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Private and Public on Social Network Sites

Differences and Similarities between Germany and China in a Globalized World

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Jingwei Wu

This book explores the boundary between «the private» and «the public» on Social Network Sites based on the sociability framework. The author analyses the roles of social norms and influences, benefits, and risks/costs, on the behaviors of SNSs users through models based on Social Exchange Theory, Social Penetration Theory and Communication Privacy Management Theory. She reviews different notions of «the private» and «the public» and selects the sociability framework to investigate the distinction between private and public. The author uses this theoretical framework to conduct online surveys and interviews with selected SNSs users in Germany and China and concludes that the clear boundary of «the private» and «the public» on SNSs is a result of acts of disclosure and/or withdrawal of personal information and political opinions. Globalization and mediatization contribute to similarities among different countries but do not erase the differences in their respective boundaries.

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II. Conceptual Framework for Studying the Boundary Between “the Private” and “the Public”

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How can “the private” and “the public” be defined? This abstract question has been repeatedly discussed throughout Western history in numerous disciplines such as Philosophy, Sociology, and Law and Media studies; but the answers are various and multiple. For the sake of this dissertation, I shall examine several common ways of defining “the private” and “the public” and set up five different frameworks in which these polarities can be more or less distinguished, with respect to the Western society. Preceding my discussion, notions of “the private” and “the public” in different time periods will be delineated in order to register the changes of the divisive boundary as facilitated by the increasing influence of new communications technology. Following, relationships between new communications technology and multiple definitions of “the private” and “the public” will be drawn, which I will use to formulate five frameworks to attempt to negotiate a distinction between both realms. Next, I will apply the sociability framework in a comprehensive investigation of what it means to be “private” and “public”, and use the findings to conclude that the distinction between “the private” and “the public” is informed by socially appropriate behavior within situational context. In accordance with this framework, the boundary between “the private” and “the public” on SNSs is decided based on the target communication partner.

2.1 A Historical Overview of the Definitions of “the Private” and “the Public”

The essentials of private and public lives vary in different time periods. The...

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