The internet as a Social Public

The following is a portion of a larger article.  I originally edited it for focus and to make it more manageable for my students.  The whole article can be found quite easily with a Google search.  I believe that this is a helpful article for teachers because it can help them develop deep understanding of the nature of the Internet and Social Media spaces.  Danah Boyd describes the innate nature of social media spaces as four characters: Persistence, Replicability, Scalability, and Searchability.  These must be understood by teacher’s and other caregivers to ensure student safety and effectiveness on the Internet.  As a student progresses through their learning, they should, of course, develop their own awareness of this nature and assume their own control over it as they grow as digital citizens. 

Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications

Citation: Danah Boyd. (2010). “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications.” In Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58.

The following clips provide some understanding of the nature of social networks and are also largely applicable to all web 2.0 tools…

Physical structures are a collection of atoms while digital structures are built out of bits. The underlying properties of bits and atoms fundamentally distinguish these two types of environments, define what types of interactions are possible, and shape how people engage in these spaces. Both William Mitchell (1995, p. 111) and Lawrence Lessig (2006, pp. 1-8) have argued that “code is law” because code regulates the structures that emerge. James Grimmelmann argues that Lessig’s use of this phrase is “shorthand for the subtler idea that code does the work of law, but does it in an architectural way” (Grimmelmann, 2004, p. 1721). In looking at how code configures digital environments, both Mitchell and Lessig highlight the ways in which digital architectures are structural forces.

The difference between bits and atoms as architectural building blocks is central to the ways in which networked publics are constructed differently than other publics. More than a decade ago, Nicholas Negroponte (1995) mapped out some core differences between bits and atoms to argue that digitization would fundamentally alter the landscape of information and media. He pointed out that bits could be easily duplicated, compressed, and transmitted through wires; media that is built out of bits could be more easily and more quickly disseminated than that which comprises atoms. During that same period, Mitchell (1995) argued that bits do not simply change the flow of information, but they alter the very architecture of everyday life. Through networked technology, people are no longer shaped just by their dwellings but by their networks (Mitchell, 1995, p. 49).

The content of networked publics is made out of bits. Both self-expressions and interactions between people produce bit-based content in networked publics. Because of properties of bits, bits are easier to store, distribute, and search than atoms. Four affordances that emerge out of the properties of bits play a significant role in configuring networked publics:

  • Persistence: online expressions are automatically recorded and archived.
  • Replicability: content made out of bits can be duplicated.
  • Scalability: the potential visibility of content in networked publics is great.
  • Searchability: content in networked publics can be accessed through search.

To account for the structure of networked publics, I want to map out these different elements, situate them in a broader discussion of media, and suggest how they shape networked publics and people’s participation. Although these affordances are intertwined and co-dependent, I want to begin by looking at each one differently and considering what it contributes to the structure of networked publics.

Persistence: What one says sticks around

While spoken conversations are ephemeral, countless technologies and techniques have been developed to capture moments and make them persistent. The introduction of writing allowed people to create records of events and photography provided a tool for capturing a fleeting moment. Yet, as Walter Ong (2002) has argued, the introduction of literacy did more than provide a record; it transformed how people thought and communicated. Furthermore, as Walter Benjamin (1969) has argued, what is captured by photography has a different essence than the experienced moment. Both writing and photography provide persistence, but they also transform the acts they are capturing. Internet technologies follow a long line of other innovations in this area. What is captured and recorded are the bytes that are created and exchanged across the network.

Many systems make bits persistent by default and, thus, the text that one produces becomes persistent. Yet, do people interpret the content in the same way as they did when it was first produced? This is quite unlikely. The text and the multimedia may be persistent but what sticks around may lose its essence when consumed outside of the context in which it was created. The persistence of conversations in networked publics is ideal for asynchronous conversations, but it also raises new concerns when it can be consumed outside of its original context. While recording devices allow people to record specific acts in publics, the default is typically that unmediated acts are ephemeral. Networked technology inverted these defaults, making recording a common practice. This is partially due to the architecture of the Internet where dissemination requires copies and records for transmission and processing. Of course, while original records and duplicated records can in theory be deleted (or, technically, overwritten) at any point in the process, the “persistent-by default, ephemeral-when-necessary” dynamic is relatively pervasive, rendering tracking down and deleting content once it is contributed to networked publics futile.

Replicability: What’s the original and what’s the duplicate?

The printing press transformed writing because it allowed for easy reproduction of news and information, increasing the potential circulation of such content (Eisenstein, 1980). Technology has introduced a series of tools to help people duplicate text, images, video, and other media. Because bits can be replicated more easily than atoms and because bits are replicated as they are shared across the network, the content produced in networked publics is easily replicable. Copies are inherent to these systems. In a world of bits, there is no way to differentiate the original bit from its duplicate. And, because bits can be easily modified, content can be transformed in ways that make it hard to tell which is the source and which is the alteration. The replicable nature of content in networked publics means that what is replicated may be altered in ways that people do not easily realize.

