I entered the world of social media oversharing much like entering my kitchen at night, in total darkness with my hands stretched out in front of me. I forged ahead in this global orgy of oversharing with the certain knowledge that I knew nothing and would soon be stubbing my toe, or worse.
The first time a lightbulb went on was during The Social Network when I heard the words, “As if every thought that tumbles through your head is so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared. The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.” Perhaps that brilliant turn of phrase should be stamped on every digital device, much like the warnings on the side of cigarette packages. Users of both products may need to be reminded of the dangers that lie ahead. While toxic fumes pose a very real threat to our health, oversharing and forgetting the permanent nature of our online musings comes with its own risks.
Oversharing is brave…or simply misguided?
This week alone I have seen photos of a young teen having her face stitched in the ER. Knowing how carefully most teens attend to their images, I wondered if she really wanted this one, showing her in extreme pain and covered in blood, spread widely across the pages of mother’s Facebook page. ER photos, in all their gory glory, seem to cross the line into oversharing. I have seen report cards, graphic potty training updates, disparagements about children’s weight and a mountain of medical complaints, gynecological and otherwise. Ignoring the gross factor, is there any chance that this is the digital footprint people hope to leave for themselves or their children? Is there any chance that parent’s don’t realize that their kids can read? Is talking about your children’s and your own problems online “brave” or simply misguided?
As a kid nothing scared us more than our “permanent record,” the mysterious record of everything we did. Social media is our permanent record writ large…a permanent digital record that will live on long after we are gone. Do we really want it clogged up with oversharing and complaints about our marriages, details of our sex lives and giant invasions into the privacy of our children?
Why do we share and then, at times, slip into oversharing? At what point are we invading our children’s privacy when we share the details of their lives? And, how do we stop?
Social media and television call to us to overshare.
We control the medium and the message, but sometimes it is hard to remember that it is not the other way around. Social media apps sit on our phones calling to us to join the fray. First, we post pictures of our kids being adorable, then losing a tooth, and later getting a scraped knee. Soon we are documenting other family ailments in painful and graphic detail and the oversharing has begun. It is a slippery slope with no clear markers along the way. It is easy to begin with the cute and to slip into the gross or invasive.
Reality TV is professional oversharing as we leer into others’ homes and lives, surveying all that was once considered private. Witnessing the private emotional meltdowns that are the staple of this genre may have signaled to the rest of us that not only is sharing and oversharing acceptable, it may even be desirable.
Finally, there is the thirst for fame, that little voice inside us crying out for our 15 minutes. Our desire to be noticed by the larger world, or at least a subset of it, lulls us into sharing attention grabbing information that our more measured selves might think twice about.
And let’s be honest, selfies are just so damn easy to take. Why not amuse your friends and the larger world with an unending stream of photos of yourself?
Computers, and worse, handheld devices, do not yet come equipped with a breathalyzer.
Some of the answer to the question of why we share has its roots in when we share. Recent research suggests that heightened emotions or physical arousal of any kind may fuel our oversharing. The decision to share or not share has less to do with the piece of information we are passing along and more to do with our own mental and physical state. Anger, pain, elation, or the adrenaline high from a good workout are all more likely to make us effuse online or in real life.
Drunk dialing used to be a problem. Have a few too many, dial an old flame and, bam, an ugly and very forgettable phone call. The good news, of course, was that in the morning there were only two people who knew about the indiscretion and both of you could work on the assumption that it never happened. Keyboards connected to 2.5 billion people are an entirely different story, one that is far harder to cover up in the morning. Venting our anger or pain or frustration online seems like a good idea, right up to the moment when it does not.
We care too much what others think.
Experts say that oversharing is fueled by our insecurities, the need to compensate for deficits, socially or professionally that we perceive in ourselves. We worry about what others think, try desperately to make ourselves look good, giving away far more information than we should. When it doesn’t work, which of course it wouldn’t, we share even more, Ouch. In person we are, at least, receiving the social clues that this is not working. Online, we are operating in a vacuum and the brakes that should be applied, that awkward look that someone gives you when you have said too much, just aren’t there.
Despite the constant barrage of exhortations to think of ourselves as a brand, we are not brands. We are neither brands nor products and thinking of ourselves as such can be dehumanizing; once that very human barrier is broken down, oversharing can begin.
It is fine, even funny, for Geico to look stupid, in their constant plea for our attention, but is the same true for us? We are people with complex lives that inevitably involve the privacy of others. Brands advertise and they spend billions of dollars in the unending quest for attention and for them almost any attention is good attention, not so for us.
Spilling online is strangely easy. Anyone who has even faced an angry parent, teacher, or boss knows how difficult it is to admit something while staring someone in the face. Admissions of guilt or misbehavior have always been easier to spill in a letter, without the eye contact that inhibits us. The internet has no eye contact, it is a letter to the world, thus far easier to write yet far from private. It may be one of the great ironies of the internet age – that it is easier to confess our misjudgments and misdoings to the world, than to a single person.
Is it right to write about our kids?
New parenthood is a time awash with new love, perhaps life’s most heightened emotional state. There is nothing more gorgeous than a new baby (in this mom’s opinion) so it is no wonder that we cannot wait to share this new-found love with everyone we know. We start writing about our kids before they can read somehow forgetting that is inevitable that they will see every word we have typed. And they will see these words through their highly critical, easily embarrassed 13-year-old eyes. What may seem loving to us, will be mortifying to them.
Many parents argue that they do not post without their children’s consent. But, of course, children cannot give consent and cannot begin to imagine how their futures selves will perceive their parents’ current blabberings. And in truth, as their parents, neither can we. We may have decided to live with any future consequences of our own oversharing, but is it fair to ask our children to do the same?
A larger and perhaps more insidious problem is that by recounting their lives online, we are creating their public persona. We are telling the world who our children are and because that record will never be erased that view of them, frozen in time, will live on. Is fair to do this? Is it fair to paint an ineradicable picture of them as a tantruming toddler or petulant teen? Just as we once did, I think our children need to have the opportunity create their own personas without trailing behind them the legacy of their parent’s views.
How to stop oversharing.
There is a great deal of advice out there about how to stop oversharing. But when looked at closely it all seems to boil down to just one thing. Think, or more specifically, think ahead. Imagine the ripple effect of the piece of information you are about to share. Imagine your mother, children, partner/spouse, boss and any other relevant person knowing what you are about to divulge. Imagine meeting new people who posses the piece of information you are about to disclose. Think about that information in the public domain today, and think about it in the public domain decades from now. Still okay with it? Then wait, and think again. Time, consideration and reflection are the antidotes to oversharing, so take and use all three.