Ethics 4 – Privates on parade?

flickr photo by aotaro shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

When thinking about the ethics of a situation, it won’t be not long before the online researcher will be troubled by a ‘private versus public’ debate. The reason why this becomes such a pressing issue is that it will serve as a guide to the way the researcher should behave in particular circumstances. This is particularly significant when determining whether consent should be sought and/or whether it is necessary to maintain anonymity for the participants.

What do we mean by ‘private’ … or ‘public?’

Privacy may be defined in law, but for most of us, it is determined by social norms. Different people have very different conceptions of what it means to them and those conceptions may vary depending on circumstances. For many years private and public have been viewed as a dichotomy, with domestic life and the home representing the former. Although personal too can sometimes mean private, this is not always the case, as I shall discuss later.

Let us first consider to what we’re referring when we wish to distinguish between private and public. There are two main perspectives here: firstly a spatial one in which some regions or locations are viewed as more or less, private or public. A town square might be considered a public space and one’s car a private one. Secondly, information can be viewed in the same way; some is public, like a train timetable, and some private – a message to a lover. But in this last example, we begin to see a further possibility – conversation, or the exchange of information. Here then we see that the intended audience for the information we wish to share matters too. As Rosenberg (2010, 34) suggests

It is not enough to consider whether a space is public, who the intended audience is or whether some information is personal. All three must be considered.

What we’ve seen in recent years however, is a shift in emphasis from the times when privacy could be taken for granted, because sharing information was more difficult. Social media has changed that to ‘public by default; private through effort’ boyd & Marwick (2011, 12).

Polar opposites?

The suggestion so far is of a public – private dichotomy, but social norms and the way we view these two poles are shifting. Perhaps with the advent of technologies like email, the mobile phone and text messaging, work-life (public) is beginning to intrude in home-life (private) and similarly, more people access their home or personal lives whilst at work. The private – public boundary is increasingly blurring. Many authors caution against viewing public-private as a dichotomy. A particular space can be public and private at different times, in different contexts and at different scales. The public-private status of a school for example can be quite fluid in a way that, say a library is not. A maintained (state-funded) school is considered a public resource1 available for the benefit of its local population. However the entrance gate, often secured during the school day, suggests a more private place. Access is only allowed to specific people: those who work there, the student population, parents and other legitimate visitors. That of course changes on ‘open’ days, for sports events or theatrical productions; or at different times of the day, week or school year. Context and temporality become important. At a smaller scale, the school can be broken down into smaller spaces, some of which are more or less public. The school hall may be accessible to all, but more or less so at different times of the day. Senior staff may have offices which are mainly private, at least for certain sectors of the school population. Perhaps there are some parallels here with social media where some areas are more public and open than others, but individuals can choose precisely how public their space or the information they wish to share is by using privacy settings? As Ford (2011) observed:

Between the purely private and the purely public there exist an infinite and an infinitely variable number of configurations that fall somewhere between the traditional categories of ‘private’, things that happen or are said behind physical or virtual closed doors, and ‘public’, those interactions and events that take place within full view of an unknown audience.

Sveningsson Elm (2009, 136) offers a system in which the private – public continuum can be subdivided into four categories:

  • public – open and accessible to everyone
  • semi-public – open and accessible, but only to those who have obtained membership
  • semi-private – only available to those who have secured membership, the criteria for which are conditional
  • private – hidden or unavailable to anyone but the owner and invited guests

What categorisations help researchers do is to establish when and where it might not be necessary to obtain informed consent. Sveningsson Elm for example, suggests that public and semi-public spaces might not require consent to be obtained. Perhaps, but there are still further factors we should take into account before making that decision. What might be considered private to someone in the UK, might be perceived as more public to someone in Trinidad. A teen’s view of their bedroom as a private space may be viewed differently by their younger sister or father.


The ways in which individuals perceive privacy is rather fluid, varying from person to person, across different contexts and changing at different times. As a citizenry, many people trade-off increasing ubiquity of surveillance cameras for better protection and detection of crime; they accept cookies which track our web browsing for a more personalised experience; and allow in-app monitoring to benefit from location-based services like Tinder. Yet if a fellow passenger on the bus was to overtly read our activity on our smartphone, we would most likely object, seeing that as an invasion of personal space or privacy. However, strangely, as Ford (2011, 556) noted:

protecting all tidbits of personal information is simply not as important to some as it used to be. In fact, some individuals turned the idea of surveillance on its head, broadcasting their daily lives to the entire World Wide Web.

