What Does “Public” Mean in the Modern Online World

danah boyd has studied social implications of our digital lives since the very beginning of her research career. In the mid 2000’s, she was working towards a Ph.D at the UC Berkley School of Information, focusing specifically on the role that social media was affecting a new generation of teenagers and youth . Boyd blogged frequently and had started to garnered a bit of a reputation for her sharp insights about Friendster that took a long tail view of the platform generally, rather than focusing on the specific shortcomings that were immediately apparent by cultural critics focused on potential harms  and shortcomings. In other words, boyd has always been able to see the forest for the trees.

By 2006, however there was a brand new player. MySpace. MySpace was unlike any social media platform that had come before it. It took what had been only superficially public on platforms like Friendsters and brought it right to the very surface, dissemanated worldwide. That was coupled with a massively aggressive marketing strategy to expand globally as quickly as possible, and a whole new type of pseudo-celebrity that managed to become “MySpace famous” among a new generation of teenagers before their parents even heard about what MySpace was.

After taking a couple of years off from blogging about social media, boyd hopped back on in 2006 with an essay about why MySpace ultimately won the social media game (an article, I might, that is incredibly prescient in its analysis of social media platforms generally. Highly recommended.). In the post, boyd gave a name to this new kind of digital life: super publics. In a follow-up blog post, she describes super publics like this:

In talking about “super publics,” I want to get at the altered state of publics – what publics look like when they are infused with the features of digital architectures. What does it mean to speak across time and space to an unknown audience? What happens when you cannot predict who will witness your act because they are not visible now, even though they may be tomorrow? How do people learn to deal with a public larger and more diverse than the one they learned to make sense of as teenagers? How are teenagers affected by growing up in an environment where they can assume super publics? I want to talk about what it means to speak for all time and space, to audiences you cannot conceptualize.

I bring up super publics because it perfectly encapsulates a concept which can be incredibly difficult to articulate. It is also as true of our digital lives then as it is now, if not possibly more so. Our previous notions of private and public life have been completely upended, not with one single act of massive change, but slowly, over time, and from all angles. Consider this. How can one have a private conversation on the web? Sure, the technical mechanisms exist. You can send a private message through all sorts of platforms. But one screenshot and tweet later, that message can be literally everywhere. Even email is no longer safe. Our unconscious assumption online is (or at least should be) that when we are speaking in private, we are speaking publicly for all time.

We are only just now coming to grips with the implications of our move from a public/private divide to a super public life. It has transformed the way we communicate with one another, it has split our digital lives into streams of multiplicitous curated channels. And as we’ve seen recently, it’s enabled manipulation on a massive scale coupled with the dissemination of hate, terror and harassment. Of course, it has also connected global communities, sparked revolutions, and on a much simpler scale enabled new relationships no longer limited by proximity.

My point is, there are many still clinging to the old way. Still desperately seeking a retreat to private life, unable to comprehend the new public. Without understanding the super public, and reckoning with its consequences, we will be unable to move forward, unable to defend ourselves.

Boyd has some insights there too. We can turn to the youth. In her post about super publics, she continues:

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

Boyd eventually transformed the concept of super public into her thesis, and later a book called It’s Complicated. In it, she maps the digital world in its entirety, as it was experienced and transformed by teens in the early to mid 2000’s. She describes a new generation of digital natives forced to retreat inside by an outside world considered more and more dangerous naturally turning to their computers to cultivate new relationships, new activities, and new identities. They found their own way to cope with the super public. Namely, they shared everything. They made their whole lives public. Some of my readers may belong to this generation and remember that transformation vividly.

A generational divide still exists. And once again, the best defense mechanisms against the potential misuses of social media are coming from the next generation. And they are generating these mechanisms at a rapid clip.

They dreamed up Finsta accounts, which simulate private lives through obfuscation on a public platform. They flocked to Snapchat when the tech world saw it only as a passing fad, embracing self-destructive messages as a clever means to an end, a way of enabling private communication in a world where everything is public. They developed new modes of communications through a series of memes and inside jokes and expressive filters and cultural references filtered through personal experiences and all but illegible to the “adults” in the room. If we were to take boyd’s advice, we should take our cue from the new generation.

These days, boyd splits her time between being a Principal researcher at Microsoft, a visiting Professor at NYU and the founder and president of the Data & Society research institute, devoted to investigating the ways in which technology intertwines with public and private life. I’ve come back to her work a few times, most recently when researching last week’s social media post. But her ideas are impressively prescient, and she understands the context of our social digital lives better than most. All that say, if you haven’t read up about super publics, or heard her recent thoughts about misinformation, now would be a good times.


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