, economic, cultural and other forces that organize it. Conceptually, the public sphere is orthogonal to the social and to different kinds of sociality. In social theoretical terms, the public refers to a kind of social organization in which individuals don’t really experience themselves as acting and interacting subjects. It is “constructed” on the basis of those interactions perhaps, but the term captures anonymous sociality — not, in my view, the one experienced when socializing online.

Simply put, the private/public distinction is not one that I use in conceptualizing social media “spaces.” It contributes little to understanding the interactions and relationships users must negotiate while socializing online.

(Sidenote: publicy is not only new and thus obfuscating, but sacrifices the possibility of leveraging existing theoretical arguments. If the term exists to address a conceptual problem, why not address the conceptual problem instead o the terminological one? We are not yet rid of the conceptual problem, but have instead a new terminological problem — that of placing publicy in a discourse on mediated social realities.)

One can describe a social field from above or from below. From above for its form, shape, boundaries, and so on. And from below, for its organization, relations, and means of reproduction. I prefer the latter, for the reason that social media are forces of the social reproduction of social fields. The top-down view may help us describe the social, but the bottom-up view brings us closer to its relations and dynamics.

For me then, the Self and Sociality is a more useful use of terms. The Self negotiates its social engagements and participation in social media. Socialities form around different kinds of organization. These forms involve different kinds of relations, from interpersonal talk and transactions to groups, “communities,” and a vast number of transient or persistent practices (games etc).

In thinking about socialities, we ask not what they are but how they are organized. What are the relations between members? How do these relations become reintegrated in how members relate differently or uniquely to themselves? If we believe that attention, presence, communication, games, or other kinds of organization are involved, then to what effect and with what outcomes? These forms are often temporary, but meaningful nonetheless because they produce a great deal of communication (which is captured).

(Sidenote: as a concept, “social thickness” doesn’t quite make sense to me either. Thick and thin are used in social network analysis to describe strength of tie. Density to describe network relatedness or connectedness. Social thickness would seem to suggest that attributes of interaction can be ascribed to tools but with the caveat that these attributes are nonetheless aspects of communication, relationship, and interaction. The term visually sediments out a notion that seems better explained in terms of either action (communication), relation, or presentation (at the interface).)

Focusing not on publics but on socialities also shifts emphasis to dynamics. For any type of social organization, ask what can it do? How is it assembled? This is an age-old philosophical question: What can a people do? Not what do people do, but recognizing that their relations are organized and their interactions structured, what is a people capable of?

Answers would vary whether one were looking at socially-mediated branding (advocacy, virality), social business benefits, or online fan cultures. What types of talk and what kinds of social interactions does the sociality promote, and what types does it preempt? Does it promote the Self as image and ego, the group as collaborative, the whole as a unity with purpose? These are anthropological questions valid for us as observers of mediated cultures.

Mediated socialities indeed present us with information and as such involve a number of information problems: access, distribution, search and findability, connectedness, shelf-life, actionability, and so on. But when the information is the artifact of interaction and communication, it’s produced by means of action and interacting subjects.

In social interaction design, this means grasping the social action requirements of a system and also the secondary and follow on consequences of socialities produced and constructed by social systems. These are two separate conceptual domains: one of social action and one of media. I get that we want for new terms by means of which to describe phenomena and issues unique to social media. But we need, too, coceptual logic and argument: if not a logic then at least a description of social acts and technical re-framings.

This entry was posted in SxD Theory and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • ayalarahav

    I take an “inside” view of the isue and look at the people interacting. From that point it is about context – the context of the people and the context of the interaction,I call it Icentered paradigm and place the individual at the center with the keys in her hands to define privacy and publicy, boundraies and spectrum, sharing or exposing as a personal choice. I elaborated on it following Stowe Boyde's post in http://www.icentered.com/on-privacy-and-publicy

  • aslevin

    Re: social thickness – I strongly agree, the map is not the territory – the measurements of social network analysis are absolutely not the social network. Indeed, expressing explicit data about the social network is an highly perilous act – as Google found out when they “merely” published one's email contacts, and organizations find out as they take advantage of highly touted “metrics” features in social platforms to expose other formerly implicit aspects of social relations.

  • aslevin

    I walk through the case for new terms and new concepts, looking at your ideas, Stowe Boyd's and others: http://www.alevin.com/?p=1997