Technology and the Public/Private Divide

In the Metro section of the October 10, 2006 New York Times, an article appeared about a police investigation into the case of a Brooklyn man named Michael Sandy, who was hit by a car after two men pushed him onto the Belt Parkway near Sheepshead Bay. The article featured a screenshot of Mr. Sandy’s Friendster homepage, and summarized information about him gleaned from the site.

Sandy Friendster
Michael Sandy’s Friendster page as it appeared on page B6 of the New York Times on October 10, 2006.
(Sinister technology-related update to this case here, Times subscription required).

While I know from conversations with real live journalists that they often use resources like Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook in their research and reporting, this was the first instance in which I’ve seen an actual reproduction of a page from such a site in a newspaper (though I admittedly haven’t been looking too hard for it). If users didn’t realize how “public” these public sites really are, the Old Gray Lady’s screen grab should make it perfectly clear. (for a related post, see Kate Moss’s “Excuse me sir, but your online persona is showing.”

The relationship between technology and the question of what’s public and private has come up recently in our conversations about how to stimulate blog usage within the Baruch community. When BCTC rolls out its Movable Type blogging package, all Baruch blogs will come equipped with a disclaimer that indemnifies the college against the worst efforts of community users. What’s not clear yet is whether these blogs will be open to the public, restricted to the Baruch community, or restricted to a group determined by the blog’s administrator.

I feel strongly that course blogs should be seen initially only as an extension of the classroom for the use of participants in the class, and that they should be closed off from the public unless the community they immediately serve wants them to be open. A learning community–faculty and students–should be able to take advantage of the ease of information transfer afforded by new technologies without worrying about who’s watching (tenure committees, parents, and intellectually property attorneys come to mind!). At the same time, we are trying to study how course blogs are being used across academia, and we are finding that our access to them is frustrated by the very philosophy we embrace.

The solution, it would seem, is some combination of public/private sections in a course blog, where only collectively approved content goes out over the airwaves. Ultimately at Baruch we hope to build a community of faculty who can share their blogging experiences with and learn from one another. Whatever happens, though, users—faculty and students—should be educated about the implications of their choices and should know who, potentially, has access to any work they put up on a server.