Facebook: blurring of public and private.

Ekaterina Netchitailova


Facebook is a new media environment where the collapse of contexts and the presence of a potentially wide audience asks for a careful examination of one’s performance and behaviour on Facebook. On Facebook people can have different audiences which, otherwise, are separated in real life (like colleagues, friends and family) and it can be tricky, since when users create their profiles or post something on Facebook they need to be aware that their audience is quite diversified.

Danah Boyd calls Facebook a networked public, which according to her is 1) the space constructed through networked technologies and 2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the interaction of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics, according to Boyd, “support many of the same practices as unmediated publics, but their structural differences often inflect practices in unique ways.” (Boyd D., 2010, p. 1)

Boyd argues that in networked contexts information which was not supposed to be public can become public due to the properties of the network. “This stems from the ways in which networked media, like broadcast media…, blurs public and private in complicated ways. For those in the spotlight, broadcast media often appeared to destroy privacy. This is most visible through the way tabloid media complicated the private lives of celebrities, feeding on people’s desire to get backstage access…As networked publics brought the dynamics of broadcast media to everyday people, similar dynamics emerged…” (Boyd D., 2010, p. 39)

Boyd distinguishes four properties – persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability, and three dynamics, – invisible audiences, collapsed contexts and the blurring of public and private , which characterise the networked publics.

Persistence means that online expressions are automatically recorded and archived. Replicability means that the content made out of bits can be duplicated. Scalability means that the potential visibility of content in networked publics is big and searchability means that the content in networked publics can be accessed through search.

These characteristics together with three dynamics mean that what is posted on Facebook can be accessed by a large public and stay around for future visibility. This can cause serious issues for privacy, as well as for one’s own behaviour on Facebook, as people often forget about a potentially wide audience on Facebook while posting something on it.

Thus, Facebook pauses new questions about privacy and about one’s behaviour in public. Facebook is a semi-public space, and even if one limits the amount of friends or who has an access to a profile, the content of one’s profile can still potentially be open to a larger public. We behave differently in public and in private, while at work or at home, among friends or colleagues. Facebook potentially mixes the two environments and creates a new social context, a new semi-public space, where new rules of behaviour and performance emerge.

Erving Goffman in ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ talks about human behaviour as a performance, defined as “all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on the observers.” (Goffman E., 1959, p. 32)

According to Goffman our behaviour is determined by a social context. We behave differently in different social situations.

Meyrowitz argues that electronic media, especially television, have led to the overlapping of many social contexts which previously were distinct.

Thus, Meyrowitz argues that before electronic media there were sharp distinctions between ‘onstage’ and ‘backstage’ behaviours. But ‘by bringing many different types of people to the same ‘place’, electronic media have fostered a blurring of many formerly distinct social roles. Electronic media affect us, then not primary through their content, but by changing the ‘situational geography’ of social life.” (Meyrowitz J., 1986, p. 6)

The merging of situations leads to a new behaviour, which Meyrowitz calls middle region. The middle region behaviour arises when audience members get a ‘sidestage’ view. They see parts of the traditional backstage area together with parts of the traditional onstage behaviour, and see the performer move from backstage to onstage. An example of middle region behaviour is when children stay long enough with the parents. Parents do not usually discuss such topics as death, sex or money in front of the children, but if the children stay present at an adult party, parents might start discuss adult topics in front of them, while avoiding the explicitness characteristic of an adult party. The longer children stay with the parents, more likely they are to see the childish side of adults.

Middle region behaviour is the behaviour that results from the merger of previously distinct situations, and electronic media, according to Meyrowitz is the primary cause for the creation of a middle region. Television, for instance, has led to the fact that more and more people would have a glimpse of a private life of celebrities and politicians, which would adapt their behaviour because their private life was more exposed to the general public.

Meyrowitz wrote his book before the advance of the Internet, but his definition of a middle region can easily be applied to Facebook. As mentioned previously, Facebook is a semi-public space, where distinct social contexts merge together. Facebook behaviour can be called middle region behaviour where we have to handle the fact that colleagues and friends alike can see what we post. Even if one chooses only to include very close friends into one’s social network, the semi-public profile of Facebook means that one has to think carefully about the implications of Facebook performance.

Based on the interviews with 19 participants and observations on Facebook this paper tries to see how people negotiate the collapsing of contexts on Facebook.