Social networks as public spaces

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Public spaces have many purposes in social life – they allow people to make sense of the social norms that regulate society, they let people learn to express themselves and learn from the reactions of others, and they let people make certain acts or expressions ‘real’ by having witnesses acknowledge them. —Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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2 responses »

  1. How would you comment on the difference between reactions on acts/expressions in real public spaces and those made on social networking sites?
    I generally find that social networking sites nudge people into more daring acts/expressions/reactions…but does that really make them real?

  2. That’s a good question. Firstly, Arendt talks only of ‘certain acts or expressions’ not all. I would like to consider it from a different angle.

    I recently visited a public space. It was an art gallery in fact. While observing the display I kept my thoughts/reaction to myself – as dictated by social etiquette. However, you are right; on a social network I might be emboldened to say that I thought it was a load of bollocks!

    Even if I had uttered this thought to a companion, whilst in the gallery, its existence would have only been fleeting. Had I instead ‘tweeted’ it, the same thought could last forever and be witnessed by countless people – though hopefully not the curator. Both expressions would have been real and some might even consider the latter to be more real.

    Physical public spaces have normally existed and evolved over many years, if not centuries. The social norms and expectations are well established amongst their users, often from early childhood. The rare occasions when these ‘rules’ are broken are usually the result of mental impairment (drink, drugs, illness), youthful rebellion or an outsider/foreigner unfamiliar with the local customs. By comparison, electronic public spaces such as social networking sites have barely existed beyond a generation. They are often without geographic borders. They are in their infancy and the rules are still being established. Therefore, in many ways these sites may be the areas where the greatest amount of societal learning is currently occurring.

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