Skip to 0 minutes and 3 secondsWe’ve had social media with us for about 10 years really. It escalated since about 2006/7. There were forms of social media before that, but one of the things that’s changed as a result of the emergence of social media is our understanding of privacy. Because social media is fuelled by our everyday lives being broadcast; being put into the public domain as we might think of it; what’s happened is the perception of privacy -- the way we understand privacy -- has been altered by the presence of those media. Because we’re constantly having to make decisions about what aspect of our private lives we put into those public spaces.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 secondsNow round about 10 years ago, the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman described what he called “confessional media” and the processes of consuming life. Now his argument was that with social media we’re pushed towards a confessional sort of environment and in these confessional spaces it became what he describes as an obligation or a virtue to tell things about our private lives in these public spaces. Now the result of that is that the very way that we understand privacy changes. The perception of privacy -- our sense of privacy -- alters.

Skip to 1 minute and 18 secondsBecause where, in the past, before this media came along, it was quite easy to draw a line between the private and the public -- a distinction could be made between those two things quite comfortably -- now we’re constantly having to make decisions about which aspects of our private lives go into social media for other people to consume, and which we keep back. Now this has been described as a kind of process of marketing yourself by Bauman; that we’re constantly making decisions about what aspects of ourself as a commodity of social media we make public for other people to consume. But what this means is, more generally, is that privacy is now something that we draw and redraw all the time.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 secondsAnd that means all sorts of pressures, cos we’re constantly having to decide what level of revelations we should allow about ourselves to escape into these media environments. And that’s kind of a judgement we’re making all the time. So we’ve moved from an era in which privacy can be clearly separated between the public and the private, to a space in which we’re constantly having to make decisions about which parts of our lives we hold back and which parts of our lives we share.

Confessional media

What are you doing and thinking right now? Would you share that information publicly on the internet?

In the video above, Dr David Beer talks about the concept of “confessional media”, an environment in which we are encouraged to share things about our private lives in public spaces. To be in these spaces and to interact with others, we must constantly evaluate which aspects of ourselves are made public. When you share your thoughts online, you have to think about what you’re thinking about, and edit those thoughts for the public sphere.

The way in which social media frames its fields for publishing posts about yourself shows this ‘confessional’ side. Facebook currently uses “What’s on your mind, [name]?” at the top of its News Feed, encouraging you to share your thoughts with a personal invocation. In 2009, Twitter changed its prompt to users from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”. This subtle shift in wording widens the scope, moving away from your actions to also include thoughts and feelings that could be ‘happening’ right now. Both ask a question rather than use instructional text like ‘Write a post here’; it is interesting to reflect upon whether this affects what you end up posting to their sites. Are you more like to ‘confess’ private details when being asked a direct question?

Thanks in part to Facebook being in the news so much recently, people are increasingly aware about what is being shared on social media. This puts even more pressure on us to think about what information we are sharing with the internet and what should be kept private. Even with privacy controls, a data breach could put very private information into the public domain. Sometimes sharing details that seem innocuous (such as a picture of your journey to work) could give people (with malicious intent or not) more information than you expected, if they can use this to work out your location, workplace, or daily habits. The invitation of confessional media to take part in sharing culture and to use details about your life as a commodity must be balanced with reflection on what we class as private.

It can be tempting to use this confessional media to unload our thoughts and feelings into a public space where others can offer advice, encouragement, and sympathy. This can have obvious positive outcomes, but it also offers a complex idea of privacy that requires us to make choices about just how confessional we are.

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This video is from the free online course:

Digital Wellbeing

University of York