Rettberg states that the spread of literacy, circulation of written materials and the common practice of silent reading saw the emergence of the private sphere and practice of private writing as early as the 1500’s. The private sphere fostered a solitary and private relationship between reader and book and established a clear divide between the inner personal life and public life in the community. Rettberg (2008) believes this altered relation to the written word helped to create a new private place for individuals to seek refuge. According to Schement & Curtis (1995) private writing can be described as a personal narrative and is typically written as a form of self-expression to be read only by the author. Early forms of private writing include personal journals and diaries where authors recorded personal experiences and reflections without an audience in mind. This clear division between private and public writing began to shift as authors began approaching publicly accessible platforms to record stories. This presented opportunities to reach broader audiences and invited dialogue within the community, effectively contributing to the public sphere.
The public sphere is a concept introduced by JuÌˆrgen Habermas that describes an ideal democratic space for rational debate among informed and engaged citizens and extends to include written public materials intended for mass audiences (cited in Kellner, 2000). Originally public writing was not a personal narrative but informative news that would attract audiences and stimulate community debate. Early forms of public writing included printed newspaper articles and community newsletters. Today, magazines, shopping catalogues, academic papers and online blogs are all widely acknowledged as forms of public writing. Boeder (2005) argues that the global public sphere of today is largely influenced by the technology that underpins it:
The technological infrastructure of communication networks is influencing the social structure of society; its development is closely related to the development of social structures in a process of interchange and mutual dependence
These technologies and the more recent emergence of social media networks have aided the breakdown of the boundaries between private and public that were clear in the mid- and late twentieth century.
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are fostering new forms of engagement which encourage dialogue and collaboration in public forums, decreasing the clear detachment between public and private writing. The Internet has facilitated constant, instantaneous and global communications (Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Social networking services are not just allowing Internet users access to immediate information, social media is serving us access to the lives of friends or colleagues and encouraging users to contribute to online discussions and share private information. Social media sites are transforming online user behaviour and in the process Barnes (2012) believes social media is actively changing users’ expectations of what constitutes private and public writing. Social media functions by relying on its users to share personal information and data, therefore users personal contributions are fuelling the growth in private sharing of information over the Internet in a new era of public participation.
The chief characteristics of participatory and social media is the breakdown in the division between producers and audience (Barna, 2009). This division was particularly clear in traditional mass media and has been largely erased, fostering a new culture built upon public participation. According to Barna (2009), advances in technology have allowed anyone with access to the Internet to be a producer of content. Participatory culture encourages people to share experiences and information for the purpose of news intended for mass audiences (public writing) or as a form of self-expression (traditionally termed private writing). Despite users still writing for both public and private outcomes, the division becomes blurred on the Internet given its public, indexed and network infrastructure. The uptake of social media paired with the emergence of a participatory culture means it is now virtually impossible to differentiate public and private writing (Lüders, 2008). Debatin (2006) believes we are witnessing the dawn of a tightly woven global infosphere, a digitized networked panoptic sphere that leaves little space for unmonitored privacy.
In the early modern era, the public sphere was a constitutive corollary of the private sphere. In the era of the info sphere, the public and private spheres become amalgamated, which results in public exploitation of private lives, increasing invasion of privacy, and continual diminishment of unmonitored privacy (Debatin (2006).
The explosion of the info sphere can be seen through the sheer volume of uncensored and unmonitored content available today on any given topic. Similar to the paramount importance of print and literacy in the development and understanding of a public and private sphere as highlighted by Rettberg (2008), the development of an info sphere is underpinned by participatory media and networked technologies.
The development of online social networks for traditional private writing such as a diary or journal, have facilitated a phenomenon known as ‘blogging’. Blogging is an activity that requires both reading and writing to an extent not present in earlier forms of writing (Rettberg, 2008). Rettberg (2008) states that blogging is evidence of the possibility of a form of literacy that is both private and public simultaneously:
Bloggers read and write in the same space. You read other blogs and write comments. You write in your own blog, and read comments to your posts. The immediacy is even more apparent in instant messaging and micro media formats like Twitter. (Rettberg, 2008).
