First Monday

Public and proud: How and why some citizens use their Facebook network as a personal public by Sander Andreas Schwartz

This paper is a qualitative study that examines how and why some citizens use their Facebook network as a personal public. The concept of the personal public in this study is defined by a relative sense of privacy in the closed individual Facebook network, together with a sense of publicness based on the mass and diversity of these connections. The paper goes on to argue that the individual may go through a reflection process as they move from personal thinking to public political communication. The process does not guarantee increased reflection, but it serves to show potential individual gains from public political communication that have so far been understudied in research on political debates on Facebook.


1. Introduction
2. A theoretical basis for the personal public
3. Method
4. Analysis of the personal public
5. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing, and you’ll never be criticized.
     — Elbert Hubbard (1856–1915) [1]

This quote attributed to the American writer, Elbert Hubbard, neatly presents the promise and the risk of public communication in any form and in particular, communication that contains political issues that often result in heated debate, social conflict, and personal criticism. The question and paradox presented in this quote ask an existential question: What is ultimately the biggest threat when deciding to engage in public speech, public scrutiny, or private obscurity? The duality in this paradox is based on the individual need, on the one hand, for any person to position himself or herself socially through the act of sharing thoughts and opinions, while on the same time protecting his or her privacy and limiting the threat of personal criticism and social discomfort based on conflicting opinions in his or her social network.

This paper presents how and why some citizens use their own social network on Facebook to express political opinions. The paper argues that these people are creating a personal public through political communication in the semi-public environment that Facebook affords in the shape of status messages that can be liked, shared, and commented on. Though the study is looking particularly at a specific part of the Facebook platform, this can also teach us something more general about what it means to communicate in public as a private person by sharing political opinions. The paper argues that sharing opinions in public can be a healthy democratic process for the individual as the person tests argumentation and opinions in a social setting. There are many issues related to the process of public opinion exchange and plenty of studies that argue why a majority of people often avoids political debate (I present some of these in section 2.3). However, the primary contribution of this study is more interested in understanding how and why some citizens defy the risk and choose to experiment with public political expression on Facebook. This contributes to contemporary research on social networking sites and how users manage and experiment with the diverse audiences on Facebook but from the perspective of public political communication.



2. A theoretical basis for the personal public

2.1. The public space of appearance

According to the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, the public is defined as a space of appearance, where citizens can make their appearance explicit in front of other citizens (Arendt, 1998). A person who engages in the public space of appearance is speaking deliberatively in or to a public rather than simply being in public. According to Arendt, any citizen can potentially create a public anywhere and at any time by engaging in public speech in front of an audience. Building on Arendt’s theory, Silverstone argues that the public is inherently also a space of judgment (Silverstone, 2007), because anything that is shared in the public space of appearance can be subject to public scrutiny or critical debate. From a personal perspective, this means that when we engage explicitly in public communication in front of an audience, we also risk criticism and judgment. A public debate should ideally focus on the argument, but the person who is stepping out into the public of appearance is also held personally accountable. This is mutually the premise as well as the virtue of public speech and the public space of appearance, according to Arendt.

In this sense, public appearance may be related to Goffman’s (1959) conception of front stage performance, and so, any criticism of our public appearance or opinion inevitably results in some sort of personal impression management. Hence, any political argument put forward in the public by an identifiable person is closely tied to the person in such a way that it is very difficult to make a meaningful distinction between argument and person. It means that criticizing an argument put forward by someone in the public will also be a direct or indirect criticism of that same person. At least that is usually how it will feel to the person being criticized. This is good on one hand because the speaker can be made accountable for his or her argument or communication, but it can be difficult if not outright frightening for many people to step out into the public and to be the object of public scrutiny and criticism.

Giddens’ concept of life politics is useful to include here because he explains the political engagement of the individual citizen as a personal project. In his definition, life politics concerns “political issues [that] flow from processes of self-actualization” [2]. Giddens argues that the citizen’s need for constructing a self is also a political project. According to him, the citizen engages in politics to the extent that it relates back to individual goals of self-actualization, and in order to understand political engagement we cannot make a meaningful distinction between politics and self-presentation.

