Public vs Private Spaces

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I’m interested in the difference between public and private spaces (/groups) (/communities).

  • Example: Facebook vs Snapchat. Originally, your “friends” were your actual friends, so posts you wrote were (at least somewhat) private to your group. Now—if you’re even still using Facebook—your “friends” are everyone you’ve ever met (and possibly then some). The space has gone full public.01 And so, people who care about talking among their group (i.e., young people) moved to Snapchat. There, the promise of privacy is part of the pitch.

  • Example: Class vs Study Groups. In class, asking questions comes with all kinds of social baggage: will my question be perceived as too dumb or too smart, am I wasting everyone’s time and prolonging the class, what will the professor think of me, etc. In a study group, the privateness allows for candid confusion.

Different Takes

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For me, there’s a significant shift in how I communicate when a space is private vs public. There’s so much more I’m willing to share in a private space.

I don’t think this is true for everyone, though. Some people—and you probably know some if you aren’t one—happily publicly broadcast their feelings, personal details, and life events.

Maybe the public/private distinction isn’t important to them. Or, perhaps they define private more rigidly: their close friends, family, or their partner. In this case, they’d think of anything they post anywhere as basically public.

This can lead to difficulties when people with different takes on public/private attempt to form a new (private) community. People who are more comfortable with sharing will be quicker to invite others to the community. People who aren’t comfortable with that won’t say anything—because it’s rude to exclude—but, for them, the space will transition from private to public. For them, this is a tragedy: it’s the loss of a community! It’s become another public forum.

Spectators as Involvement

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I think there’s another ingredient, though. Because even if I consider my private spaces public—or even if there is a truly private space—the flavor of sharing is affected by the behavior of those inside.

I think the key is involvement. Are those in the community participating, or are they just watching? In other words, spectators: people who are present in a group but don’t participate.

More spectators makes a place more public.

To continue the study group example above: This is why, when running ML Bootcamp—a study group at school—part of the manifesto I wrote was: if you didn’t do the work, don’t feel bad, but don’t come. That way, everyone who shows up can participate.

Group size inevitably plays a factor. If a “study group” starts to involve a dozen or more people, it’s also more likely some will come without participating. But a larger group size also affects the chemistry on its own, even if everyone participates.

Group Culture

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Number of spectators and overall group size are both factors in how public a space feels.

Why does it matter if a space feels public or private?

Personally, I’m sensitive to group size. Have been since a kid. I feel a big difference when a group is two people vs even just three. A key factor for me is performance: with more people, there’s an element of playing a personality, assuming a role. With this comes the group evaluation’s of everyone’s roles. In larger groups—though it’s possible even with just three—allegiances form and group preferences emerge.

This is another area where I think people vary significantly. I notice this because of the variation in how caviller different people are about expanding group size, even for personal gatherings—e.g., “oh by the way, X and Y are coming.”


  1. You can lock down to whom what you post is visible in Facebook, but it’s too late, because it all feels publicly visible. ↩︎