In this second post about distinguishing public from private sources for the purpose of citing them properly, I look at less clear-cut examples from social media.
Grey Areas of Public/Private Communication
This isn’t easy to call; the words “social media” don’t even appear in the American Psychological Association’s style manual (APA). Chicago mentions it 8 times, but only how to cite it, not how to determine whether it’s private or public.
More than a quaint virtual water cooler, social media is a source of noteworthy content. Original content is shared in posts, comments, and statuses. Work is negotiated and accomplished via social media. Even if they’re not writing about the blurtings of a public figure, there are times when writers want to refer to such content in their work. Whether that material was public or private affects the citation format, so editors need to be able to distinguish them.
Social media blurs the public and private realms of communication. In some sense, all social media content is “published.” (Whether published or not used to be a clear indicator of whether or not something was private.) Rather than being a letter addressed to one, a social media conversation is more akin to talking to a buddy in a bar. Anyone in that bar might hear, but the whole world might not. Is the communication still private?
Remember that I am only speaking about the public/private split for the purposes of properly citing a source.
What if the message is shared in a large online group that is closed, secret, subscription-based or unpublished? Consider the Copyediting Listerv* (CE-L) or the members-only Facebook group run by your professional association. That should probably be considered private too. Anything that not just anyone could access without signing up would be considered private. If someone needs permission to access the message/post through their own user profile, the message or post or comment was private. I assert this not just for the moral point of privacy, but also for the practical issue that others won’t be able to access that original source.
Yet, once subscribed to an email discussion group, for example, someone would be able to search the archives and access an original source. That may be more like the case of finding private correspondence in public archives. Correspondence in archives is still cited as “private” even though it is now publicly accessible.
What Else the Public/Private Designation Conveys
The “private” designation not only speaks to the accessibility of the source but to the care and context related to the quoted material. Readers might reasonably assume that the private communication was not produced with the same academic, fact-checking, or grammatical rigor of a publicly published work.
Email discussion groups and Listervs may not be considered social media because they don’t take place on a proprietary platform, but in any email program. For the purpose of this discussion, we include them. How do you determine whether a source was private or not? Log in to leave a comment, or join the discussion over on Facebook or Twitter.