19 July 2005

more: public and private on the web

i haven't been checking my comments particularly religiously, but i wanted to point to one from the thread following "snark attack," below. lauren posted the following:

"Sorry, I just have to make a quick comment. The internet is not a private place...If 1000 anonymous readers complimented your friend on an excellently written entry that they agreed with completely, there would be no problems, and no hostility towards the anonymous commenter, and no seperation of 'public' and 'private' web space. However because the commenter was abrasive and contrary, somehow the blog entry becomes 'personal' and 'private', between friends. I think other commenters have the right to criticize the sentiments expressed in the Lone Ranger's comments, but not the right to criticize their presence. The web is the most public forum one can use to express thoughts and opinions, so no one can claim the right to privacy when they choose to do so. If one chooses to express oneself privately, that is what passwords are for."

lauren has a couple of really valid points here, but i disagree with the rights language she's using, and with her characterization of my thoughts on "public" and "private." of course lone ranger has a perfect "right" to post contrary and abrasive comments on any old website he wants! and of course it is easier to accept anonymous comments (though, i might add, not really less weird in my experience) when they are positive! this has got to be acknowledged. i acknowledge it. lauren is of course correct that, in a legal sense, my comments haven't a leg to stand on. but they weren't meant to be construed legalistically.

the fact that one is afforded a right does not always make the exercise of that right appropriate. (social conservatives, i refer you to the legally recognized rights to contraception and abortion. lefties, i refer you to the right to use one's influence in every legally available way to gain profits from a corporation or other entity.) moreover, the fact that a certain forum falls nominally under a certain classification (e.g., is on the internet and is therefore public) does not mean that there are insufficient clues to make out lots of shades of grey between dichotomous (or otherwise ostensibly bright-line) classifications like public/private.

lauren offers an alternate causal story: in her comment, the hostile interchange leads to privatization of the forum. but i think the more-private nature of certain blogs just *is* -- and i think that, rights of the citizens of the internet be damned, in a normative sense people should respect that. i acknowledge that vexing comments, not friendly ones, are most likely to cause us to notice intrusions and wish for uniformly applied social conventions, but it remains clear to me that certain blogs exist with no intention of "going public." the fact that reed does not wish to be atrios (or at least, has not taken steps in that direction!) is clear from the content of his site, and regardless of the lone ranger's perfect right to disrespect reed's wishes -- well, disrespect is what it is.

in this little debate, "rights" to "public" speech are, maybe like patriotism, the last refuge of a scoundrel.