Sunday, November 13, 2011

Public, private, personal, off the record, common

In February there was a flare-up in several debates in Norway, as a professor posted to facebook that she was reading the world's worst exam paper ever. No names, not subject, no quotes, just her opinion, a pretty frustrated response.

Somebody on her "friend" list screenshotted this, and mailed it to a journalist. The journalist then wrote an article about how teachers harass students through facebook. To make the article more provocative, the journalist asked some student politicians, who immediately responded angrily, and the headmaster of the University, who said something about no policy for social media use, and how this was unheard of. The article was also published in

After a flare up of the debate around this, both online and in media such as the Norwegian Broadcasting, Jill Walker wrote a "kronikk", an opinion article to (the paper in question). She pretty much covers the case in her response, but the entire event makes something very obvious. We need to think in more modes than public and private.

Humans, particularly those of us working as journalists, like dualism. We want it to be warm or cold, dangerous or safe, on or off. A world of ones and zeroes is almost a perfect expression for this human desire for certainty and control that comes with the black/white idea of the world. If you're not with me, you're against me.

Despite this desire for duality, we are pretty good at handling shades of grey in social interaction. We are aware that there are some best friends, then there are some friendly people we know, then there are some people we know who are pretty much not that important to us, but we'll talk to them about casual stuff at the bus or over coffee if we are at the same table, and then there's people we know but dislike to varying degree, and then there are people we just don't know. With all of these people we interact in subtle, complex manners. We deal easily with this because they are all individuals to us, and we interact with them in settings we easily can position in a complex grid.

Then along comes the internet, and we can interact with all of them at the same time, if we want. At first, people didn't get this. Flame wars grew hurtful, stalkers got too much personal information, and lovers discovered their true love was a fantasy. This has of course, not passed, but people know how to deal, they understand what is going on, and some times even manage to protect themselves from the problems with different social spaces crashing into each other.

And so, we have the problem with the professor on facebook.

If the journalist had met the professor, asked how the exams papers were, and the professor said "I am reading the worst one ever right now," the journalist would never have printed it. Face it: "professor reads worst paper ever" isn't news.

If the professor had said it, face to face, to everybody from the headmaster of the University to the student who actually wrote it, or even if she was on television and got asked "what are you doing these days?" and she responded "I am reading the worst exam paper ever, right now." it wouldn't be news.

The news rests in the ambivalence of private/public.

In order to get that information, a friend of the professor had to take a screenshot and give it to the journalist. It's like a camera shot of a fashionable wedding where the press is not wanted, it's like peeking past the curtains to see what happens in an other person's party, it's a way to reveal to the public what happens in the private club. The fact that it is possible to exclude some people from seeing that post makes it interesting. It's the constructed duality of public private that makes news. The only news value is the tittilation of the forbidden.

The following discussion is then, really, all about the fact that written communication now has almost spoken qualities. In this discussion participants ignore the many other modes information can be in, because it appears to be printed.. Informal, off the record, personal, casual, all of these shifts between communication modes are totally ignored. And this happens because the written nature of the post turns it into a fact. It is so easy to make some screenshots. However, so is making sound files, and to take a screenshot of a facebook update is like taking a recording device into the lunch-room of the University, catching snippets of conversation, mailing the juicy ones to a journalist.

So, the question now is, in which direction will communication develop? Will it become more obvious that written communication can embody modes other than public or private, or will this binary understanding of communication become so common that we have to look out for recorders, and only be candid and honest when we share a shower with the person we're talking to?

Personally, I hope a wider understanding of different modes of communication. I don't want to have to check all cellphones at the door before I have coffee with friends.


Klepsacovic said...

"I don't want to have to check all cellphones at the door before I have coffee with friends."
What sort of friends are they that we need to hide everything from them because they cannot keep a secret, even if it's not much of a secret? A person is well within his or her rights to share their lives, but then they start sharing the lives of others.

Peter said...

Facebook has a commercial interest in enforcing "connectivity" and a dualistic approach to "friending". At the root of this incident is the fact the professor was not sophisticated enough about the medium she was using.

In real life we have degrees of acquaintanceship, and manage those intuitively, with information-sharing regulated as trust and empathy vary over time. Online socializing does not allow for this kind of nuance yet--maybe never will.

To answer your question--I think we'll see a little of both: on the one hand, it will become possible to deliberately choose levels of closeness with those we interact with online, and manage those carefully. On the other, that very fact will create incentives to "eavesdrop", both online and in person (and the technology is there). We'll try to be careful about it, but it won't be foolproof.