There is some similarity with Giddens’ theory of life politics and Arendt’s concept of the public space of appearance. Inspired by democratic ideals from ancient Greece, Arendt saw the public as a space of personal freedom and a space of becoming a citizen, whereas the private space was a space of necessity only. The public was the space where humans became citizens through the virtue of their engagement in the public. A combination of life politics and the public space of appearance enables us to study how some citizens may use the public space on Facebook mutually for self-actualization and political communication at the same time. From this understanding, the public is mutually a place for becoming a person and becoming a citizen. It is a space for self-actualization and one to escape the private sphere of obscurity. In this way, the public is a social space to test and verify the personal narrative that we construct about who we are and what we believe in. When we feel that we successfully are able to defend our narratives in a public setting, we increase certainty in our argumentation and our opinions while we simultaneously build a stronger sense of self.

2.2. Publicly political

While many people experiment with some form of public communication through social media platforms, most of these people may be more careful about what they share and discuss on these platforms. The majority of people in Denmark and in most Western countries have an active account on Facebook (Newman, et al., 2015); however, most people do not like to share or discuss political opinions in larger political contexts such as Facebook (Duggan and Smith, 2016). According to a recent study, 32 percent say they discuss politics on Facebook often or sometimes, whereas 68 percent say they never or hardly ever do so. It is not surprising that the majority on Facebook avoid political issues in public, since it echoes earlier research on political debate in off-line settings. Based on ethnographic studies, Eliasoph (1998) examined various social settings in America. Based on her studies she argues that people generally prefer to discuss political issues in smaller groups and private settings if at all. Noelle-Neumann (1993) presents another aspect, which she named the spiral of silence theory. She argues that people often avoid voicing a political opinion in larger groups if they believe that it is not in line with the dominant view, because they fear social exclusion. Mutz (2006) confirms this hypothesis in an elaborate quantitative study, in which she finds that there is a paradox between bringing people together socially or creating a conflictual environment from being politically outspoken. A person who chooses to engage in political debate or public political expression therefore will also have to accept the difficult and potentially negative social outcome of this engagement. As many studies have proven so far, people generally prioritize social harmony over political conflict. Therefore, it is important to note that the participants in this study are engaging in behavior that majorities of people are trying to avoid. Nonetheless, I also believe that we can learn a lot from studying this engagement, and about what it means to be public and share political opinions in the public space of appearance. Even though we may feel that the people who are politically outspoken in our social networks can be awkward or inappropriate, there are also times when we need these people to share opinions that are not popular but perhaps are important points nonetheless.

2.3. Imagined audiences and the semi-public space on Facebook

In this section, I present a short overview of research on audience and social media, which this paper builds on, in order to understand and describe the personal public on Facebook. When we communicate in public, we are communicating to a wide audience. Before the Internet became accessible, most people would rarely have access to more than a small group of people, who were typically present in the same time and space as they were. This face-to-face communication was largely the basis for Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical concept of front stage and back stage performance. His theory is mainly concerned with social performance taking place in synchronous time and in front of an immediately accessible audience that responds instantly to your performance either by impressions given intentionally or expressions given off unintentionally in facial expression, intonation, etc. The audience in a face-to-face relation is limited and concrete. Communication through new media channels also changes our distinction between front stage and back stage performance, which in turn may challenge our former definition of social context or place (Meyrowitz, 1985). boyd and Ellison (2007) were some of the earliest scholars working to understand social interaction of what they defined as social network sites. Marwick and boyd (2014) developed the theory on the imagined audience and explained that people on social network sites were experiencing a collapse of contexts with reference to the work of Goffman and Meyrowitz. They describe how Twitter users imagine and communicate with their audience, by adopting a communication style that is mutually public and personal as they communicate simultaneously to unidentified people and familiar faces. Litt (2012) builds on the concept of the imagined audience on social network sites by explaining how the active audience shapes the imagined audience. The active audience makes their appearance explicit by engaging with a communication by using the interactive affordances of the social media platforms, such as liking or commenting upon a message. Finally, Hogan (2010) challenges Goffman’s performative concept. He argues that the asynchronous nature of social media platforms is more similar to a curated exhibition room than a theater performance in Goffman’s terms. Hogan explains that users can communicate to diverse audiences on social media without necessarily feeling a sense of context collapse and social discomfort. To do that, users can simply imagine the person in their network who might be most critical about the content they are about to share and then adapt the message accordingly.