Scalability: What spreads may not be ideal

Technology enables broader distribution, either by enhancing who can access the real-time event or widening access to reproductions of the moment. Broadcast media like

TV and radio made it possible for events to be simultaneously experienced across great distances, radically scaling the potential visibility of a given act and reshaping the public sphere (Starr, 2005). While such outlets allow content to scale, distribution outlets are frequently regulated (although this did not stop “pirates” from creating their own broadcast publics [Walker, 2004]). The Internet introduced new possibilities for distribution; blogging alone allowed for the rise of grassroots journalism (Gillmor, 2004) and a channel for anyone to espouse opinions (Rettberg, 2008).

The Internet may enable many to broadcast content and create publics, but it does not guarantee an audience. What scales in networked publics may not be what everyone wishes to scale. Furthermore, while a niche group may achieve visibility that resembles

 “micro-celebrity” (Senft, 2008), only a small fraction receives mass attention while many more receive very small, localized attention. Scalability in networked publics is about the possibility of tremendous visibility, not the guarantee of it. Habermas’s frustration with broadcast media was rooted in the ways that broadcast media was, in his mind, scaling the wrong kinds of content (Habermas, 1991). The same argument can be made concerning networked media, as what scales in networked publics is often the funny, the crude, the embarrassing, the mean, and the bizarre, “ranging from the quirky and offbeat, to potty humour, to the bizarrely funny, to parodies, through to the acerbically ironic” (Knobel and Lankshear, 2007). Those seeking broad attention, like politicians and wannabe celebrities, may have the ability to share their thoughts in networked publics, but they may not achieve the scale they wish. The property of scalability does not necessarily scale what individuals want to have scaled or what they think should be scaled, but what the collective chooses to amplify.

Searchability: Seek and you shall find

Librarians and other information specialists have long developed techniques to make accessing information easier and more effective. Metadata schemes and other strategies for organizing content have been central to these efforts. Yet, the introduction of search engines has radically reworked the ways in which information can be accessed. Search has become a commonplace activity among Internet users.

As people use technologies that leave traces, search takes on a new role. While being able to stand in a park and vocalize “find” to locate a person or object may seem like an element of a science fiction story, such actions are increasingly viable in networked publics. Search makes finding people in networked publics possible and, as GPS-enabled mobile devices are deployed, we will see such practices be part of other aspects of everyday life.

Central Dynamics in Networked Publics

  • Invisible audiences: not all audiences are visible when a person is contributing online, nor are they necessarily co-present.
  • Collapsed contexts: the lack of spatial, social, and temporal boundaries makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts.
  • The blurring of public and private: without control over context, public and private become meaningless binaries, are scaled in new ways, and are difficult to maintain as distinct.

As people engage with networked publics, they are frequently forced to contend with the ways in which these dynamics shape the social environment. While such dynamics have long been part of some people’s lives, they take on a new salience in networked publics because of their broad reach and their pervasiveness in everyday life. Let’s briefly consider each dynamic.

Invisible audiences: To whom should one speak?

In unmediated spaces, it is common to have a sense for who is present and can witness a particular performance. The affordances of networked publics change this. In theory, people can access content that is persistent, replicable, scalable, and searchable across broad swaths of space and time. Lurkers who share the same space but are not visible are one potential audience. But so are those who go back to read archives or who are searching for content on a particular topic. People in certain professions have long had to contend with invisible audiences. Knowing one’s audience matters when trying to determine what is socially appropriate to say or what will be understood by those listening. In other words, audience is critical to context. Without information about audience, it is often difficult to determine how to behave, let alone to make adjustments based on assessing reactions. To accommodate this, participants in networked publics often turn to imagined audience to assess whether or not they believe their behavior is socially appropriate, interesting, or relevant.

Collapsed contexts: Navigating tricky social situations

Even when one knows one’s audience, it can be challenging to contend with groups of people who reflect different social contexts and have different expectations as to what’s appropriate. For some, the collapsing of contexts in broadcast media made expressing oneself challenging. Consider the case of Stokely Carmichael, which Meyrowitz (1985, p. 43) details in his book. Carmichael was a civil rights leader in the 1960s. He regularly gave speeches to different audiences using different rhetorical styles depending on the race of the audience. When Carmichael began addressing broad publics via television and radio, he had to make a choice. There was no neutral speaking style and Carmichael’s decision to use black speaking style alienated white society. While Carmichael was able to maintain distinct styles as long as he was able to segment social groups, he ran into trouble when broadcast media collapsed those social groups and with them, the distinct contexts in which they were embedded. Networked publics force everyday people to contend with environments in which contexts are regularly colliding. Even when the immediate audience might be understood, the potential audience can be far greater and from different contexts. Maintaining distinct contexts online is particularly tricky because of the persistent, replicable, searchable, and scalable nature of networked acts. People do try to segment contexts by discouraging unwanted audiences from participating or by trying to limit information to make searching more difficult or by using technologies that create partial walls through privacy settings. Yet a motivated individual can often circumvent any of these approaches.

