Public vs Private

In writing, the term public vs. private refers to the differences and the resulting conflicts between varying definitions of the publicity of a work. These differences often take the form of the belief of an author that a work is limited to a certain audience, and an unexpected audience is accessing that work. In the medium of digital writing, the issue of public and private audiences commonly takes the form of content on social media sites rhetorically oriented for a perceived audience, and accessed by another undesired audience. Ilana Gershon's The Breakup 2.0 uses the context of blogs and undesired access to the information within stating:

"Frank pointed out that if he wrote in a journal, his friends couldn’t read it. But none of my other solutions addressed the crux of the matter either: Frank wanted to provide regulated, unobserved, and non-intrusive access to his friends who might want to read his blog." [2]

The privacy and restricted access Frank desired conflicted explicitly with the publicity of the blog medium, which allowed minimal control of the intended audience, if at all. Such conflicts are common in new media in which privacy may not be immediately controllable or accessible.


As digital writing has blossomed into a common means of communication, questions of what to write and where to write have arisen. Some people utilize genres of digital writing for personal reasons, such as diary entries on their blog. The author could write about his or her private thoughts and feelings without realizing that anyone on the internet can read it. These diary-like entries are usually used to talk about the author’s life and experiences. "Often they are used as a sort of virtual diary, a place where they can share information with others about their lives—events, experiences, philosophies, feelings, etc." Blogging has become more and more popular, which means the privacy of blogs has decreased. In Gershon’s book, The Breakup 2.0, she interviewed a college boy, Frank, who wrote a blog dedicated to his crazy college experiences. When he found out that his conservative parents had been reading his blog posts, Frank replied to his parents, “This is private. And it was linked from my Facebook so my peers could read it and not you guys.” In this example, Frank had an idea in his head who his intended audience was, and his parents were not a part of this intended audience.

Facebook profiles are great examples of people having this intended audience and doing their best to make certain their intended audience are in fact their only audience. To ensure that only their intended audience can view the author’s Facebook profile, Facebook users have privacy settings that can be altered. Gershon stated this idea clearly, “Focusing on accessibility when thinking about public statements encourages people to consciously monitor and manage who is part of a public." Rumors of employers searching future employees online had scared some Facebook users into a new, unofficial privacy setting: creating two Facebook profiles. The real name of the Facebook user is under the “clean” and appropriate profile. With the creation of a profile under a fake name, the Facebook user feels a sense of security thinking that the unintended audience will not be able to view the person for who they really are.


From Gershon’s perspective, public speaking means speaking to a crowd of relative strangers. She notes that the anonymity of the audience is an important feature of this interaction [2]. But the audience a speaker addresses when delivering a speech is slightly less anonymous than when writing in a digital environment. In a public speech, the speaker can see the audience and the speaker knows he or she is on a stage delivering his or her ideas in real time. In a digital environment, the writer does not always know to whom they may be writing. A problem arises when this is ignored. Some of the students Gershon interviewed in her book, The Breakup 2.0, were oblivious to the public nature of their digital writing. This goes to show that different users of a medium may not always agree exactly on how the medium functions. These varying media ideologies, "a set of beliefs that each person creates on their own, which shape the way in which they think about and use technology and media", may have dire consequences.

Controlling Your Public

On the other hand, some students Gershon interviewed were very aware of their audiences. Some liked to imagine they could even control access to their communication, albeit not totally. These students defined their potential audiences in a calculated way in terms of whom they and the medium might allow to participate [2]. For example, if a student’s family does not use Facebook, it may be fairly safe for that student to assume their content is at least private from their family in that context. Again, problems arise when family members cross over and begin using new mediums. Communication you wrote months ago that you thought were private from your family may suddenly now be visible to them. Ultimately the user is responsible for understanding whom their audience may be. As Gershon says, “Focusing on accessibility when thinking about public statements encourages people to consciously monitor and manage who is part of a public.”[2]

Methods Of Control

Many online communities such as a Facebook, Google+, and Twitter allow you to create sets of people that can be used to restrict access to your content [3]. For example, a group could be made containing close friends and communication could be directly towards them with everyone else having no visibility. This idea is becoming more and more prevalent as online users become more and more aware of privacy.

Blur Between Public and Private

When discussing digital writing, the issue and overlap of Public vs. Private is commonly discussed. Because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation, individuals using online media often falsely believe they have full control over the intended audience. The way an individual defines the word “Public” is often changing. Because of this, audiences that are considered either public or private are often mixing. Individuals use anonymity and the attempt to control their public, to define their own interpretation of the word public. Because everyone interprets their audience differently, the overlap of what is public and what is private will continue to exist.

"The medium shapes the message in part because people have media ideologies that shape the ways they think about and use different media" (Gershon, Ilana).

2. The Breakup 2.0, pg 167, Ilana Gershon