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The fight for public space online and off

November 16, 2011

"Popeye Spinach" by Lancefisher (CC-BY-SA)

Last night I deleted my Facebook account.” So begins a message that Dave Winer published on his blog on Thursday, 10 November, 2011. I left a comment in response to his post, which I have pasted below. Facebook protests have mounted since recent changes to their “Privacy” policy. For many, like Dave Winer, this was the tipping point. We all know that, online as well as offline, “public” doesn’t always mean “public”, and “private” does not always mean “private”. Sometimes, “private” means “privatized” and “public” means “publicized”. However, we are often prepared to accept the slippage, the fib, or the outright lie in exchange for ease of use, convenience, or some other short-term benefit. We convince ourselves that it a fair deal; a necessary trade-off. We pull the wool over our own eyes. For many, the weight and opacity has become too suffocating to bear, and they have chosen to come out into the open and say so. In cyberspace and in physical space, they have been proclaiming, to quote Popeye, “That’s all I can stands ’cause I can’t stands no more!”.

Greetings, Dave

It is becoming increasingly difficulty to distinguish between “public” and “private” spaces and conversations online. This is especially the case when we enter a privately-owned and managed site (after agreeing to terms and conditions that we haven’t read) that contains areas and activities that are labelled as “public”, but are not really public — at least not according to the accepted definition of the term. Upon reflection, we may discover that we have not only traded away some basic rights, we have also agreed to a new, much more limited idea of what “public” means. It is like buying into a gated community (without first reading the fine print on the purchase contract) and then discovering that hard-won rights that we assumed could never be taken away from us (like privacy, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly), are gone. Without thinking, we have traded them away for a chance to hang out in a convenient, safe, and controlled environment that provides us with entertainment, a few “free” services, and a chance to communicate with old friends and make new acquaintances. We can be forgiven, at least at first, for not noticing the significant loss of public space and civic rights, because the images, like the words, are cleverly deceptive. But we willingly enter into this “shared hallucination”, and, once there, we choose to forget what we have left behind. The result is a process of erasure through simulation, and a self-inflected amnesia. It’s public life, Jim, but not as we know it.

Mark McGuire

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