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?

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