no face can hide
its public, private pain,
wincing, already statued.
- Elegy, Derek Walcott
As a medievalist I have occasionally come across the debate on whether there existed a division between public and private space in the Middle Ages. Given that the social regulations overlooked by the Medieval Church extended into the bedchamber of a lawfully wedded couple – sex during Lent was for instance prohibited – one can easily espouse the idea of the absence of the private sphere. On the other hand, however, one might argue that practices such as confession, also orchestrated by the Church, offered a small pocket of privacy in the Medieval life, although perhaps not privacy in the way we understand it today. I have not delved into the matter myself and I have no opinion on the issue, but as long as we can not ascertain whether the Medieval man or woman had a notion of something similar to our concept of the private/public dichotomy we will never be able to assert which of the opposing sides is right. What we do know, however, is that the modern human being is well aware of the concepts public and private and that many people have strong opinons about them. Very often when debating these spheres we operate with what appears to be a clear dichotomy between public and private matters, but in this blogpost I will argue that both the private and the public spheres are open to gradation, and that this gradation is to a certain degree facilitated (or at least made more poignant) by the Internet.
An important issue at stake here is of course what we mean by the terms public and private. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “private ” as something “intended for or restricted to the use of a particular person, group, or class”, “belonging to or concerning an individual person, company, or interest” and “restricted to the individual or arising independently of others”. There are of course other usages of this term, but these definitions are the only ones I find relevant for this discussion.
As for “public” I have cherry-picked the following definitions as relevant to the topic at hand: “exposed to general view”, “relating to, or affecting all the people or the whole area of a nation or state”, “of or relating to people in general” and “accessible to or shared by all members of the community”. Here, too, there are other usages that do not fit in this essay.
The above definitions are of course correct inasmuch as they are crafted by linguists in a way that allows for both precision and generality, but they do not necessarily always correspond to how non-linguists perceive the subjects. I believe most people have a very clear, albeit often unformulated, idea of when they inhabit a public space and when they inhabit a private space and what constitutes either of these. Most people are also aware that the two spaces or spheres are guided by different sets of rules allowing for different codes of conduct, and most people are able to recognise individuals who deviate from these rules or guidelines, unwritten though they are. People will inevitably have slightly differing opinions as to what is correct behaviour in the respective spheres, although on certain key issues there appears to be a general and implied consensus. Some people will knowingly challenge and defy the established consensus, but these people, too, have an understanding of the concepts they rebel against.
This division between public and private does not only describe how to behave or which spaces belong to which category, it also relates to information, or more precisely what kind of information is suitable for the public and private spheres. The border between these spheres is, as mentioned, sometimes difficult to grasp: you know when you have crossed it, but you do not always know when you are crossing it.
In today’s society this border has become increasingly difficult to assess, a difficulty arising from a number of reasons all pertaining to trends in society. Following the vogue of reality tv shows, for example, it has become publicly acceptable to expose some of the grittiest part of private life on national broadcasting. Furthermore, as a result of the heightened terrorist threat throughout the past decade, countries like the US and the UK have increased video surveillance in the streets and even on buses, allowing less privacy even in the anonymity of public space. A final example is the various landscapes of cyberspace straddling the ever-changing border between public and private, and this is the focal point of this essay.
Whereas reality tv attendants and pedestrians in, say, the city of London can not control who gets access to their private business, the Internet allows for some control on certain social websites. On facebook, for instance, you can block persons from seeing your profile or arrange restrictions that allow only your friends to access the personal information. Similarly there are blogs where people can share parts of their private and even innermost life with either a select group of friends and followers, or open it to all possible gallivants of cyberspace. These possible restrictions mean that certain websites can not easily be defined as either public or private. I was alerted to this problem when reading a discussion on a friend’s facebook profile. In this discussion my friend refused to reveal his religious views on the grounds that this was a private matter, but although he was completely right in this sentiment, I was surprised that he considered his profile to be a part of the public arena since he can arrange his own restrictions. It may of course be that because of his several hundred facebook friends he felt privacy to be tenuous, or that he, like George Costanza, experienced an unwelcome clash of worlds as this discussion was open to several groups of friends.
Going back to definitions we may say that instead of treating facebook as an arena restricted to the use of a particular group, my friend evidently viewed this discussion as shared by all members of a community. This can be applied to several social networks and in the end it probably comes down personal preference which definition you prefer for a given website, but what about websites that are not social networks? What about blogs, forums or web-communities dedicated to a particular interest?
On the one hand we may say that there is a certain restriction inherent in the subject-matter of an interest website, for instance this very blog, because it concerns a particular interest group. On the other hand ivry twr is open to public access and exposed to the general view, making this a public forum open for participation. Certain websites do exercise some form of restriction by demanding that the users register an account, making its content restricted to a particular group, but at the same time registration is often free and available for everyone, making it accessible to a public audience, although people can be ejected on the grounds of breaking the rules of conduct.
Because there can be exercised some restriction to online information and because these restrictions nonetheless may allow for the burgeoning of rather big online communities, I will argue that the border between public and private is often fleeting and a matter of gradation. This is especially true because no matter how restricted your website is, there is always someone – hackers or authorised personnel – who can access your private messages, your settings and your personal information. Very often privacy is maintained owing to the anonymity that is one of few perks of belonging to a large crowd or audience, but the privacy is not absolute. Similarly the publicity of certain websites is not absolutely public in the sense that it is not accessible to each individual inhabiting cyberspace, if only because of a lack of interest in that particular website’s subject-matter.
Having attempted to nuance the perception of public and private I am interested to know what you, the readers, think of this subject. Can we attain absolute privacy or publicity in cyberspace? And where do you draw the line between public and private?