My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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super publics

I used the phrase “super publics” in my essay last night. I hadn’t introduced it before, although you’ll probably see me use it more and more as my dissertation emerges because i crafted it to help me work through a few things theoretically. I was asked about this term in various emails and i realized that i should probably do some explaining. I’d give a proper definition, but it’s still a work in progress, so instead, bear with me as i take a stab at what i’m going for.

Historically, we have talked about the public, as in the public sphere (Habermas). Implicated in this singular is the idea that there is a coherent entity that one could address or visit. More recently, academics have talked about publics, recognizing that there is no coherent public, but a collection of intertwined publics. In other words, a public in London is not the same as a public in Hong Kong. “The notion of a public enables a reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity” (Warner). Translation: publics are made up of strangers who are connected by information and, thus, share a coherent position as receivers of that information. For example, when Mayor Bloomberg speaks of addressing the public, he means all of New York. If he uses his “local” paper (the New York Times) to address his public, the audience who is part of Bloomberg’s public is arguably much larger (especially given the number of folks who see themselves to be New Yorkers). Yet, Bloomberg cannot speak of addressing the public in a global sense because he is not addressing the poor farmer in Kenya. Likewise, that Kenyan’s notion of a public doesn’t include New Yorkers when he speaks in his town’s public square.

Public is also used as an adjective. When it references government (“public services”), it is explicitly limited in scope by the scope of the relevant government – there is no universal public service. As an adjective, it can also connote qualities of exposure typically attributed to addressing an audience of strangers. For example, a public act is one that is visible to an audience of strangers, connected by exposure to that act (a.k.a. a public).

Digital life has really screwed with the notion of public, removing traditional situationism (Goffman) that connects strangers. If the Kenyan farmer is connected to the Internet and reads English, he can be a part of Bloomberg’s public via the New York Times. Yet, this does not mean that the New York Times would conceptualize him in their public, nor does it mean that his public acts would be equally visible by other constituents of the Times.

Digital architectures alter the structure of social life and information flow. Persistence, searchability, the collapse of distance and time, copyability… These are not factors that most everyday people consider when living unmediated lives. Yet, they are increasingly becoming normative in society. Throughout the 20th century, mass media forced journalists and “public” figures to come to terms with this, but digital structures force everyone to do so. People’s notion of public radically changes when they have to account for the Kenyan farmer, their lurking boss, and the person who will access their speech months from now. People’s idea of a public is traditionally bounded by space, time and audience – the park is a public that people understand. And, yet, this is all being disrupted.

In talking about “super publics,” I want to get at the altered state of publics – what publics look like when they are infused with the features of digital architectures. What does it mean to speak across time and space to an unknown audience? What happens when you cannot predict who will witness your act because they are not visible now, even though they may be tomorrow? How do people learn to deal with a public larger and more diverse than the one they learned to make sense of as teenagers? How are teenagers affected by growing up in an environment where they can assume super publics? I want to talk about what it means to speak for all time and space, to audiences you cannot conceptualize.

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

I want to demarcate super publics as distinct from publics because i think that they need some theorizing. In other words, i think that we need to understand the dynamics of super publics, the architectures that enable them, and the behaviors and cultures that emerge because of them.

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17 comments to super publics

  • You sorted this post into your privacy-category, and I would like to add a brief comment on the changing experiences of privacy in ‘super publics’. Young people I have talked to are not necessarily relating to public spheres. They are well aware that their expressions are potentially available to anyone anywhere at any time (i.e. your super public), but they still see their online presence in terms of privacy (e.g. they can be offended if parents read their online diaries).

    Would ‘hyper publics’ be the same as super public? Hyper in the sense of ‘more than’, ‘above’ (to construct a concept that goes with hypertext, hyperpersonal)?

  • Techbee

    You might be interested in this video of Michel Serres’s conference (he is a science philosopher) at Ecole Polytechnique on the subject of new technologies. (http://interstices.info/display.jsp?id=c_15918). Now, what if new technologies were just the lattest externalisation of human functions and powers. I love his concept of neo-darwinism. For me, it has been a great eye-opener. The video is in French, but Mr Serres being a professor at Stanford University, he probably has a podcast of one of his lectures floating around in the webosphere.

  • Howard Rheingold

    Nancy Fraser’s critique of Habermas is germane here. If you haven’t read it, do so. If you read it a while back, it’s worth reviewing:

    Nancy Fraser. “Rethinking the public sphere: a contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy.” Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1991. 109-142.

  • Howard – Nancy’s article is fantastic (and i actually have notes from it here). She’s particularly good at challenging Habermas on the tensions between public and private, but she doesn’t take architectural changes into account when dealing with the tensions around public/private discourse.

