A minor tiff reveals a vital point: or the internet does it strange work again

I’m so far from actually being invited to the Friends of O’Reilly camp that occurred over the weekend that the discussion it engenders seems to be miles removed, but out of it comes a very perceptive comment from Danny O’Brien about the different registers in which online discussion takes place.


The problem here is one (ironically) of register. In the real world, we have conversations in public, in private, and in secret. All three are quite separate. The public is what we say to a crowd; the private is what we chatter amongst ourselves, when free from the demands of the crowd; and the secret is what we keep from everyone but our confidant. Secrecy implies intrigue, implies you have something to hide. Being private doesn’t. You can have a private gathering, but it isn’t necessarily a secret. All these conversations have different implications, different tones.
Most people have, in the back of their mind, the belief that what they say to their friends, they would be happy to say in public, in the same words. It isn’t true, and if you don’t believe me, tape-record yourself talking to your friends one day, and then upload it to your website for the world to hear.
This is the trap that makes fly-on-the-wall documentaries and reality TV so entertaining. It’s why politicians are so weirdly mannered, and why everyone gets a bit freaked out when the videocamera looms at the wedding. It’s what makes a particular kind of gossip - the “I can’t believe he said that!” - so virulent. No matter how constant a person you are, no matter how unwavering your beliefs, something you say in the private register will sound horrific, dismissive, egotistical or trite when blazoned on the front page of the Daily Mirror. This is the context that we are quoted out of.

This makes a ton of sense. Erving Goffman makes the very same points when he distinguishes between front and back stage behavior in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. What we do and say in public is very different from what occurs in private or in secret.

O’Brien goes on to tell us what we really need to be worried about are those secret gatherings that are completely outside of the public arena. A few people getting upset about a gathering to which they were not invited means that the cat is already out of the bag.


And we’ll realise that the real conspiracies, aren’t the ones that appear on publically readable Websites, with full names of attendees, detailed documentation of discussions, and endless braindumps of semi-private, clumsy, gushing conversations that nonetheless deserve a wider audience. That people who come across as eager to do good, willing to feed a couple of hundred people on the offchance that some benefit may accrue, who like hearing their friends sing in an off-key, don’t mind others knowing that, and who are lucky enough to have smart friends and generous enough to share them, aren’t the threat.
It’s the real secrets; the real hide-aways; the people who are always either in public mode or in an ultra-ultra-secret combination we can barely guess at who are the dangerous ones. And they’re a lot harder to spot from fifty yards, and a damn sight more immune to gentle satire.

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