In this paper, I present a set of models for understanding how and why citizens engage in public and political communication on Facebook. I present the notion of a personal public, which is a concepts that others have developed before me such as Schmidt’s (2013) definition of the personal public on Twitter. However, the personal public on Facebook is technologically different. In theory, the public in this study is only a semi-public by default because the people who may see your status messages on Facebook are limited to your network of friends unless you change your privacy settings. The personal public in this study then is defined by a relative sense of privacy in the closed individual Facebook network, together with a sense of publicness based on the mass and diversity of the network of connections. In reality, Facebook provides all levels of public and private audiences, but in this paper, I am mostly focused on the specific personal public that is shaped by the networked public created between friend profiles.



3. Method

This study relies on a combination multiple of qualitative methods including participant observation, focus groups, and long-term interviews, which is a common combination in qualitative research (Creswell, 2009). The qualitative methods are used to learn about the meaning that the participants hold about the issue at hand. The data and models presented in this study are adapted and revised versions of a chapter in the Ph.D. thesis “Personal politics” (Schwartz, 2016). The participants in this study were selected from a larger dataset of their public comments on eight Danish party leaders on Facebook competing for a seat in parliament during the Danish election campaign in 2011. The subjects were chosen based on people who commented at least twice on any of the Facebook pages. People without any professional ties to politics were contacted in order to have a small group of ordinary citizens who exhibited some interest in political debate. Fourteen participants agreed to participate in four small-scale focus groups. Ten out of the fourteen participants agreed to continue further in the study by connecting on Facebook and signing up for one in-depth individual interview. Of these ten people, six were men and four women. From the Facebook connection, I was able to study past and future status updates ranging from the last Danish election in 2011 and up to 2014 as well as daily activity for a year from 2014 to 2015. After observing their activity and tracing their history of political communication for about a year, I completed in-depth interviews with each of the 10 citizens. During these interviews, I allowed the participant to highlight and show memorable moments of political debate on Facebook and I presented them with cases that I found relevant. The personal accounts of the 10 participants in combination with other studies of the imagined audience on social media platforms are the basis of the models I propose in this paper as well as the concept of the personal public on Facebook.



4. Analysis of the personal public

The following analysis is divided into three sections: The first two sections discuss the personal and the public as separate entities and present the concept of the personal public on Facebook. In the last section, I present how the changing audiences may influence the process of moving from personal thinking to public communication. In simple terms, the personal in this paper is used to describe the intrinsic thoughts and opinions and the construction of a personal narrative of the self, whereas the public is based on communicating this personal narrative to an external audience with the purpose of testing opinions and positioning this self socially in the public space of appearance. The analysis is drawing on the theoretical background as presented above. It is partially inspired by Arendt’s view of personal and public space and partially a combination of the contemporary audience research related to social media studies. I combine these theories with personal accounts from my participants of the qualitative study in order to exemplify how the theory relates to their everyday experience of public political communication on social media.

4.1. The personal

This section is related to the personal life politics of the individual that flow from his or her desire for self-actualization. The participants in my study have quite different views on what political issues they are personally invested in and therefore likely to engage with. In this paper, I call these issues the political agenda of the individual. One of the participants in my study reflects on this during the interview:

It is funny, through this conversation I start to realize how one-sided I really am in the political debate. Politics is about many things. What I engage in, or what I think is interesting, is immigration politics, right ... about immigrants, and I actually do not participate in that much else, though it is just as relevant. (Jens, 38)

Every participant in my study seems to have a particular political agenda that guides what specific issues he or she is most likely to post about and engage with. This leaves out other political subjects that may be important, but which do not fit within the individual’s political agenda. Some of the participants who defined themselves most explicitly as a ‘political person’ were also more open to engage with a broader variety of traditionally political subjects. These people also identified themselves more strongly with a particular political party or a wing, which in turn defined many of their positions towards certain issues. But all participants had a political agenda that guided what issues he or she was most likely to engage in, or what triggered his or her engagement in public communication. An example of someone identifying as a political person is Michael, who compares his political engagement to a hobby such as football:

It is natural to me to be a citizen of society and to be political. It is part of who I am, and not something I turn on and off. It is something I can be more or less conscious about, but for me it is fundamentally a way of being. [...] I do not necessarily think of the things that you have selected as particularly political in relation to other things I post about. This is my interest like when people post about football. It is something you notice and something you are passionate about. It is a way of being. (Michael, 22)

For Michael the political agenda and his broader frame of life politics are virtually indistinguishable. The distinction between the political agenda and life politics is subjectively defined in this study, but few of the participants identified as generally as Michael with political issues of all sorts. Consequently, most people did not identify with politics as a core interest or a “way of being.” Michael seems to engage more in political issues for the sake of it alone, whereas most of the other participants engaged with a small and very particular set of political issues that fit their personal life political interest. What they all have in common, however, is the fact that their political engagement is tied closely to the way they want to appear on Facebook and the wider range of things that matter to them.

