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:

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.

18 thoughts on “The Social Threshold

  1. mel Reply

    Surely that is the Irish spelling rather than the American.

  2. Frances Bell Reply

    Your example of Google Docs is interesting. You are actually editing in a (semi)public space whereas our word processing mental model is private edit then share/publish. I think of privacy as a practice and not just my practice but a network of relations of practice.
    Maybe you have crossed the threshold as soon as you enter social space and the multiple possible thresholds in future then escape from your control or even view so it’s that first one that is the real threshold. If you are in a trusted network you can sustain these multiple thresholds within trusted realtionships.

  3. @daveowhite Reply

    @Frances I’m not sure how you would define a trusted network? I don’t ‘know’ about 80% of my Twitter followers and I certainly have no idea who is Googling for me.

  4. Frances Bell Reply

    Everyone uses the channels in different ways. I started by friending lots of people in Facebook – now I don’t friend students or anyone I have not met face to face (there may be exceptions for people I already ‘know well’ online). On Twitter I don’t automatically follow back so mutual follow becomes a sort of trusted network. I can DM and be DMed by those people. If someone abused DM I could unfollow them and push them back through that threshold.
    I guess that I am saying that rather than have spectra such as Visitor/ resident for people it may be more useful to think about behaviours and practices (that may be aligned with roles). I could be a visitor to ‘open’ google docs but a resident in small group closed google docs. I think you crossed one social theshold as soon as you agreed to join a small group Google Doc. You go through the front door into the cold wind when you join an open google doc (or Wikipedia) and you had better bring your hat and gloves.

  5. Frances Bell Reply

    Oops – I didn’t mean to suggest Visitor/resident concept wasn’t useful – I think it is. I was just playing with idea of linking it to people-with-behaviours or people-with-roles

  6. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Frances I didn’t take it that way. 🙂 For me the Visitor/Resident idea is not a pure typology in that it doesn’t ‘type’ people (although people seen keen to type themselves against it), it acts as a simple framework to reflect on motivations to engage. From that starting point behaviours and roles can be considered. The social threshold is somewhere in the middle of the Visitor/Resident continuum. In the post I’m trying to explore those moments when the nature of that social threshold shifts unexpectedly. i.e. When parts of your trusted network end-up in that cold wind.

  7. Catherine Cronin Reply

    Interesting post (and comments!)… I find your conceptual framework of Visitor/Resident to be useful, especially in reflecting on our roles and behaviours with respect to particular technologies and online social spaces. Most interesting is the space between the 2 poles and the nature of the movement between them: where am I on this continuum, what direction am I moving, what is encouraging/hindering me, why? Unfortunately, it is inevitable that frameworks which foster such reflection — Visitor/Resident, and formerly Native/Immigrant — are often reduced to ‘types’. At least the discussion continues!

  8. Peter Lythgoe Reply

    I think you meant to say the Irish spelling of ‘whiskey.’

    It seems to me, from your description of events, that digitial visitors are much more aware of the availability and consequences of on-line activity than digital residents, who, like residents of any space, take many things for granted and don’t notice things that visitors find remarkable.

    Also, constantly drawing a distinction between on-line and off-line ‘worlds’ lulls you into a false sense of security. They are each aspects of one world, where real actions and real comments have real consequences.

  9. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Mel and @Peter My mother said it was the American spelling, who am I to argue? 🙂

    @Peter I like the idea that Residents are less aware of what they are doing. Often when Visitors/Residents is discussed there is an assumption that those acting as Residents are somehow more sophisticated in their use of technology. This in many cases is probably not true. This might also account for why the so-called Digital Natives don’t necessarily have a good grasp of issues around digital identity or developed digital literacies. They don’t reflective on their practice in the same way a individual acting as a Visitor would.

  10. Frances Bell Reply

    Ha ha – this is fun. I was a bit puzzled by your Google Docs example. Had you not known or just forgotten that it was a shared doc? If the latter then maybe your tool to space analogy is about moving from asynchronous to synchronous interaction at the point you realise someone else is editing. For me that is the moment when I start to question my digital literacy of the tool – can it handle synchronous edits? will I lose my work? Then I feverishly click save.