Personal is private?

Although our initial reaction is to conflate private with personal, this is not always valid. People often publicly share very personal, sometimes intimate things through social media, in a way they wouldn’t do offline. This is often completely intentional and with an awareness of potential outcomes, but as boyd and Marwick (2011) noted of people’s behaviour:

practices in networked publics are shaped by their interpretation of the social situation, their attitudes towards privacy and publicity, and their ability to navigate the technological and social environment.

However, the alternate argument can also be posed, where people, either through lack of experience or maturity, may not conceive of the full extent of their audience. They may be writing for a specific subset, or be writing in a more personal way, not for public consumption. Young (2013, 168) found some researchers and some participants who expressed the view that people performed in particular ways with intent and understanding, but Young also found others who held the opposite view. There is often a far greater degree of nuance than might at first appear. Lange (2007) describes two different behaviours – people can be ‘publicly private,’ where they share personal identity information, but restrict access using a range of mechanisms. Alternately, they might be ‘privately public,’ by sharing and connecting widely, but restricting the amount of personal information they share. Tied up in this are three factors: identity information (identifying personal details), content relevance (how closely the shared information matches the interests of the intended audience) and technical access (privacy and password settings). So if someone is openly sharing their identity, not limiting access in any way and making the content relevant to the audience, then perhaps the researcher might feel less inclined to seek informed consent? Some would say that a researcher is clearly not a member of the intended audience; yet as an ethnographer and participant observer, haven’t they gained the status of being considered a member of the ‘community?’


In a further extension of the public-private continuum, Sveniningsson (2004, 56) advises adding the extra dimension of sensitivity of the information. On these axes she has medium on the horizontal, and information on the vertical. I’ve added indicative examples.

Adapted from: SVENINGSSON, Malin (2004). Ethics in Internet ethnography. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. 45-61.

If the medium is considered private, or the information sensitive, then the researcher should handle the situation with discretion. If the medium is public and the information non-sensitive, the researcher might feel less obliged to seek consent.


So we need to think about the nature of the information shared and the space involved. The context, scale and temporality of the circumstances should inform any decisions. We need to remember also that different people will have different perceptions of public and private and display fluid behaviour that shifts along a continuum between the two. My feeling is that this brief observation from boyd & Crawford (2012) might prove particularly helpful in guiding researchers’ actions:

there is a psychological difference between being in public (sitting in a park) and being public (actively courting attention)”


In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at the issue of ‘consent.’


BOYD, danah and CRAWFORD, Kate (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, communication & society, 15 (5), 662-679.

BOYD, danah and MARWICK, Alice (2011). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. [online].

FORD, Sarah Michele (2011). Reconceptualizing the public/private distinction in the age of information technology. [online]. Information, communication & society, 14 (4), 550-567.

ROSENBERG, A. (2010). Virtual world research ethics and the private/public distinction. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 3 (1), 23-37.

SVENINGSSON ELM, Malin (2009). How Do Various Notions of Privacy Influence Decisions in Qualitative Internet Research?. Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method. SAGE Publications, Inc. In: MARKHAM, Annette M. and BAYM, Nancy K. (eds.). Internet inquiry: Conversations about method. Thousand Oaks, CA, SAGE Publications, Inc, 69-88.

SVENINGSSON, Malin (2004). Ethics in Internet ethnography. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. 45-61.

YOUNG, Kirsty (2013). Researching Young People’s Online Spaces. [online]. Negotiating ethical challenges in youth research, , 163-176.

1In the UK, we have an unfortunate legacy naming convention where public schools are actually private(!) and independent of the state.


2 thoughts on “Ethics 4 – Privates on parade?

  1. Regarding public ‘acceptance’ of technological surveillance; Mok, Cornish & Tarr (2015 in Too much information: Visual research ethics in the age of wearable cameras) make an important point that “This appears to be more a matter of acquiescence when confronted with ubiquity, rather than active consent or public confidence in the beneficent use of information.”


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