Personal, Not Private

What do we know, but that we face
One another in this place?

W. B. Yeats, “The Man and the Echo”

I spend a lot of time talking to academics about social media. I field many frequently asked questions and try to speak to many frequently voiced objections. Sometimes the effort is exhausting or even exasperating, particularly when the questions are really objections in disguise. Answers aren’t much use in that case. Other times, however, useful distinctions may emerge–useful to me, at least, and perhaps to others as well.

One of the typical questions has to do with how “personal” social media are, and how troubling that can be for academics. First, I have to unpack “social media” a bit, and begin to distinguish between blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the rest. These are all “social media,” yes, but they are very different in practice, with different challenges and opportunities. After these distinctions, though, I’m still faced with the core question: what’s valuable about the personal element in these media? Why should I care? And why should I make myself vulnerable by sharing my personal life with the world?

There are many implications and assumptions hidden in the questions. Those who want to cleanse discourse of the personal seem to assume that “personal” means “irrelevant to anyone else,” or “ephemeral,” or “trivial.” The classic example is “what I had for breakfast.” (I’m on the wrong networks, obviously, as I myself don’t see breakfast tweets or blog posts or Facebook status updates.) Yet there’s also a thread of fear in these dismissals and objections, a fear or even a defiance that I acknowledge and take seriously. In this sense, “personal” also means “none of your business,” and “too dangerous to share.”

So I’ve begun to distinguish “personal” from “private.” The idea is that “private” means “don’t share on social media.” “Private” belongs to you, and you should always be vigilant about protecting your privacy. Without privacy, our agency is diminished, perhaps eliminated. Without privacy, we cannot generate or sustain the most intimate bonds of trust. Without privacy, our personhood is at risk.

But what of the personal, as opposed to the private? I believe the words are not synonyms. Instead, I believe private is a subset of personal.

I think those aspects of the person that are not private not only can be shared but ought to be shared. This is what we mean when we tell writers they should find their own voices. This is what we mean when we say we seek to “know as we are known,” as Parker Palmer insists. This is what we mean when we talk about “integration of self,” when we speak of our concern for “the whole person.” It is only when we bring the personal (not the private) to our discourse that we understand the rich complexity of individual being out of which civilization is built–or out of which it ought to be built. The personal keeps our organizations from becoming mere machines. The personal preserves dignity and community. The personal brings life to even the most mundane and repetitive operational tasks. We neglect or conceal the personal (not the private) at our peril.

I tell my students that I have only two rules for us in our work together: “passion encouraged; civility required.” The passion is always personal, as is the civility. The forbearance we show each other within our civility is a personal respect for the other, which also means a respect for the complexities of their privacy, complexities hinted at, though not made visible, primarily through the extent to which we share our personhood.

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for “person” offers many fascinating definitions, but the salient one for what I’m exploring here is definition 3a:

The self, being, or individual personality of a man or woman, esp. as distinct from his or her occupation, works, etc.


The personal is who we are “as distinct from [our] occupation, works, etc.” Our occupation and works are the result of effort, luck, ability, connections, a whole host of purposeful and chance occurrences. But we are not defined by our works and occupation. We are defined by something larger and more elusive, and more dynamic too. Sharing that larger, more elusive, and more dynamic aspect of selfhood is valuable, reminding ourselves and those around us that all of us are more than we appear to be in any particular transaction or encounter. Such reminders encourage humility. They also encourage a kind of exhilarating anticipation, as one never knows which humble or exalted personage may be one’s unmet friend, an angel to entertain unawares.

Sharing the personal, as distinguished from oversharing the private, means engaging with personhood in all its messy and glorious complexity, and all its potential, too. If, as Jon Udell reminds us, “context is a service we provide for each other,” the context is not merely informational, nor is it about matters that should remain private.

It is personal.

Cycle Rider

Photo by “Seb” (el_seppo).