Some argue that distinct contexts are unnecessary and only encourage people to be deceptive. This is the crux of the belief that only those with something to hide need privacy. What is lost in this approach is the ways in which context helps people properly contextualize their performances. Bilingual speakers choose different languages depending on context, and speakers explain concepts or describe events differently when talking to different audiences based on their assessment of the audience’s knowledge. An alternative way to mark context is as that which provides the audience with a better understanding of the performer’s biases and assumptions. Few people detail their life histories before telling a story, but that history is often helpful in assessing the significance of the story. While starting every statement with “as a person with X identity and Y beliefs and Z history” can provide context, most people do not speak this way, let alone account for all of the relevant background for any stranger to understand any utterance. Networked publics both complicate traditional mechanisms for assessing and asserting context as well as collapse contexts that are traditionally segmented. This is particularly problematic because, with the audience invisible and the material persistent, it is often difficult to get a sense for what the context is or should be. Collapsing of contexts did take place before the rise of broadcast media but often in more controlled settings. For example, events like weddings, in which context collisions are common, are frequently scripted to make everyone comfortable. Unexpected collisions, like running into one’s boss while out with friends, can create awkwardness, but since both parties are typically aware of the collision, it can often be easy to make quick adjustments to one’s behavior to address the awkward situation. In networked publics, contexts often collide such that the performer is unaware of audiences from different contexts, magnifying the awkwardness and making adjustments impossible.

Blurring of public and private: Where are the boundaries?

They alter practices that are meant for broad visibility and they complicate—and often make public—interactions that were never intended to be truly public. This stems from the ways in which networked media, like broadcast media (Meyrowitz, 1985), blurs public and private in complicated ways. Social network sites disrupt the social dynamics of privacy (Grimmelmann, 2009). Most importantly, they challenge people’s sense of control. Yet, just because people are adopting tools that radically reshape their relationship to privacy does not mean they are interested in giving up their privacy. Defining and controlling boundaries around public and private can be quite difficult in a networked society, particularly when someone is motivated to publicize something that is seemingly private or when technology complicates people’s ability to control access and visibility. What remains an open question is how people can regain a sense of control in a networked society. Helen Nissenbaum (2004) argues that we need to approach privacy through the lens of contextual integrity, at least in terms of legal protections. I believe that we need to examine people’s strategies for negotiating control in the face of structural conditions that complicate privacy and rethink our binary conceptions of public and private. While public and private are certainly in flux, it is unlikely that privacy will simply be disregarded.

Physical spaces are limited by space and time, but, online, people can connect to one another across great distances and engage with asynchronously produced content over extended periods. This allows people to work around physical barriers to interaction and reduces the cost of interacting with people in far-off places.

Yet, at the same time, many people are unmotivated to interact with distant strangers; their attention is focused on those around them. Andy Warhol argued that mass media would guarantee that, “in the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” (Hirsch et al., 2002). As new media emerged, artists and writers countered this claim by noting, “in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people” (Momus, 1992; Weinberger, 2002, p. 104). In networked publics, attention becomes a commodity. There are those who try to manipulate the potential scalability of these environments to reach wide audiences, including politicians and pundits. There are also those who become the object of widespread curiosity and are propelled into the spotlight by the interwoven network. There are also the countless who are not seeking or gaining widespread attention. Yet, in an environment where following the content of one’s friends involves the same technologies as observing the follies of a celebrity, individuals find themselves embedded in the attention economy, as consumers and producers. While new media can be reproduced and scaled far and wide, it does not address the ways in which attention is a limited resource. Persistence and replicability also complicate notions of “authenticity,” as acts and information are not located in a particular space or time and, because of the nature of bits, it is easy to alter content, making it more challenging to assess its origins and legitimacy.

In my earlier analysis on American teenagers’ participation in social network sites

(boyd, 2008), I highlighted that teens can and do develop strategies for managing the social complexities of these environments. In some ways, teens are more prepared to embrace networked publics because many are coming of age in a time when networked affordances are a given. Adults, on the other hand, often find the shifts brought on by networked publics to be confusing and discomforting because they are more acutely aware of the ways in which their experiences with public life are changing. Yet, even they are adjusting to these changes and developing their own approaches to reconfiguring the technology to meet their needs. As social network sites and other emergent genres of social media become pervasive, the affordances and dynamics of networked publics can shed light on why people engage the way they do. Thus, taking the structural elements of networked publics into account when analyzing what unfolds can provide a valuable interpretive framework. Architecture shapes and is shaped by practice in mediated environments just as in physical spaces.



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