Essays on Technology and Culture

Public or Private, it’s Not Binary

It has so quickly become acceptable practice within mainstream web publishing companies to reuse people’s tweets as the substance of an article that special tools have sprung up to help them do so. But inside these newsrooms, there is no apparent debate over whether it’s any different to embed a tweet from the President of the United States or from a vulnerable young activist who might not have anticipated her words being attached to her real identity, where she can be targeted by anonymous harassers.

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? When did we agree to let media redefine everyone who uses social networks as fair game, with no recourse and no framework for consent?

—Anil Dash – “What Is Public?” — The Message

An important question to ask. I’m guilty of embedding tweets without permission, and I’ll try to reach out in the future. Beyond that, though, part of the problem is that on social networks—especially Twitter—privacy is a binary. You’re either entirely public, or entirely private. Real life does not work that way. Why should the places we live online work that way?