13 thoughts on “Personal, Not Private

  1. Indeed and to this I’d add a couple of things: 1) Digital Natives (i.e., Millennials) who have grown up with the Internet simply do not define either private or personal the way those in older generational cohorts define those notions; and 2) I think it’s important to distinguish between “privacy” and “secrecy.” I zoom in on both of these points in my forthcoming book about church social media, The Social Media Gospel: Sharing the Good News in New Ways (Liturgical Press).

  2. Very helpful framing of the issue–thank you! I get this objection from mature grad students as well as faculty. This will help me respond.

  3. I see crisis abounding in my young students who only know from their formal education (school) that knowledge is objective, impersonal, and cut off from the self. And this is because we have an education system that continues to operate on the faulty model that we are pouring knowledge into empty buckets and then measuring how much of the knowledge has stayed in the bucket. No wonder the poor kids plunge into depression when they are suddenly “graduated” and told they have to go DO something and asked “What do YOU want to do?” What they really want to ask is : who is “me”? I still believe so much of my job is to help students bridge the divide, to see that meaning is made in a person, to help them reconnect with themselves as learners. Thank you for championing “the personal” and not talking about it as something that is “not rigorous”!

  4. Gardner, you have the gift of being able to herd my thoughts that I had never put into words, into an organized and brilliant passage. The personal vs oversharing the private, is the part that jumped off the page for me. Many people in sales have to reveal what some would consider over sharing private. They are selling who they are in order to sell the product or service they offer. First they maintained two social media personalities to protect their private life. Then their clients would see this as a wall and not trust them. What are your thoughts on the remedy for this?

    @Meredith – I want a copy of your book when you are ready. I come from church youth leading in the past and am anxious to learn more from you.

  5. How interesting…I read George Couros’ current blog this morning and he shared his ideas about this very topic! It’s very timely and one that we should recirculate over and over again in our conversations with others as we address how we make our learning and thinking visible.
    @ Meredith, danah boyd has given presentations regarding the idea of privacy and young people. I recall listening to one that she presented at Harvard where she shared research findings that would disagree with the idea that young people are not overly concerned with privacy. (As far as Digital Natives are concerned…grrrr….that generalization could cause a rather heated debate for many, including one of my professors!)

  6. @ Laurie, at the risk of appearing argumentative (a statement which almost guarantees that I will come across that way!) please note that I did not say young people are unconcerned with privacy. My point is that younger people have different notions of what constitutes the private or the personal.

    Also, as a former academic sociologist, now working “in the trenches” I tend to take a dim view of academic-based research relative to social media, for a variety of reasons I don’t want to suck up space writing about here, but generally have to do with the new and quickly-changing nature of social media platforms and the cumbersome nature of academic research processes. For valid, reliable research I tend to rely on the stuff coming from the Pew Internet Project.

  7. Pingback: bookmarks for February 23rd, 2013 through February 24th, 2013 | Morgan's Log

  8. Dear Gardner: I’m definitely adding “Private is a subset of personal” to my own social media presentations for faculty and student groups. But this is much more than a bullet list of “Social Media Best Practices” — in true Dr. C style, you’ve launched a conversation about what it means to be human in the digital age, and in any other age for that matter. Thank you.
    @Meredith, thanks for the heads-up about your book, which looks like a good resources for a new communications initiative underway in my church.

  9. But, what if in the course of life, something that seemed personal at 20, and blogged about freely, is something you would prefer to have in the private column of life at 25, 30, 40? I’m quite sure, many of us greying adults are very happy there are no digital footprints of our personal thoughts easily found on Google from our days in college.

  10. Pingback: Personal, not Private, Ted Nelson edition | Gardner Writes

  11. Pingback: DigPed Workshop-Got Blog? Getting Started with Wordpress - Digital Pedagogy@Austin College

  12. Pingback: Got Blog? Getting Started With WordPress | Morris Pelzel

  13. Pingback: Open audiences #thoughtvectors #vcuagora | Jellyfish State

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *