If you have ever glared at someone who is having a loud cell phone conversation on the bus, or felt slighted by a friend who answers a phone call during a dinner date, you have to read Christine Rosen’s insanely awesome take-down of public cell phone use. Written in 2004, her article looks at the rise of cell phones, and asks:

How has it changed our behavior, and how might it continue to do so? What new rules ought we to impose on its use? Most importantly, how has the wireless telephone encouraged us to connect individually but disconnect socially, ceding, in the process, much that was civil and civilized about the use of public space?

Rosen is no friend to the cell phone. Her article is full of witty and insightful reflections on cell phone culture, like:

In terms of the rules of social space, cell phone use is a form of communications panhandling—forcing our conversations on others without first gaining their tacit approval.

In response, Rosen suggests that:

One possible solution would be to treat cell phone use the way we now treat tobacco use. Public spaces in America were once littered with spittoons and the residue of the chewing tobacco that filled them, despite the disgust the practice fostered. Social norms eventually rendered public spitting déclassé. Similarly, it was not so long ago that cigarette smoking was something people did everywhere—in movie theaters, restaurants, trains, and airplanes. Non-smokers often had a hard time finding refuge from the clouds of nicotine. Today, we ban smoking in all but designated areas.

But this piece is more than a rant: it’s a serious call for us to consider what’s at stake when we live life online, noting that

it would be a terrible irony if “being connected” required or encouraged a disconnection from community life—an erosion of the spontaneous encounters and everyday decencies that make society both civilized and tolerable.

It’s clear from Rosen’s work for the New Atlantis and elsewhere that she has a categorical skepticism about all things networked that I don’t buy into. But the questions she raises about cell phones raise useful issues for those of us who are trying to engage constructively with new technology, rather than walk away from it. In getting to the intrusiveness of public cell phone use, Rosen makes a very compelling and current case for why public social spaces matter, and what’s at stake in how we use them.

This is a question I’ve been contemplating in a different context: the construction of social space online. Online communities and social networks are emergent social spaces: the new public spaces of our era. Just as we had to come up with norms for the social spaces that emerged in earlier centuries (like the movie theaters, restaurants, trains and airplanes Rosen refers to in her tobacco analogy) we get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate in our online social spaces.

Outrage over spam, debates over whether to blog one’s dates, arguments over the tone people use in their online comments: all of these are about establishing the norms in our new social spaces. But we have yet to tackle one of the core questions around the emergence of any new social space: what is the appropriate balance of public and private?

Rosen’s tobacco analogy reminded me of nothing so much as the current trajectory of social media marketing. Companies roll into social spaces like Facebook or personal blogs, and spit out their taglines and product plugs like so much tobacco juice. They disrupt the social experience of these emergent public spaces, and appropriate human conversations as corporate billboards.

Clearly, social media can be a useful, effective and appropriate marketing channel. But companies who venture into social media need to think of themselves as the cell phones of the social web. There are some contexts where cell phones (or marketing messages) are entirely appropriate; there are others where they are entirely intrusive.

In between are the vast and multiple social spaces where behavioural norms are stil emerging. We can decide together when, where and how it’s appropriate to use cell phones in public, or deploy marketing messages online. Making those determinations consciously — through our individual choices and our community rule-making — is the only way to keep our on- and offline social spaces from sinking to the lowest common denominator.