Generation Overshare

Redefining the Public Space

I once sat with a girl through her dramatic break up. It was terrible. She was crying into her phone begging the guy to take her back. Okay, I sat behind her, and it wasn’t terrible, it was like an episode of The Hills unfolding before me on a public train.

And I was all like…

My point being, it was a conversation I clearly wasn’t supposed to hear – but of course couldn’t help – and thus brings me to the issue of public and private space. With regards to the use of personal mobile devices, how does behaviour differ between when we’re in public and say… when we’re at home? What ‘rules’ are in place when using your phone in public? And as a society, are these ‘rules’ being redefined?

But first, lets talk about the public space. Marsha and Margaret (2010) refer to the work of anthropologist and critical theorist de Certeau, who defines public place as a distinct geographic location with coordinates and space, spaces that are constituted through human activity.

So this idea of using phones in a public space, we’re often under the impression of having ‘private’ conversations in public, but new media technologies (in particular hand-held devices) are shifting social interaction from private to public places, and conversely from public to private (Wei & Leung, 1999). A classic example is when a face-to-face business meeting is replaced by a phone call on a train, there the public space is privatised.

Marsha and Margaret (2010) refer to this overlay as the transformation of public space into “hybrid geographies” created through the introduction of “new spatial infrastructure” –  i.e. digital mobile phone networks. They argue that in a public space (like public transport) users are free to make a place for themselves, for despite physical constrictions and time limitations, the travelling space and time becomes their own, leaving them to consume media or use media to communicate with others (Marsha and Margaret, 2010).

It is in this ‘place’, issues of improper use come about, issues that have long been around since the mobile phone itself. Improper use, as suggested by Wei and Leung from the School of Journalism and Communication, Hong Kong (1999), include ‘loud talk,’ ‘ringing,’ and ‘widespread discourteous uses’. It is such uses (as argued by said researchers) that blur public and private behaviours and cause us to reconsider previous definitions of social situations with the inclusion of techno-social dimensions (Marsha & Margaret, 2010).

So as behaviours that were once considered annoying and intrusive, are they still? Perhaps not. Marsha and Margaret (2010) suggest that mobile phone users regard their phone almost as an extension of themselves. Thus as Wei and Leung (1999) argue, new media and telecommunication technologies are becoming an indispensable part of our lives and therefore creating tensions between appropriate and inappropriate uses, such an argument of course can still apply today.

Moving on

For me, years of public transport have been made less boring by nearby strangers talking into their phones. Know that section in MX? That free paper you get on the train? Yeah, Overheard – it’s just like that, only the other side of the conversation is left up to your imagination. But for some, they don’t want a bar of it.

So what has the government tried to do? There was of course the recent introduction of ‘quiet carriages’ on public trains. Travellers were asked to refrain from loud talking (oh, your lasagne’s mince looked like cat food? Please, do tell me more) playing loud music (have you heard of Beats by Dr. Dre?), and using mobile phones (lady with the Nokia, is it really that hard to choose a ringtone?!,) with some acclaimed success for making the traveller’s experience as pleasant as a City Rail  ride can get, a ‘quiet carriage’ doesn’t always mean you’ll get a ‘quiet carriage’.

So what’s the real solution? Self-discipline. Wei and Lenug (1999) suggest that when enforcing behaviour (such as “switching to vibration mode and lowering voice and telephone volume”) it’s up to the individual. We are constantly told to switch off our phones in public places; cinemas, theatres, planes, conferences – you name it – but how many of us actually do? These ‘rules’ that attempt to manage the use of smartphones in public space can only be adhered to by the individual. So as an individual, what are my expectations of behaviour in public space? This letter to the editor of Madison Capital Times pretty much sums it up; the ‘Cell Phone Etiquette Guide’ created “by the people for the people.”

1. Lights off, phones off, in public spaces.

2. If you are told to turn it off, then turn it off.

3. Don’t cross the personal space boundary.

4. Keep conversations quiet.

5. Watch where you walk when you talk.

Not your cup of tea? Check these rules out.


Berry, M, & Hamilton, M 2010, ‘Changing Urban Spaces: Mobile Phones on Trains’, Mobilities, 5, 1, pp. 111-129, Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 06 September 2014.


Wei, R. and Leung, L. (1999). Blurring public and private behaviors in public space: policy challenges in the use and improper use of the cell phone. Telematics and Informatics, [online] 16(1-2), pp.11-26. Available at: [Accessed 8 Sep. 2014].


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