The political agenda consists of a subset of political opinions that are grouped together, either in a very narrow political agenda or a broader and more all-encompassing political identity or way of being. In any case, the political opinions are the issues that the person has already formed an opinion on and relates to. In short, the political opinions are the subgroup of political issues that citizens feel strongly about already, as Jens explains:

In many ways my knowledge is not at all on a level to debate in these fora [The page of JSN], because, I like to watch politics in TV and participate in some way or another. I was also at their election party during the regional election, but I am not sure I particularly belong in the debate, except for the fact that I have my own opinions. I think that I just participate in what I think matters to me. (Jens, 38)

Opinions are closely connected to values and identities in the sense that they describe who you are by what you believe in. Opinions are essentially conflictual because they are socially situated and exist in opposition to something or someone else (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985). Sharing an opinion in public entails choosing a side on any matter and positioning your self away from something or someone else. This is also why many people find public political communication uncomfortable in a personal network. Lisa does not often engage in political debate, but occasionally she feels the need to ‘mark her opinion’, when something really offends her:

I had to get it out and mark my opinion, because that guy really has some opinions that offend me. After having heard this and that and read something he said, then I had to share it with someone [...]. But I also think it is good that I sometimes show, well, who I am. Then again, I don’t think many people have any doubt about my political position. (Lisa, 43)

This example leads us further to another final step before participants decide to engage in public communication, which is the role of feelings and emotions. Feelings and emotions are natural elements in the individual decision making process to decide on whether and when to engage in public debate [3]. Feelings and emotions are neither good nor bad as a basis of political debate between citizens. For my participants, the feelings and emotions simply work as triggers for action. Without this spark, they would not risk engaging in the public space of appearance at all. You could say that the feelings and emotions bring a sense of urgency and purpose to public communication. Tim explains the emotions very vividly as volcanic lava of bubbling irritation. Following this metaphor, we can dramatically visualize opinions as the dormant volcanoes and the feelings and emotions as the lava that activates them and erupts.

It’s like a drop in the sea really ... Actually, you do this to get something out of the body, to get volcanic lava out based on your bubbling irritation. It then becomes a drop in the sea that just says *pssst* and then it disappears more or less [...]. A lot of it amounts to nothing in the end, I think, but you do get some satisfaction of the fact that at least you tried. (Tim, 44)

To conclude this section I argue that a political agenda is strongly attached to the overall project of self-actualization. The political agenda consists of a set of political issues that the individual has already formed an opinion on or simply relates strongly to. The personal opinions lie dormant and can be triggered by feelings and emotions whenever the individual is confronted with something that relates back to the overall political agenda of the individual. Depending on the identity project of the individual, the political agenda can be quite narrow or include a wide set of political issues. But for each individual, the agenda is tightly connected with the overall identity of the individual, that is, who the person wants to be viewed as, and what kind of story the person wants to tell others about him/herself.

In summary, this study argues that the participants describe a set of core elements that influence whether they engage in public political communication on Facebook. These elements are, the political agenda that defines the subset of pre-defined opinions and finally the feelings and emotions connected with opinions that initiate public communication. The participants in this study were not necessarily more or less political, but instead most participants had a defined political agenda of what kind of political issues that they related most strongly to. Opinions are always conflictual because they define a position towards an issue and against something or someone else. However, political opinions are generally considered to be some of the most controversial issues to share in larger groups or in public. This paper presents a framework for public communication that may have a much wider potential; however, it is important to acknowledge the particular reservation that my subjects and others may have in relation to communicating in public, specifically about political issues.

4.2. The public

Communication through Facebook has the potential to be liked, shared, and commented on. It is important to acknowledge how this influences the communicational relationship between sender and receiver, but it is also important to note that the appeal of the Facebook platform is not always related to this interactive potential. During my interviews, the participants explained that they write status updates just as much because they want to publicize an opinion to an audience. Though the purpose of the communication is not always to generate interaction, there is always a social aspect to public communication. It is social in the sense that public communication requires the sender to imagine an audience based on the knowledge and experience they have of their own existing network on Facebook [4]. The audience on Facebook can actively engage with the communication; however, even the passive audience plays an important role at least in the way it takes form as the imagined audience of the sender.

