If you want to send a message to someone on Instagram, you really have no choice but to do it publicly – unless you download a third party app, like InstaMessage, which lets you send private messages to Instagram users. But it only works provided your friends also download InstaMessage. And if you want to private message someone on Vine, well, you can’t. Anything you say in the looped video app is for public consumption. On the flip side, Snapchat is all about the private messages – but that’s it. There’s no public feed (save for the shame-blogs collecting embarrassing or scandalous sent-in Snaps).
Private messaging is a feature that many social networks with public components are moving away from, or prioritizing less. You can see that in Facebook’s haphazard approach to its “other” folder and how Zuckerberg and company are putting a premium on encouraging users to make their status updates and other interactions public. And even though Twitter finally got around to syncing direct messages across devices, it’s still not a very prominent feature.
Should private messaging be returned to its rightful place in the social networking game? Or as it becomes more apparent that privacy on social networks is a flimsy concept, should they be shuttled into obscurity? It depends what you want to gain and what you’re OK sacrificing.
Pros of privacy
There are some things you don’t want to send publicly. If you want to practice your Twitter flirt game, it’s embarrassing to make innuendos when you know your crushes’ friends can see the conversation. Having the DM option is nice. And the fact that Facebook messages exist makes it easy to send your main boo a gushy note or two throughout the day without subjecting the world to gross wall posts. Which brings me to my next point…
There are some things you just shouldn’t ever send publicly. You know what I’m talking about. Any image or text involving rubbing your bathing suit area against someone else should never enter the public domain. And yeah, obviously there are plenty of ways to send sexy stuff privately, but when you don’t give people the option of a private message, that’s like setting them up for failure, because everyone knows that exercising mature, logical thinking and making the decision to impulsively send someone snapshots of your junk don’t exactly go hand in hand. Private message options at least give people a chance to tame the creepy.
There are some things you just shouldn’t EVER send, but at least private messages minimize embarrassment. Again, you know what I’m talking about. You log onto Facebook at 3AM after $1 Jäger bomb night at your local watering hole and decide it’s the perfect time to confess your undying love to your friend … by sending them an X-rated sonnet. This should never have been. But at least it wasn’t public. Unless he screenshots it.
Privacy let you turn your social network into an IM. If you have the option to message someone in private, that gives you a chance to start a free-wheeling conversation with them, without worrying that you’re boring people outside of the conversation. And along the same vein, if people use private messaging, they’re less apt to just treat their public posts like conversations, which can be really annoying to read (think of when you get eight notifications because some people turned your picture comments into a long-winded argument forum.)
You can network more easily. If you don’t really know someone or you have something related to your job that you want to say on social media, putting it into the public sphere can be tricky. If you’re reaching out and you don’t know how someone will respond, it’s nicer if you don’t have to do it in front of anybody. And since it’s often easier to find professional contacts by looking them up on Facebook or Twitter than it is to track down their e-mail addresses, private messages can help you get in touch with somebody quickly without having to broadcast it to the world.
…And the cons
Do we really need another way to get in touch? The sheer volume of how many different ways people have to contact each other is already overwhelming, and adding yet another way to reach out on social networks that don’t have private messages may seem like overkill. Email still exists … do we really need to have a way to private message on every single social network?
Spammers love private messages. Look at Twitter – you’ve probably received a DM from a spambot if you accidentally followed them. And event-spamming got so bad on Facebook that they created the “other” folder so you wouldn’t have a conniption each time you opened your inbox. More private message opportunities equals more spam opportunities.
Creepers love private messages. It takes cojones to publicly woo someone. It takes nothing more than a few clacks and clicks on your keyboard to send someone an incredibly creepy message that no one else will see. A public element to messages can help deter people from being super-perverts to each other. When you open up additional opportunities for one-on-one contact, you’re open the floodgates for extra creepiness. C’est le Internet.
Having public and private messaging option is confusing. I know I talked before about how private messaging at least gives people a chance to save their inappropriate online repartee for mano a mano messages, but this can often backfire – just look at Anthony Weiner’s Twitter mistake (and he’s not alone). Having two options means you may think you’re sending something to one person, but you’re really sending it into the online ether … and that can lead to major embarrassment.
It’s easier to miss something with so many messaging options. Back when we could only call each other on the phone, people either answered the phone or they didn’t. You could come home and check your answering machine for what you missed. And apart from checking your mailbox, that was all you needed to do. Now, you need to do a once-over on your email, Facebook messages, Snapchats, Twitter DMs, texts, AND watch out for the rare voicemail. If yet another form of private messages becomes a standard-bearer, the chances of forgetting to check one of your one bajillion inboxes increases.