Author(s): Sarah Michele Ford
Title: Public and Private on LiveJournal: An Investigation of Bloggers' Opinions and Practices


*** Background

The distinction between the public sphere and the private sphere is fundamental to liberal societies. Defenses, critiques, and reformulations of this dichotomy run from the disciplinary foundations of sociology through authors such as Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Seyla Benhabib, and many others. Public and private are not, of course, fixed categories, and recently the gulf that had historically existed between the public sphere of the workplace and politics and the private sphere of domestic life seems to have narrowed, if not disappeared completely. Much of this breakdown is related to new trends in technology and media, marked by the prevalence (if not ubiquity) of mobile phones, telecommuting, reality television, and certain aspects of Internet use. Information and communications technologies in particular seem to be critical to this process, as noted by Salaff, Rule, Hull, Sheller and Urry, Ford, and Wellman.

Public, Private, and the ‘Blog

The blogosphere is one segment of the Internet in which the collapse of the distinction between the public and the private is very apparent. ‘Blogs, especially ones that take on the character of personal “journals” (as opposed to news logs, opinion columns, etc.), make it possible, even common, for elements of the blogger’s life that at one time would have been kept in the “private” world to be launched into the “public” space of the Internet, visible to Internet users the world over. The media attention that ‘blogs have received over the past year and a half only serves to increase the publicity of the world in which these journals are kept. As such, ‘blogs and ‘bloggers have much to tell us both about the collapse of the public/private dichotomy and about the effect of Internet use on everyday life. LiveJournal, a popular ‘blog hosting service, provides its users with more privacy controls than do other services. With its “friends lock” feature, LJ enables its users to control who can view their posts. These privacy settings range from public (available for the whole world to see) to private (viewable only to the LiveJournal user who posted it). Thus, LiveJournal has blurred the distinction between public and private on the Internet.

The Project

In this project, I examine the ways in which LiveJournal users think about the distinction between the public and the private. I plan to generate a snowball sample of LiveJournal users, starting with a number of randomly selected journals and expanding outward using LiveJournal’s “Friends List” feature. I will read the selected journals, and ultimately interview the ‘bloggers about issues of public and private in their Internet use generally and on LiveJournal specifically. The bulk of this investigation will center on the ways in which LiveJournal users think about and utilize the system’s “friends lock” feature, as this is the unique contribution that LiveJournal makes to the realm of public and private online.

The Larger Context

The project described above is part of a larger undertaking in which I will examine the ways in which information and communications technologies (especially the Internet) are implicated in and perhaps contributing to the collapse of the distinction between public and private. In addition to the study of public and private (and friends lock) on LiveJournal, I will carry out a similar study of bloggers using systems that do not include any such privacy settings (such as Blogger, Movable Type, etc.). I will then be able to compare these two groups of ‘bloggers in order to understand the way that the breakdown of public and private is taking place in the realm of online journaling, and to better understand the breakdown itself. Finally, I will examine the ‘blogs of a number of celebrities (musician Moby, comedienne Margaret Cho, and many others keep ‘blogs of one sort or another) in order to begin to understand how the collapse of public and private plays out in the lives of those individuals who live in the spotlight.

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