In the interviews, I asked how people perceived the audience in relation to political content and how the imagined audience was shaped through previous experience. Through my interviews, I have developed a framework to explain how the audience imagines and experiences the audience on Facebook. This definition builds on two concepts from former studies mainly, the imagined audience as explained by Marwick and boyd (2014) and the active audience as explained by Litt (2012). My contribution in this paper is first to divide the imagined audience into a primary and a secondary one. I then introduce the concept of a potential audience, which is defined by the semi-public and restrictive access to Facebook based on the technology and individual privacy settings. The secondary audience and the potential audience are key in the understanding of how the individual shapes the personal public. They define the public aspect of the communication in contrast to personal messages to individuals or small-scale group messaging. The primary and the active audience are important as cognitive tools that limit and shape the individuals that a sender may take into consideration in the process of public communication. An overview of audience perceptions that I draw on in this paper is presented in Table 1 below.


Table 1: Key audiences of the personal public.
A. The primary (imagined) audience: A few individuals or a concrete group that a person has in mind during public communication including lowest common denominator, worst critic etc.
B. The active audience: The immediate and previously experienced interactions with the interactive audience. These people actively shape the imagined audience and the primary in particular.
C. The secondary (imagined) audience: The blurry mass of people often extended from the primary audience as people who may find the communication relevant in the entire potential audience.
D. The potential audience: All the people that can access the post, defined by privacy settings and the Facebook algorithm. The potential audience is only partly known by the sender because of the various settings on both ends of sender and receiver and the hidden algorithm. The potential audience is usually restricted to the friends in the Facebook network and hereby only semi-public.


The relationship between primary and secondary audience is closely related. There is a cognitive limitation to how many people a person can imagine in relation to one message. That is why the user will usually imagine one or a few people for that particular message. However, in order for this message to feel public or to be addressed towards a public, the person will need to refer to a wider audience that may finds this relevant, and this blurry audience constitutes the secondary audience. The primary audience is made up of the people that the person has in mind when writing a message. The primary audience can also be defined negatively as the lowest common denominator (Hogan, 2010). The lowest common denominator is a cognitive tool that helps people to reduce complexity in a large audience by picking out the potentially most critical person as a baseline for evaluating the communication. It is the person in your network that you imagine might be most offended or critical of what you are about to write. This is helpful as a cognitive tool, but it may also be viewed as self-censorship of the individual in larger crowds [5]. The audience on Facebook can actively engage with the communication; however, even the. Though I acknowledge the need for the lowest common denominator, I also propose another similar, though more constructive cognitive process, in relation to political communication.

Some participants in my study explain that they sometimes imagine ‘the worst critic’ in their network before they write a status message. In this process, they try to anticipate potential counter arguments to a political opinion they want to publicize. The process of imagining the worst critic can allow them to construct a more nuanced argument. It is the mental process of creating an internal dialogue with the imagined critic, but also something that may be shaped by prior experience with the active audience. In this sense, the process can perhaps challenge and improve an opinion rather than merely work as internal censorship, as Martin describes:

Martin: Actually, it’s primarily the people that are going to criticize [my post] that I imagine.
I: How is that?
Martin: Well, I try to beat them to the punch. I sit down and try to anticipate how they would think if they were reading this and what questions they would come up with, and then try to answer their questions before it is asked, right? It is not always easy, but sometimes I succeed. (Martin, 22)

The secondary audience is blurrier but it is extended from the primary audience to be people in my extended network who are like this person. Martin also tries to explain this though he struggles with defining the connection between the primary and the blurry secondary audience.

Well, when I write, it is ... it is not guided towards a particular person, but I do have a few people in mind, when I write it. It is not just like when I post it then that is for everyone and then that is that. It is written with... it is written with some people in mind, but not directly for them, if that makes sense. (Martin, 22)

The potential audience is the technical audience limitation in any communication situation. Most users use the default setting for Facebook to reach people in their personal network unlike communication on other social media platforms such as Twitter. That is why the space is only semi-public in relation to Twitter, which is technically entirely public by default.