The motivations of users writing a blog today may differ dramatically with blogs being used by businesses, organisations as well as individuals for a variety of purposes and audiences (McCullagh, 2008). According to Technorati (cited on Lomborg, 2009), blogs evolved as a platform for individuals writing for self-expression, sharing expertise and experiences and connecting with likeminded people, challenging the notion of traditional communities. Brake (cited in Lomborg, 2009), identified several key themes of weblogs communication: one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many and a communicative. The last pattern of communication (a communicative) is the type of blog Brake (cited in Lomborg, 2009) categorised as personal/lifeblog. In this instance, the intention of bloggers is purely for their own enjoyment and therapy not intended for audiences. However when personal writing is published on a blog platform it is instantly accessible to a global audience, essentially resulting in non-deliberate public writing.
The private versus public boundaries of social media spaces are unclear for users raising privacy and safety concerns for current and future generations. Viégas’ (2005) research on teenagers on social media suggests “there is a disconnect between the way users say they feel about the privacy settings of their blogs and how they react once they experience unanticipated consequences from a breach of privacy (section 4, para.15 ).” Lenhart (2005) reports that 81 percent of parents and 79 percent of online teens report that teens are not cautious enough when giving out their personal information online. Some of the confusion about the public versus private space nature of social networks is associated with the sign-up and registration procedure. Sullivan (2005) believes sites such as Facebook who ask for personal details and set up requirements for membership tend to make young adopters of these technologies think it is safe to reveal private information online to a public networked audience. Boeder (2005) reiterates that social networking sites are creating new forms of social behaviour that blur the distinctions between public and private interactions and writing, causing confusion. Consequently users may use the update function on Facebook to write a very private update, as a form of self expression purely for their own intent and perhaps for that of close friends, without considering the far reaching global accessibility of their update. The update is then visible online not only to their network, but to the network of those who may comment or interact with the status, and indexed online infinitely. Facebook also quietens the reality during the sign up process that they offer the platform as a free tool for users by selling users personal information to advertisers (Horton, 2012).
The future of writing in web based communications will ultimately result in the near total collapse of the division between private and public writing. The publicised aims of leading social media companies coupled with an increasing spread of network literacy globally will aid in the continued breakdown of this once well asserted division. Participatory media reposition, writing and reading will become more and more a social activity pursued in collaborative environments rather than solitary endeavours (Rheingold, 2007). This can already be seen in areas such as online education, with students collaborating through virtual communities and social networks, and education facilitators using platforms such as blogs and wikis for students to publish their work publicly on instead of lodging an assignment privately to the instructor only. Leading social networks which have facilitated many communicative shifts such as Facebook and Google have already taken steps to further diminish the privacy of their networks. During an interview with TechCrunch, Facebook CEO Zuckerberg revealed that he had taken an “about face” on privacy and argued that privacy was no longer a “social norm” (cited in Bosker, para.7). “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people,” Zuckerberg said (cited in Bosker, para.7, 2010). “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time (cited in Bosker, para. 8, 2010).” Despite Zuckerberg’s claims, others predict that social medias lack of respect for privacy boundaries may result in a backlash where users will disable their accounts to look for a more closed platform to connect with people they care about (Smith, 2012). In a recent school survey in the US (cited in Smith, 2012), it emerged that some students are opting out of Facebook of their own volition as a reaction against what they see as Face books privacy invasion and the problems Facebook use can cause for themselves and their peers (cited in Smith, 2012).Despite talks of a mass Facebook exodus, participation on social networks continues to grow and shows no signs of slowing. The future will be characterised by the continuing bridging between private and public, which as discussed, is currently visible in journalism, traditional mass produced media, blogs and other forms of participatory and social media.
In conclusion, we are living through a second wave of literacy which is globally networked and largely underpinned by digital technologies. Today’s blogging and other participatory media requires readers to be writers and writers to be readers simultaneously. This paper has examined both the emergence and almost complete collapse of private and public writing facilitated through the emergence of the Internet and social media coupled with a significant shift in user behaviour. While there is still a large element of solitude in reading and writing online, this paper has demonstrated the conversational and social aspects of this literacy increasing steadily and the implications for current and future generations. This is evident not only in online media such as blogging and social media, it is evident in all media and can also be seen in the way the general public participates in traditional media. This paper has highlighted writing on blogs and social media as particularly palpable symptoms of larger changes and discussed the risks involved with unclear boundaries around privacy on these platforms. Finally this paper has looked towards the future of web communications and the private and public sphere and suggested that whilst the collapse is most visible in online mainstream and social media, it will eventually occur across more and more channels as networked literacy spreads globally.
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