Privately Public

7 08 2013

I arrived 5 or so minutes early for a lecture yesterday, and as I sat in the room waiting for the lecturer to arrive, given my sitting position in the room (roughly the middle), I couldn’t help but notice the number of people who had their Facebook accounts open, and made a note of this.

A few questions arise from a situation like this; if I wanted to, would I be I entitled to look at who a particular person was and what appeared on their newsfeed by glancing over their shoulder in such a way that they wouldn’t  know? Is this an invasion of privacy?

Morally, the answer is almost certainly going to be yes in every instance. But as Susan Gal (2002) points out, a space can be both public and private. Let’s take the living room of your house as an example.

On any given night, you would not allow just anyone to walk into your living room on the condition that there are a friend of a friend. In this instance, the living room is private. Now I want you to cast your mind back a few years now and think of the incident involving a guy by the name of Corey Worthington. If on the night of his infamy I was to enter his living room, I would more than likely have gained access without being questioned. This then, makes the living room a public space (albeit for only a short time in this example).

Now let’s just think of a generic house, because this too can be divided into both public and private. If you invite guests around, you allow them into your living room, dining room, toilet, even onto your back porch without too much stress. Thus these are the public parts of your house. But what about your bedroom, attic or basement? Would you as readily allow them into these areas? These might then be considered private areas of your house.

But even when you don’t have guests around and it is just your family, you act differently in the living room as opposed to your bedroom (well, I know I do).  I can have my headphones as loud as I like in my bedroom without being questioned. When I do this in the lounge room though, I might get thrown some scornful looks.

So can I look at someone’s Facebook account over their shoulder in a lecture? I did not need permission to enter the space; and they chose to open it in knowing full well that they were not alone. So are they entitled to the same privacy to interact with their friends online as they would get when doing it at home?

P.S.- I don’t intentionally look over people’s shoulders at what they are doing on their laptops, it’s just that this task requires a bit of observation like that. So I can’t help but go ‘Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, no idea what that website is, Microsoft Word, Facebook’ etc. as I look around.

Gal, S 2002, ‘A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction’, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 77-95

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