Finally, users also engage with the active audience that has been describe in earlier studies (Marwick and boyd, 2014; Litt, 2012). In short, the active audience is the people who engage with your status message through the affordance of the platform either by liking, sharing, or commenting on it. These people are playing an active role in shaping the audience perception and may become a part of the primary audience, if they continue to engage either as a positive supporter or as a returning critic. The participants in my study often describe that few people usually engage with their political messages; therefore, these few people can have a greater role to play in the shaping of the personal public. As Dan explains below, even one person can seem like a lot in a relatively small semi-public space.

It is true that many people would not understand this. Luckily, there are enough people who do that I think that it is worth it. Just take that post I made that one person shared. Thinking that I only have 125 friends or something like that, then one person is a lot. (Dan, 47)

Participants generally enjoy when they are able to engage people or receive likes that verify their opinions. But the active audience can just as often cause conflict, particularly if the people, who interfere, are family members. People that you are closely related to cannot be disregarded so easily and they cannot be unfriended without consequences (Dugan and Smith, 2016). Combining political debate and family relations can create a sense of context collapse that the person would normally avoid in an off-line setting. Sif, one of the participants in my study, feels very strongly about animal rights. That is what primarily defines her political agenda on Facebook. Some friends of her family are farmers and part of her Facebook network. These people often react negatively to her opinions on animal rights because she is essentially criticizing their work practice. She argues that it is okay to write controversial or provoking content as long as you do not write it in a provoking manner.

Sif: There are many people who disagree strongly with me. Take my parents; they are not really the Facebook type of people, but I am ‘friends’ with one of the friends of my father, and he told my father at one point: Well Sif is pretty provocative on Facebook and yadayada. And then my dad came and talked with me, but I don’t think it’s true.
I: What do you think he defines as provocative in this situation?
Sif: Well that’s because ... I know my dad mentioned something about the piglet debate, and ... There was a debate where I wrote something with facts about 25,000 little piglets, dying in the stables. And my father asked me: Do you even know that is true? So I said yes! It is something I read up on. Not just something I write to provoke. So I think it is because I write something about death and destruction and try to ruin their conventional farming ... I don’t know ... iish! (Sif, 19)

The farmers often confront Sif as the active audience, but she feels that her communication is justified as long as she is sticking to objective facts. Nonetheless, it is obvious that this confrontational behavior requires confidence and the ability to shrug off negative feedback, particularly from family and social peers. This is an ability or perhaps a personality trait that some people will be more comfortable with, whereas some people are much more careful about creating any type of social conflict.

In this section, I have presented the various audiences that generate the personal public on Facebook. The personal public on Facebook is in fact technically a personal semi-public. However, it is a public in the sense that it maintains an experience of communicating to a diverse mass of people while simultaneously ensuring a relative sense of privacy by communicating to a limited audience of known connections. In this paper, I generally refrain from using the semi-public, because I believe that any personal public will be shaped according to the platform and audience reach. Instead, I argue that the personal public as a concept should always be understood in relation to the sociotechnical context that it is being defined in.

Finally, I provide a model that presents the relations between the audiences that define the personal public (Figure 1). In this model, the primary (a) and the active audience (b) are closely related and often overlapping. Together they consist of identifiable individuals in the personal network that the sender has in mind while writing the message. The primary audience simplifies the audience in order to direct the message with some people in mind. The division between the secondary (c) and the potential audience (d) is blurry. It can either be more or less the same, but more often the secondary audience is defined as a subset of unspecific people from the potential audience that may find this relevant. The people who are technically able to see and engage with the communication define the potential audience. The secondary audience is formed cognitively by people “like me” (Marwick and boyd, 2014), or vaguely defined by the potential people who are like the primary audience. The secondary audience and the potential audience are important because together they constitute the mass and diversity that creates the individual experience of publicness. I refrain from defining the number of people that constitutes a public, because this public is partly imagined. I argue, however, that what is essential about the public is that it constitutes an experienced sense of mass and diversity [6].


The personal public on Facebook
Figure 1: The personal public on Facebook.


