Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Sharing that leads to shaming has huge repercussions. We need to stop.

The urge to share online, regardless of who gets hurt, is now an unstoppable force.

Tue, Aug 20, 2013, 12:51


Before a party held in Galway called No Way Back took place over the weekend, a set of rules was posted to the event’s Facebook page. Of the rules posted, such as don’t slide down the bowling lanes and don’t act the maggot, just one generated chatter on the night. The organisers suggested attendees didn’t use their phones or cameras. Along with a regular cloakroom, there was also a facility to check in phones. Turning your phone off and forgetting it in your back pocket, or checking it in to a secure cloakroom is a liberating and slightly strange experience, and it’s also one worth exploring beyond a night out.

One of the reasons social media has become so popular is because of the human impulse to share, which has evolved into impulsive sharing. Pausing before the first bite of a meal to Instagram it, or spreading unsubstantiated rumours from a professional Twitter account, or sharing an objectionable opinion anonymously, or posting half naked holiday snaps in a Facebook album, or pouring your heart out at 3am on Twitter, or allowing anonymous people to insult you on Ask.fm are all slightly ridiculous things to engage in, yet hundreds of millions of people do just that. Why?

Their are loads of reasons, and many of the roots lie in the culture of confessionalism from the 90s, through to the post-9/11 fear of impermanency, and the chicken-and-egg narcissism of Millennials, but now there is some interesting research emerging questioning the neurological and psychological impetus for oversharing. Personally, I think that sharing online is a mixture between bog standard human insecurity, exhibitionism, attention seeking, a lust for gratification and endorsement from our peers, the age old desire to pass on gossip, the transference of ego on to our social media identities, a diminished understanding or desire for privacy, a belief that everything is public, the transformation of personal news cycles from fact to reaction to noise, an attempt to escape low self-worth by ‘being someone’ and using information of perceived worth online to share as currency, a common vindictiveness that anonymity online or the perceived lack of repercussions frees us from responsibilities, and habit. Sharing has become habitual. We just can’t stop.

The irresponsibility with how we act with each others information is interesting. We upload drunk photos of friends that we would never publish of ourselves, or spend minutes posing for the perfectly angled selfie while not offering the same light and shading advantages to photographs of peers. When others look unflattering, it obviously makes us look better, but such subconscious bitchiness is not the entire cause of this impulse. Generally, we share photos when we are alone. We cannot hear the protests of others or see the discomfort in their faces that we would if we were passing around a hard copy of a photograph in a real life group situation. The more we stare at screens and less we stare at faces, the more we erode empathy. And once the empathy is gone, and those visual cues from real life human interaction are disposed of, sharing becomes a lot easier. We don’t have to deal with seeing the tear in someone’s eye or a grimace form around their lips, or a hand put to mouth in shock. We don’t hear the quiver in their voice because we’re on WhatsApp. We don’t hear the anger when they shout “TAKE THAT DOWN”, because we just see the caps lock statement in a comment. It is no surprise that we don’t care, because we are confronted less and less with real human emotion and the cues, ticks, indicators, movements, sounds, and intonations that colour the complexities of real human emotion because our interactions are becoming increasingly distant from each other. The less you care, the more you share. The empathic link that begins with an image or video or conversation that gets passed between friends online is increasingly diluted as more and more share, until eventually it is viewed by those who don’t even know the person involved in the first place and therefore have absolutely no vested interest in protecting their privacy, but plenty of devious interest in passing it on for the lolz.

The sense of experience or being present, is now a collage of photos, updates, and filters. As we disseminate our memories to technology, our catalogued experience becomes a much less visceral one. Sharing used to be about passing around something of value or importance. With each person who was included in the share, it became added to based on their reaction – the joy of seeing someone’s wedding photos, or looking back at childhood videotapes. You shared someone because you wanted them to see it. But increasingly, sharing has become about dividing value, not adding to it. Every picture you take means you’re not really there at that moment. Every time you share it, you’re chipping a piece off the actual experience for the sake of dividing it amongst loose connections. We are not reinforcing our presence, we are separating it, like a cake disappearing as each slice is removed, although nobody is left feeling satisfied. The feeling of sharing is now not a fulfilling one, but an empty one.

This is coupled with the style of online discourse that is – to generalise vastly – more aggressive, less measured and more prone to inaccuracies than real life conversations. Unfortunately, social media conversations frequently adopt a teenage petulancy and self-importance that would be knocked down in real life. Online conversations are frequently less regulated and less governed by intelligence than even the most rudimentary barstool banter or phone-in radio show ludicrousness.

If there is no one there to take a photo in the first place, it can never go viral. But the old message board acronym ‘tinwop’ (thread is nothing without pictures) is now utterly engrained in our sharing psyche. Nothing is anything without pictures. Cameras are everywhere now. We snap away with more regularity than ever, and with the growth of ephemeral media such as SnapChat, images become worth less and less, yet are taken more and more. We document everything, yet hold on to nothing. We take photos of things to retain their memory however briefly, yet while we are doing so we disconnect ourselves from the present. We make scrapbooks of our days and nights for no reason other than because we can. We share images that could ruin someone’s life with no care for consequences or impact.

Although the vast majority of sharing is benign – our dogs, our legs by the pool, our cocktails, our favourite bands, our new shoes – some of the images that surface and are shared during this era of constant pointless documentation as we hand our visual and emotional memories over to apps, will of course be nasty, and the ramifications for those who are documented doing things they would rather not be documented doing are huge. These images are shared too, possibly even with more enthusiasm, because we are now desensitised to sensational images, be they grotesque, pornographic or violent. A generation is growing up where 2 Girls 1 Cup and YouTube beheadings are part of online visual pop history, and access to and the sharing of hardcore pornography is as easy and commonplace as coming home from school and switching on Blue Peter once was.

With regards to the photograph from Slane, much of the reaction surrounding it has been about the rush to judge and the rush to defend. The rush to dissect and discuss are all part of the reaction cycle, formerly known as the news cycle, but that’s missing the point. What we should really examine is not what’s going on with the picture and what people make of it, but why it was taken in the first place and then shared at such a dramatic rate.

Oversharing information about ourselves is one thing, treating the internet as a ‘dear diary’ tool will only have repercussions for ourselves, what people think of us, and can of course do personal damage, even if we now lack the self-awareness to quantify it. I know everybody probably views someone in their peer group differently than they did before they read their Facebook posts. I know everybody develops a different opinion of someone they’re acquainted with because of that person’s social media interaction. Gradually, you realise the person you thought was just grand is actually aggressive, an egomaniac, mean, depressed, stupid, self-righteous, or all of the above. We expose ourselves the more we share.

One of the reasons this is continuing is that the repercussions simply don’t exist to make people stop and think. Online platforms are slow to react in terms of governance and regulation, but how could they possibly keep up with the idiocy of the people stretching basic human decency? Sharing is important. But thinking before you share is vital.

Here’s an opinion piece I wrote for Wednesday’s paper about some of the topics in this post.