Holding a Formerly Private Conversation in Public

The only social network I use regularly is Facebook since it’s an easy way to stay in touch with all my friends from school.

One feature of Facebook is "The Wall". Each user has a public Wall and any other user can leave a message on your Wall. So instead of emailing you or messaging you through Facebook, I would leave a message on your Wall and if you wanted to respond you could leave a message on my Wall.

99% of the users leave messages on other people’s Walls as the primary way to communicate through the service. Since all Walls are public this means many previously private conversations (which would have happened through email, IM, one-on-one messages, and the like) are now public.

This creates a fascinating social effect. People ostensibly leave private, personal messages, but they are also aware that many other people will read that message too. I’ve witnessed entire conversations (four or five back-and-forths) take place on Walls and no one else joins in the conversation — after all, it is a private conversation between two people — but everyone continues to lurk.

There are two questions to ask about this social effect. The first is whether the content of the conversation changes when it’s a public and not private conversation, and if so, whether the change is good.

I believe conversations which occur on a Wall are different — not by much, but different — than those which used to happen in private. When I leave a comment on a public blog I think for a few more seconds about what I’m saying since I know it’s in the public domain.

I believe the change is both good and bad.

Good because when a conversation takes place in public the participants are more accountable and so the quality of the conversation usually rises. The comments readers post publicly to this blog, for example, are usually of higher quality than private emails I receive about my posts, and I think this is because people are more thoughtful in public.

Bad because the participants are likely to self-censor what they say in order to signal to "lurkers" (for example, someone may say "What a great time last night!" to one person in order to signal to other friends that they were at a party the previous night) and this reduces the conversation’s honesty and efficiency.

Overall, I’m a big fan of "transparency" (at the cost of privacy) in the blogging world, on Facebook, and in other venues because I believe the increase in quality of the conversation outweighs the cons. What do you think? Have you seen private conversations move into the public domain and what effect does this shift have in your world?

5 Responses to Holding a Formerly Private Conversation in Public

  1. Anonymous says:

    I think everyone considers that their posts are public.

  2. Dario Abramskiehn says:

    While I agree with you that it’s interesting that facebook and other social networking tools force people to reflect on what they say before they say it, I definately don’t think the quality of the conversations rise. In fact, I think they probably fall.
    There are lots of times when I read things (on my own wall or someone else’s) that aren’t conversations so much as advertisments for one’s social life. e.g. “Dude, wasn’t it great when we went to that party last night. I got so wasted.” or “I had a great time hanging out with you 10 minutes ago at [whatever].” People often post a detailed retelling of their activities to someone who already knows the story, solely for the benefit of other people who read the wall. This seems sort of childish and immature. It’s a weird way of bragging about one’s exploits under the guise of a supposed 2 person conversation

    p.s. I’m not pretending that I’m above all of this; I have a facebook and partake in the some social bullshit as everyone else. I just find this particular aspect of it somewhat unnattractive.

  3. Gabe Rosen says:

    I happen to find this practice really annoying. To me, walls are for glorifying and ridiculing your friends, but I suppose others feel compelled to hold private conversations on walls because either A) they don’t know how to use the message function, B) they want the rest of the world to know what good friends they are with the wall owner.

    I have to wonder, though, when I see people posting their complete contact information on walls or comments sections. Do you really want this information in the hands of everyone who walks by? I guess so.

    What really gets me are people who will only communicate through their social network’s messaging system (this is mostly a Myspace problem). You need an email address to join these things to begin with, so clearly it’s not for lack of one that they do this. I guess sending me a regular email (that I’m likely to read in less than a week) is too much to ask.

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