The Social Threshold

Society is constantly negotiating the boundaries between the public and the private. Surveillance, comments made in private but at work and exposing private lives in the papers are just some of the areas under permanent discussion. Back in days-of-yore the threshold between the public and the private was commonly the door-step. We talk of ‘Crossing the threshold’ as in stepping in from the public space of the street to the privacy of a dwelling. All cultures have always had back channels which circumnavigate the formality of this type of threshold, of being ushered into the front parlour, but it generally used to be possible to assess the level of privacy of a given situation by the walls it was taking place within and who was in the room.

Front Door
Social Threshold (some rights reserved: http://is.gd/rofJl0)

The integration of technology into society and the new forms of interpersonal connections it can facilitate erodes the ‘who is in the room?’ or ‘what room am I in?’ systems of assessing privacy. This stretches from snail-mail all the way through to security cameras. We can easily be caught out by technology which makes socially demarked spaces leaky. For example:

  • Discovering the mobile phone in your bag has dialled someone and left a 5 minute voice message of the private conversation you were having with a colleague.
  • Realising that the baby monitor has projected the lullaby you were singing to your child into the living room and probably the living rooms of a number of neighbours who also have young children.
  • Finding out after the fact that the conference session in which you made an offhand comment at about your institution was being live streamed onto the web.
  • Stumbling across tagged photos of you at a party posted in Facebook by others.

These are examples of where the public/private character of a physical space is disrupted by technology. When the primary ‘space’ is online the situation becomes more complex. Here are a few examples from my own experience:

  • Discovering that my ‘Can someone please make it lunchtime?’ tagged tweet in a small parallel conference session was being projected in a Twtterfall on a huge screen behind an eminent panel in the main hall.
  • Being told in an online meeting room that all private text chat messages were visible to moderators, after having made slightly disparaging remarks about the session in ‘private’ to a colleague.
  • Essentially being told-off on the phone by my very Scottish mother for using the American spelling of ‘whiskey’ in a tweet about 30 minutes after I posted it.

In all these cases assumed levels of privacy had to be reassessed in an uncomfortable moment of disjuncture. My imagined social map of the spaces had to be quickly redrawn as the original boundaries were shown to be permeable.

Researchers investigating Massively Multiplayer Online games or Virtual Worlds understand this type of disjuncture which in these cases is forgrounded by the presence of an avatar. The potential embodiment of the individual’s identity and form within the virtual space highlights the fact that he or she is existing simultaneously across two worlds. It’s the shifting nature of the extent to which the individual is in the physical or the virtual world which can cause suspicion and unease to the uninitiated. The boundary between the online and offline worlds has been described as a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ with influences passing in both directions.

I suggest that these membranes or social thresholds not only exist between online and offline spaces, but also between online platforms and constantly need to be redrawn as we attempt to map our own sense of the public and the private. In my case I was technically aware that my tweets were open to Google but it was only at the point at which I discovered my mother Googled for them that the threshold shifted. A wall had been knocked down in my public/private landscape.

My ‘Digital Visitors and Digital Residents’ continuum focuses on the importance of the social perceptions and motivations of individuals as they approach the web. A shift from Visitor to Resident activity involves crossing a social threshold. The position and width of the threshold along the Visitors and Residents continuum will be different for each individual, dependant on their perception of when a platform or online activity becomes social or public (with a small or large P). This is the point at which a platform changes from being a ‘tool’ to a ‘space’ in the mind of the individual, when the mode of engagement takes on a social edge. Google Docs is a good example; for me it is simply a word-processing tool until I notice that others are editing, at which point the public/private boundaries shift slightly and the tool has became a social space; it has moved one step closer to being public. My behaviour changes as I begin to cross the social threshold.

Google Docs
Word processing becomes social

Social media platforms, with their inherent hyper-connectivity require the user to hold highly complex multi-dimensional maps of them as social spaces, with many thresholds of differing permeability. It’s a long way from closing-the-front-door type methods of creating privacy boundaries. Some people are very skilled at managing the ‘edges’ of these social maps and manage their digital identities with great skill and to great effect. The rest of us have come to expect occasional moments of disjuncture.

I would argue that our notions of the public and the private don’t yet account for the width of these social thresholds or for the speed at which they can shift. We constantly negotiate the boundaries between the public and the private but we have an expectation that these boundaries, while moving, will remain sharp. The web and especially social media platforms defocus our understanding of these boundaries. Our ability to map and remap our relationship with these social thresholds is a key form of digital literacy, and possibly a new life-skill (if I can call it that).

What intrigues me is the possibility that those growing-up with these technologies may have a different perception of what privacy means and different approaches to managing their social landscapes. We now generally agree that the Digital Native does not exist as defined by age, but other generational nuances may exist, not in access and skill but in terms of managing and accepting shifting social thresholds.

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