  • I had a distinctly favorite couple lines in your essay:

    “No one knows how to live in such a super public, but this structure is going to become increasingly a part of our lives. It is no wonder that youth want to figure it out.”

    Kid / youth enthusiasm for life is a beautiful thing.

    I wonder if there was a time (or, if there are still places) where there was/is no public. For example, in isolated communities. I lived in the country and could go weeks without ever seeing strangers (even more so when I didn’t watch TV, etc.).

    I wonder if the city and it’s relationship to rural communities might somehow represent a similar dynamic with super publics, e.g. super publics = the new city (and, I am thinking of Jane Jacobs’ ideas of the city as primary–maybe we humans are always trying to create a more super public).

  • The super public demarcation is fun to think about. I’d like to think about how the architecture you refer to is revealed in the instrumented material stuff that sort of undergird super publics. You know – the technical systems that are the instrumental conditions of possibilities for such super publics. I guess if there’s an abstraction layer at work, “Presence” is at the social layer. Then, what’s underneath? How does “presence” get supported in the instrumental layer? I’m not suggesting that you actually pile drive through such – it’s interesting to consider, though, kind of viz. Galloway’s Protocol, what systems, standards, languages, technical idioms lie beneath, not so as to fetishize the instrument (or say that the instrument is privileged over social practice), but to peel back the layers of the onion in a political move, to show the social character of instrumentalities.

  • Political science would frame these groups as constituencies. Bloomberg and the NY Times does not have a public, nor a constituency as more traditionally defined. Bloomberg more a market, the NY Times a readership. A constituency is a public, a group, with empowerment.

    But what is perhaps new is how these groups find affinity, voice and can take action, which requires treatment closer to a constituency. And how easy group forming allows constituencies to form that previously could not.

  • bleh

    you god damn humanities people. you’re all the same.

    you always substitute appeals to authority for logic or facts. you always make ridiculous, unfounded assumptions that are based on your communist-sympathizing opinions. “post-9/11 opinion” that if you hide something you’re a terrorist? says who?

    what the fuck are you talking about?

  • Mmn. Reading over your essay on the way to work, I really, really enjoyed the phrase “super-publics” – even before your detailed explanation.

    Reminds me of a conversation I was having at a party at the weekend – talking about people on public transport having music so loud you could hear it from their headphones, and I pointed out the really popular thing on London buses – especially near where I live (around Brixton/the south): kids play music on their music-phones/phone-radios, but instead of playing it through headphones, they crank it up as loud as possible.

    So you’ve got kids on the back row of the bus playing The Game really loud out of a tinny walkman phone. It’s the new boom-box.

    But this isn’t entirely about public display. They’re demonstrating their taste in music to their mates who they’re sitting with. To a lesser extent, they’re demonstrating it to the outside world (and also establishing a boundary) – but they don’t think they’re being invasive. Display is different to invasion; a peacock flashes its feathers, but it doesn’t think it’s disrupting my view. It’s the same with the kids blaring hip-hop out of their phones.

    So when one of the people I was talking with said “it’s all about respect”, and suggested that kids these days didn’t respect people around them, and that this was due to the death of community… I countered; it’s all about people around them: they’re living a hyper-public life. Everything is about outwards traffic, display – they just care less about your response to that display. The “community-based” society of forty years ago has faded away, to become reaplced by a society of individuals agressively representing their individuality. At the same time, in those communities, people kept their lives very private; now, they’re living every second in pubilc – at the global level, through myspace; at the local level, through playing music loud. They’re living this kind-of hyper-public life; they’re living in super-publics.

    So yeah; having this conversation reminded me of a lot of what we discussed late on that Thursday night at Etech (I was the bearded redhead), and a lot of what you’d been writing. Then you wrote that essay and explained super-publics, and a few more things fell into place.

    (Thanks for an awesome night, great chat with great people – Thursday was one of my favourite days at the conference).

  • Have you considered the relationship between publics, cultures, markets and societies? It seems to me that publics are groups of people who are connected by information flows, and each of the others are sets of people who use the information carried by those flows to arrive at various kinds of consensus. For example, markets are groups who arrive at a consensus on the value of some particular good or service.

  • In a word, “publicy” – the reversal of privacy under UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) conditions.

    According to the discourse of the Toronto School of Communication (Havelock, Innis, McLuhan), the notion of the public, and concommitantly individual privacy, were created as artefacts of the availability of mass literacy post-Gutenberg. Now, as this age has been obsolesced (i.e., rendered non-dominant in terms of shaping society) by multi-way, instantaneous electic communication, privacy reverses into publicy. Your notion of super-public captures this effect in a way that transcends the specificity and fragmentation of “constituency” (suggested by a prior commenter).

