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Twitter is so public it makes old notions of 'public' obsolete

Twitter, which went public last month, first announced in July that it would begin testing cookie-based ad targeting, joining the likes of Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Amazon Inc. and countless other Internet companies that rely on the technology to serve ads.


Would you be comfortable if, after chatting with a friend in a coffee shop, your conversation appeared in the newspaper the day after? Most people would probably say no. But what if you were talking to a friend on Twitter – would it then be okay for someone else to post your conversation elsewhere online?

That's the question ricocheting around the web recently. The controversy erupted after a Buzzfeed writer collected the remarks of sexual assault survivors who, in response to a query by user @steenfox, tweeted what they wearing when they were attacked. The post had a disclaimer that the people quoted had given their permission – complicating matters, it later turned out that wasn't entirely true.

Whether or not publishing tweets is acceptable sounds like a black and white question: if something is put on a public forum, then it's, well, public. But the fact that the topic at hand was so sensitive forces us to ask another: is it possible that digital technology has rendered our usual understanding of public and private obsolete?

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Reaction to the Buzzfeed post quickly divided into two camps. On the one hand, you had the response from outlets like Gawker or The Atlantic Wire that essentially said that culling responses from public social media is par for the course, and that one should simply assume that if you set your social media to public, assume that the whole world might see it.

On the other, there were such people as Mikki Kendall who claimed that it was a violation of an implied understanding that some things on Twitter are okay to re-publish and some things are not. That division is interesting in itself: it was mostly media outlets who stand to profit from publicizing in favour, and feminist activists, who are concerned with protecting people, who were opposed.

Yet, the debate itself centres on whether Twitter is in fact public, and it's actually a more difficult question to answer than it appears. Part of this stems from the fact that social media enables types of conversations that simply aren't possible in private channels like e-mail. The flow of chatter on Twitter, with perspectives coming in from numerous sides in near-real-time allows spontaneous, genuine interactions between people who only know each other tangentially. It lets people find temporary communities of the like-minded. It might seem strange to have an intimate conversation in a public place, but it happens because the same circumstances that make a social network public also enable a type of interaction not available elsewhere.

As such, the fact that something is "published" by tweeting can't be held to the same standard as previous forms of publishing, because to do so would miss the unique character of social media, applying an obsolete model of privacy where it does not belong. It's precisely the fact that social media lives in this strange in-between world of public and private that makes it so vital and interesting. And because it is both like a conversation and publishing at the same time, it renders what was once a clear distinction a lot more fuzzy.

What that means is that we need a multi-fronted approach to deal with our new circumstances. In part, that means social networks need to find a more nuanced approach to the current model of being only either hidden or public. We as users need to start to grapple with the idea that sometimes privacy means keeping things hidden, and at others, choosing not to re-broadcast someone else's thoughts. And as a society, we need to start dealing with the fact that how we defined privacy may have worked for a chat in a coffee shop, but we now require new ways to think through what is, ultimately, a profound historical change.

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