4.3. From personal thinking to public communication

Up to this point, I have presented how my participants decide on what political issues to engage with in public and how they define the audience as a personal public. In this section, I want to propose a model that describes how people may go through three steps during the process of publicizing their opinions: from personal thinking, to public thinking, and lastly public communication. I argue that the participants in my study exhibit how people may fine-tune their argumentation in this process towards public communication, as they experimented with each of their own personal publics. With each step, the potential for new reflection and perspective change based on the new audience potential. On the first level, the individual has opinions that are personal in the sense that they are not yet shared or clearly positioned towards a concrete audience in a communication relation. Borrowing a metaphor from Arendt, we can compare this stage to a dream that is not materialized or put into words (Arendt, 1998). As soon as the individual starts to consider writing a political message on Facebook, that person begins to build the imagined audience. At this stage, they imagine who may find the communication interesting, or they try to anticipate how people will react to this opinion. Lastly, they may decide to write a political message and post it in the public of appearance. At the final level of public communication, they might encounter the active audience, who may engage with their message. Based on prior experience, even the lack of engagement from the active audience may be interpreted as feedback. The process from personal thinking to public communication can be visualized in the figure below (Figure 2).


From personal thinking to public communication
Figure 2: From personal thinking to public communication.


The model is an idealized process, and users may skip public thinking and go straight to public communication, without considering the consequences, potential misunderstandings, or negative interpretations. Or they may not encounter an active audience that makes them think differently about their public communication in the future. But if people forget to imagine a public before communicating in public, they also risk harsher judgment and criticism. The active audience may remind them to engage in public thinking next time they consider public communication. Public thinking is a skill that private people need to learn from experience over time. Most people will not enjoy being criticized or questioned in public. While criticism from someone you do not know at all can be easier to disregard, it is more difficult to ignore criticism from your peers in a personal network. That is why some people do not engage at all in political communication with their personal public on Facebook. However, the people who continue to engage despite of the personal risks may also improve argumentation and reflection through several iterative processes. I acknowledge that not everyone will go through these steps, but I suggest that many people will, at least to some extent, have to consider the various levels of audience potential if they engage in continual public political communication on Facebook over time.



5. Conclusion

This paper presents how and why some people engage in political communication on Facebook by experimentation with and creation of a personal public. It also argues that the process can help the individual to revise argumentations and increase reflection. As the individual moves from personal thinking to public thinking and finally to public communication, he or she is engaging with new potential audiences, imagined or actual. Each new audience presents a new potential for reflection. This model is idealized in the sense that reflection is not guaranteed. It is also important to note that increased reflection does not mean that a person will change opinion, but rather that the person may revise the way an opinion is presented.

The primary contribution of this study is to explain the process of public political communication on Facebook based on a very small sample of participants. I also highlight the potential individual and intrinsic gain from communicating in public. Most studies of political debate analyze the content and quality of debate between people, without considering the potential personal gain in and of itself in learning to build an audience and communicating in public. This paper does not argue that public political communication is either good or bad for democracy as a whole. My purpose has first and foremost been to describe how and why some people engage in public communication about politics and what they may personally get out of it. This behavior is not necessarily appreciated, and many people will likely find the activity uncomfortable or inappropriate on Facebook, just as they would if someone at their workplace or at a family dinner started a political conversation.

The people whom I interviewed and observed are experimenting with the potential and limitation of this new audience and a type of public that was not readily available to them before Facebook. The process that they go through by engaging with their personal public might be compared to skills that politicians, journalists, and other public figures acquire, though on a much smaller scale. Hopefully future studies will continue to further explore and consider the potentially intrinsic value for the individual of public communication on social media platforms such as Facebook. End of article


About the author

Sander Andreas Schwartz is currently working as a postdoc at the IT University of Copenhagen. He defended his Ph.D. thesis “Personal politics: A study of political communication by politicians and citizens on Facebook” in 2016. He continues to study how citizens use social media for political debates, as well as how politicians use the platform for strategic purposes.
E-mail: sans [at] itu [dot] dk



1. This quote appears in many forms and with varying attributions including a false attribution to Aristotle. The original author is commonly considered to be the American writer Elbert Hubbard. For a discussion of the original attribution see

2. Giddens, 1991, p. 214.

3. For a more sophisticated discussion of this argument, see Papacharissi (2015).

4. Creating an imagined audience is also something that I refer to as public thinking, which is the stage that comes before public communication. I expand on this in the final section (see Figure 2).

5. See Noelle-Neumann’s (1993) theory of the spiral of silence.

6. This understanding of mass and diversity is closely related to former theories, such as Silverstone’s (2007) concept of plurality.



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Editorial history

Received 14 November 2016; revised 18 December 2016; accepted 16 January 2017.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Public and proud: How and why some citizens use their Facebook network as a personal public
by Sander Andreas Schwartz.
First Monday, Volume 22, Number 2 - 6 February 2017