    It’s more than texts (and, besides, I tend to find the way the Phrench Postmodern Philosophers use “text” distracting to what’s really going on), and more than information: the effects deal with relationships that transcend traditional conveyences, in my estimation (sort of a quantum physics, influence-at-a-distance analogy happening here, I think).

  • Brian Hsi

    timely post on “super publics,” thanks. you may want to check out this ongoing discussion in Seattle following a tragic series of shootings over the weekend.

    http://www.nwtekno.org/vb/showthread.php?s=f54893b0d0fa65ba449ca6babd651db6&threadid=98954

    what is generally a space for just those interested, has been recently “discovered” by all types of folks looking for more information about the shootings. not only is the press there actively seeking more information, friends, acquaintences, mourners and all are mixed in there together with a disctict awareness that others are there too.

    i must say though, i am a bit reluctant to post this as many are still left in shock, and are mourning the loss of friends and loved ones; in many ways, i believe that people should be given the space to still grieve. at the same time, to me this is a prime example of which you speak, and if we can all learn from this and move forward (and i think the press has been better about the reporting since reading all of the posts), all the better for us as a community.

  • Susan Wilhite

    And then there are the people, even teens, who are discovering the joys of being off-grid. A teen said in my research recently that he dropped his IM account and is considering dropping to one email account. If you don’t reach and aren’t easily reachable, are you less public? How does that change your public/private memberships? After all, some use several IM accounts because they have friends who won’t change to be together – technical preferences still can rule over allegiances to communities. Ipso facto, people accomodate the contact preferences of friends, even if those preferences lean luddite.

  • stefanos

    stubled into the work of several artists;

    Julika Rakemas (very brillant filming of millionairs from denmark with the video person unobstrusively documenting the millionaire’s phone conversation, getting the person to be very candid about their opinion about the poor without realizing they are being videoed) , Jill Magid, and Tina Laporta: Julia Scher and Jenny Marketou seem to fit into this group as well.

    they all deal with the idea of truth, and distorted truths on the internet, and touch upon the concept of “super publics” and the self.

    Just finished with Tina’s current dilema of how her friend evicted her from his apartment, and a law suite that is evolving around her art work, and how it is to be stored. In the past, Tina had her art work displayed over at the Whitney, and it was one of the first exhibits dedicated to the concept of surveillance: she had installed surveillance web cams in several different homes, and made it seem that all the webcams where of the same home.

    Then one day, on one of the webcams, someone attempted a suicide attempt for the museum public to see. This quickly exposed the exhibit, and created some publicity in the nyc papers (sometime around 1999).

    It sort of seems like a flashback to Ben Morea’s work:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Against_the_Wall_Motherfuckers

    It is intersting that Ben supported Valerie and the theatrics around the attempted murder of Andy Warhol as a form of art, and perhaps an intersection of what a “super public” means. Are we more interested in the 15 minutes of fame, or the continous lack of privacy we find when we are in danger? such as the permenate loss of privacy when one pulls an amber alert?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Shot_Andy_Warhol

    Dan Georgakas is still around, editing Cineast magazine, and had a great article on “La Dolce Vita” and also met with Aldo Tambellini to discuss the idea of expanded cinema, and where the audience lives in a surveillanced world. The idea of situationalism is also present in clayton pattersons work on sousveillance of the NYC police from 1982 till 2001. It seems that the situationalism of the Tompkin square riots deconstructed the police corruption around drug trafficing, and was also reviewed by federal agencies, looking at images establishing links to organized crime. so what was very unpublic, suddenly became a public forum for increasing security and making public corruption.

    so the idea of a super public, also intersects with an willing, or unwilling informant culture

  • I think the majority of teens who post about themselves online don’t even consider the fact that it can be seen by anyone, because they are mainly posting for their friends or family, a finding that came from the Perseus “Iceberg” study of blogging.

    My own paper “Imagining the Blogosphere” extends Benedict Anderson’s notion of the “imagined community” to the blogosphere and tries to explain how diary bloggers can be considered linked into the wider community. It’s not that these teens are bloggers because they are writing for the faceless public or superpublic, but just because they imagine themselves to be one of millions of young people like themselves using the same medium, writing the same kind of experiences, with the same kind of small personal audiences (or none at all).

    Like the consumption of modern print media on which Anderson argues the imagined community of the nation is built, the imagined community of the blogosphere is built on the amateurized and widespread production of digital print media.

  • I think it wasn’t necessary to invent a new word cause we always used definitions when wanted to address any targeted audience (public).

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