  11. Catherine Cronin Reply

    Really like @Peter’s idea re: reflective practice of visitors/residents – as you say, on-line no different to off-line. And @Dave @Frances, in addition to thinking about transitions from tool to space, and asynch to synch, may I add small-public to large-public. Realised this when I saw Dave’s tweet re: this “little” discussion. 😉

  12. Helen Beetham Reply

    Odd not to mention wikileaks and football pundits in this context. We are only starting to understand the implications of our capacity constantly to record and publish (be recorded, be published) for our private selves. I would compare this with the advent of widespread literacy, which interestingly in Europe coincided with the rise of Protestantism (and arguably with the Council of Trent that in many ways initiated the idea of a private conscience in the Catholic church). Christianity became less about public forms of religious expression and much more about how one lived in private, and how one accounted for that to God and His representatives on earth. Previous to widespread literacy, words and their meanings were intimately related to the context of speaking i.e. the public space e.g. of the church. How closely or otherwise words corresponded to a person’s private thoughts or intentions were not important questions. And now digital media are having an equally profound impact on our sense of ourselves as public/private beings. Not only those obviously in the public sphere, but all of us to some extent can count on being ‘always watched’ by an ever-present God, only this time of course God is other people and the systems that allow them to keep track of us.

  13. Bon Reply

    Dave, this is cool. i’ve been thinking about the complexities of digital identity but hadn’t thought to factor in the additional complexities of negotiating notions of private/public in this environment.

    or rather, maybe not private/public at all but a more gray concept of levels of openness? i think the digital sphere enables a much less binary idea of privacy to begin to make sense, because like you say, to navigate digital environments requires a different kind of mental map than the “my door is closed” notion that physical space tends to create. the threshhold is wider: perhaps the whole map itself represents different kinds of threshholds?

  14. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Helen I deliberately didn’t mention wikileaks or pundts so as not to obscure my central points with salacious news stories. I concede that this may make the post look a little out-of-touch.

    There is a distinction between being ‘always watched’ and knowing there is the potential that someone is watching you. As I mention I didn’t care that my Tweets were Googleable until I knew my Mother had found them. This distinction is what brings me back to the importance of a social rather than a technical focus.

    The difference between a theological approach to the public/private and a digital-media one probably has something to do with guilt, forgiveness and grace. I won’t attempt to extrapolate on those in a blog comment… I agree that fundamental changes are taking place. For me the frustration is that this discourse is often led by technologists trying to sell us the future. I often feel that social scientists should do more to reposition the discussion.

  15. David White (@daveowhite) Reply

    @Bon I still haven’t found a good way to express this yet but I agree that the map is made up of different thresholds. The thresholds are of differing widths and are at different positions along an imagined public/private scale. I described my ‘Whisky’ moment as a like a wall being demolished in my public/private map but I also imagined it as one social threshold suddenly being intersected by another.

  16. ailsa Reply

    There’s a latour article called Beware your imagniation leaves digital traces
    Facebook got me in trouble, stupid of me to post where i was going for christmas to ‘get away’ and then had half the tribe join me…have to be more careful now. Also had a former employer who had me on rss feed, my blog had to get so much more cautious. I could write essays, hypothetically speaking.
    I recall danah boyd talking of teenagers with the facebook for the parents…and the real one with friends…i imagine my multiple online identities undergoing multiple regressions.
    No different really to my offline life…except for the indisputable trace…
    Ilike the idea of a threshold, im in or Im out, or i have a window to view through instead. And sometimes the curtains get closed.
    My concern is for those who use such sites naively, innocently being less well aware…am studying sms counselling, and there seems limited knowledge of stored info on organisation servers, as well as on provider server, as well as on cell phones.

  17. Jennifer Reply

    Here via Doug Clow’s write-up of your talk at the OU. Fascinating stuff – thank you!

    This conversation is reminding me of (I don’t know if you know this story already) when Zoe Margolis was outed by the Sunday Times as the author of the “Girl with a one-track mind” blog. That was a pretty unsubtle episode of “the wall being knocked down”.

    I wrote some analysis of it here: Anonymous blogging about sex. (Not about sex itself, but about the politics & practicalities of online anonymity in that context.)

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