How public is 'public'?

Or, perhaps, which public?

public, adj. & n. Of or relating to the people as a whole; that belongs to, affects, or concerns the community or the nation.

(OED, 2024-02-13)

A couple of conversations in the fediverse recently have made me think about the term “public”, and what is meant by it.

(I’m mostly jotting down some thoughts; you are welcome to have thoughts of your own, which differ to mine!)

The first conversation was about posting, without access control, identifiable photos of other people who were at a conference.

The second conversation was about a (proposed?) service, which would bridge “public” fediverse posts with another social network.

The conference

If I go to a conference, or walk down the street, or sit on a train, I do not expect someone to take my photo and post it online.

I am not fair game.

I might be in a space open to the public, but I am going about my private business. I am not a “public” figure, but a private person.

Yes, I am “in public”, and, clearly, I do not object to people sharing that space and time with me being able to see me. I am not invisible.

But I am “in public” in the sense of being visible to the people who are there, then.

Those people for “the public”.

I can risk assess that.

I can decide that what I am wearing is appropriate, or safe, for where I am, and with whom I am.

I can decide how to behave based on where I am, and with whom I am.

I can choose to leave if I do not like who else is in the room.

Interpreting “in public” so broadly that it means anyone, anywhere in the world, at any future point or in near real-time, can now me… that feels like an overstretch. A different “public”.

The bridge

Here, “public” is, I think, really a proxy for “without post-specific access control”. Depending on the configuration of the server, there might be restrictions (in terms of blocked servers, for example).

But when I post using a “public” setting, who forms the “public”?

When I post “public”, I expect it to be visible to - if not actually by - any other users of the fediverse, except those I have blocked (and even they may be able to see it with relative ease, bypassing my basic access control attempts).

More than just people who follow me, anyway.

Those people form, for sure in my view, “the public”.

But are they the totality of “the public”?

Do I expect it to cross a bridge, to be visible to people on a different social network? I’m unconvinced. Unsure.

It feels wrong to me, without it being my active choice, and I think that’s because it feels like, in doing this, my post is exposed to a different public. It is available in a different context, and that should require my consent.

But then I also wonder just how different another social network is, with transit via a bridge, to, say, a mega instance within the fediverse.

And is it really a different “public”?

After all, I choose (or chose; this might change) to accept new followers automatically, rather than vetting them.

If someone only sees my posts, whatever system they are using, because they are following me, then perhaps they form part of my “public”, just as any other fedi user.

My posts auto-delete, in most cases. But I can’t (technically; legally it might be another matter, but that’s not at the forefront of my mind here) stop someone archiving them and republishing them.

And, sure, anyone can (again, technically, if not (necessarily) legally) screenshot a post and post it somewhere else. Anywhere else.

Is the onus on the individual, to apply technical measures, to prevent “the public” being anyway, anywhere, now or in the future, rather than just other fedi users, for the duration of my post’s tenure there?