Personalisation is very much the heart of our social media experience because how we present ourselves leaves a significant impression to others about who we are, what our interests are and - perhaps most importantly – gives them a glimpse into our personality. For the most part, we tend to view our pages as our own space, and our news feeds as an extension of that space. However, where does the line between personal and public occur, and - upon answering that question - how blurred is this line?
For myself, this thought occurred when, a few weeks ago, the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker started tweeting about how the British Prime Minister David Cameron was actually a lizard. This was nothing major since it was an implausible statement to make and anyone who is familiar with Brooker's articles would be aware of his ludicrous but comical writing style.
However, out of his 391,000 followers who are aware of Brooker's sense of humour, a small number were annoyed with his tweets, threatening to unfollow him if he didn't stop. Brooker then retweeted these requests - but removed their usernames so they wouldn't get attention – to highlight the reaction, but continued the joke much to their annoyance.
While your opinion about whether Brooker took his joke too far may differ, it does raise the question of why these people reacted in such a manner. Being offended about a comment is one thing but the requests for him to stop his jokes – which ended up having the opposite effect as it only made him continue – is strange as while our news feed is a general space for us to view, we have no influence over what content other people post in their own accounts. So why is it that instead of just unfollowing a person, we instead react and demand that certain people act in a specific way, like the above example?
Public Vs Personal
The above is a case of defining where the boundary between our personal space and public space is online. If we think about our own social profiles as a physical space, we tend to view our own profiles as similar to our own homes. We all have topics that we only speak about in the comfort of our own home, and as such, our social media profiles are effectively designed to reflect our personality and our interests.
We view Twitter as a space where by following people, we bring them into our own space where they must confirm to our rules and expectations. In reality, it's more similar to turning on the TV, a medium where traditionally, you don't have control over its contents as it's planned by the various TV stations you're subscribed to. If we don't like what they're showing, you either change the station or we turn the TV off.
The problem with social media is, because the content we see is created outside our own personal space but resides within it, the line between personal and public becomes blurred.
While we are inviting people into our personal space (our personal Twitter feed or Facebook news feed) by following them, we have to remember that they are still operating within their own space and not confirming to ours; it was us who made the decision to follow them, and it's our decision to unfollow them if we wish.
Of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are things that we say that could potentially offend people. Unless we set our profiles to private, everything we say should be considered as a public statement. As overdramatic as that sounds, it only takes one retweet or reply to set off a chain of reactions and that could damage your brand or your public image.
That doesn't mean that we must rigorously analyse each and every tweet before posting, but instead view our tweets and posts as opinions and thoughts shared in a public space like a city square or cafe. Sometimes a level of disconnection can occur with such statements, and since there is usually no physical presence when we post something, we don't take into consideration the reaction of other people. It's this disconnection that could result in a tweet or status update that could offend or annoy people.
We have different rules for how we conduct ourselves in public spaces, but because there's a level of disconnection between posting on a computer and saying something out loud, these rules are left somewhat skewed. While social media has integrated into our lives in such a massive way, we're still always learning about the medium and adapting to the many changes that occur. While it's not always possible to post something that a follower doesn't take issue with, it's important to define for ourselves where the line is drawn and what we feel is acceptable in a public space.