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On Violating One’s Own Privacy: N-adic Utterances and Inadvertent Disclosures in Online Venues

Communication and Information Technologies Annual

ISBN: 978-1-78560-785-1, eISBN: 978-1-78560-784-4

Publication date: 23 February 2016



To understand the phenomena of people revealing regrettable information on the Internet, we examine who people think they’re addressing, and what they say, in the process of interacting with those not physically or temporally co-present.


We conduct qualitative analyses of interviews with student bloggers and observations of five years’ worth of their blog posts, drawing on linguists’ concepts of indexical ground and deictics. Based on analyses of how bloggers reference their shared indexical ground and how they use deictics, we expose bloggers’ evolving awareness of their audiences, and the relationship between this awareness and their disclosures.


Over time, writers and their regular audience, or “chorus,” reciprocally reveal personal information. However, since not all audience members reveal themselves in this venue, writers’ disclosures are available to those observers they are not aware of. Thus, their overdisclosure is tied to what we call the “n-adic” organization of online interaction. Specifically, and as can be seen in their linguistic cues, n-adic utterances are directed toward a non-unified audience whose invisibility makes the discloser unable to find out the exact number of participants or the time they enter or exit the interaction.

Research implications

Attention to linguistic cues, such as deictics, is a compelling way to identify the shifting reference groups of ethnographic subjects interacting with physically or temporally distant others.


We describe the social organization of interaction with undetectable others. n-adic interactions likely also happen in other on- and offline venues in which participants are obscured but can contribute anonymously.




We specially thank Michael Silverstein for his close feedback on this paper, as well as Michael Bare, Simon Gottschalk, Jeffrey Martin, John Levi Martin, Chantal Tetreault, Suzanne Evans Wagner, and Eviatar Zerubavel. We are grateful to Ericka Menchen-Trevino for sharing data on her first wave of research with these bloggers.


Tian, X. and Menchik, D.A. (2016), "On Violating One’s Own Privacy: N-adic Utterances and Inadvertent Disclosures in Online Venues", Communication and Information Technologies Annual (Studies in Media and Communications, Vol. 11), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 3-30.



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