It’s complicated: Why we need a new etiquette for handling what’s private and what’s public

The private vs. public divide used to be relatively straightforward: things remained private unless you disclosed them to someone, either deliberately or accidentally — but even in the case of accidental disclosure, there was no way for your information to reach the entire planet unless it appeared on the evening news. Now, a tweet or a photo or a status update could suddenly appear on a news website, or be retweeted thousands of times, or be used as evidence of some pernicious social phenomenon you may never even have heard of before.

But you posted those things, so they must be public, right? And because they are public, any use of them is permitted, right?

A universe filled with nuance and slippery ethical slopes is contained in those questions. And while many of us have gotten used to the back-and-forth with Facebook (s fb) over what is private and what is public — a line that has remained fluid throughout the company’s history, and still continues to shift — it’s more than just Facebook. If this was a war, the entire web would be the battleground.

In a recent post on Medium, blogging veteran and ThinkUp co-founder Anil Dash did a good job of describing the shifting terrain around what’s private and what’s public. Although we may be convinced that we appreciate the difference between those two, and that there is some kind of hard dividing line, Dash notes: “In reality, the vast majority of what we do exists on a continuum that is neither clearly public nor strictly private.” And that makes it much harder to decide how to treat it:

“Ultimately, we rely on a set of unspoken social agreements to make it possible to live in public and semi-public spaces. If we vent about our bosses to a friend at a coffee shop, we’re trusting that no one will run in with a camera crew and put that conversation on national TV.”

Twitter: Private, public, or in between?

We’ve seen ample evidence of this tension in recent months with a number of Twitter-related debates. In March, a Twitter discussion got started among women who had suffered sexual abuse, and they used the hashtag #yesallwomen to share their stories. A number of sites, including BuzzFeed, collected these tweets and embedded them in a news story about the topic, something that has become fairly standard behavior — but some of those who participated in the discussion were outraged that this was done without their permission.

Should the authors of those articles have had to get permission from the users whose tweets they embedded? After all, Twitter is a public network by default — as Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan pointed out — and so those messages were designed to be publicly available. From a legal standpoint, posting things to networks such as Twitter and Facebook without using the various privacy features built into those networks makes them public. But some of the participants in the #yesallwomen discussion seemed to see their tweets as being more like a conversation with friends in a public place, not something designed to be broadcast.

“The things you write on Twitter are public. They are published on the world wide web. They can be read almost instantly by anyone with an internet connection on the planet Earth. This is not a bug in Twitter; it is a feature. Twitter is a thing that allows you to publish things, quickly, to the public.” — Hamilton Nolan

In another case, high-school students who posted racist comments on Twitter after President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012 were singled out and identified by Gawker in a news article that included their tweets, as well as their full names and what schools they attended. Was that an appropriate response to messages that were clearly designed for a small group of friends, as unpleasant as they might be, or was it a form of bullying? What about the response to a single tweet from Justine Sacco that many took to be racist?

Blurring the line between personal and public

As sociologist danah boyd has pointed out during the endless debates about Facebook and privacy, we all have different facets of ourselves that we present in different contexts online — a work identity, a personal identity we display to our friends and family, and so on. The problem is that so many apps and services like Twitter and Facebook encourage us to blur the lines between those different personas (and benefit financially from us doing so, as Dash points out). And so information and behavior that belongs in one sphere slides into another.


The response from Gawker and others to the #yesallwomen incident was to argue that the participants in that discussion simply don’t understand how Twitter works, or were being deliberately naive about how public their comments were — the same kind of response that users get when their embarrassing Facebook posts become more public than they intended. “If you don’t want people to see it, don’t put it on the internet” is the usual refrain. But as Dash points out, there is a whole spectrum of behavior that exists in the nether world between private and public:

“What if the public speech on Facebook and Twitter is more akin to a conversation happening between two people at a restaurant? Or two people speaking quietly at home, albeit near a window that happens to be open to the street? And if more than a billion people are active on various social networking applications each week, are we saying that there are now a billion public figures?”

The right to remain obscure

In some ways, this debate is similar to the one around search engines and the so-called “right to be forgotten,” a right that is in the process of being enshrined in legislation in the European Union. While advocates of free speech and freedom of information are upset that such legislation will allow certain kinds of data to be removed from view (as Google has now done with some news articles involving public figures), supporters of the law say ordinary individuals shouldn’t be forever tarred by comments or behavior that were intended to be ephemeral, but are now preserved for eternity for everyone to see.

[pullquote person=”” attribution=””]To what extent do we have a right to keep certain content obscure?[/pullquote]

In a piece they wrote for The Atlantic last year, Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog argued that instead of privacy or a right to be forgotten, what we are really talking about is obscurity: so certain information may technically be public — gun-registry data, for example — but is usually difficult to find. Search engines like Google have removed the barriers to that kind of obscurity, and that’s great when the information is of significant public interest. But what about when it’s just high-level gossip or digital rubbernecking at the scene of a social accident? To what extent do we have a right to keep certain content obscure?

As Dash points out in his post, media companies and technology platforms like Facebook have a vested interest in keeping the definition of “public” as broad as possible, and our laws are woefully behind when it comes to protecting users. At the same time, however, some attempts to bridge that gap — including the right to be forgotten, and restrictions on free speech and freedom of information in places such as Britain and Germany — arguably go too far in the other direction.

In many ways, what we’re talking about are things that are difficult (perhaps even impossible) to enshrine in law properly, in the same way we don’t look for the law to codify whether we should be allowed to use our cellphones at the dinner table. Some kinds of behavior may benefit from being defined as illegal — posting revealing photos of people without their knowledge, for example, or audio/video recordings they haven’t agreed to — but the rest of it is mostly a quicksand of etiquette and judgment where laws won’t help, and can actually make things worse. We are going to have to figure out the boundaries of behavior ourselves.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Alexandre Vialle and Thinkstock / rvlsoft as well as Shutterstock / Andrea Michele Piacquadio