The oversharing society
People increasingly make private moments public, and social media are intruding on our lives as never before. We must develop new skills of restraint, empathy and resilience
Yes, she said, yes: the New Orleans Rose, Molly Molloy Gambel, accepts Kyle Catlett’s marriage proposal live on television during ‘The Rose of Tralee’ on Monday night. Photograph: Domnick Walsh/Eye Focus
Stop. It’s a word thought of less and less as we sit, phone in hand, status update worked out, tweet ready to go, photo about to be uploaded. The past week was a tale of two overshares: a Rose of Tralee escort who broadcast his live marriage proposal on live television; and a photograph of a sex act at a concert in Slane that ran away with itself online.
The proposal could have happened years ago and is almost normal now, considering that marriage proposals are a YouTube genre. The Slane incident satisfies a crude, modern impulse that combines a lack of decency with technology to spread something without thinking of the consequences.
Either way, the boundaries around what we view as private moments are shrinking rapidly. On the one hand this is being facilitated by people voluntarily sharing and publicising elements of their lives that used to be considered private. On the other hand it is the result of a creeping intrusion on people’s lives by their peers.
Every minute of every day 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, Instagram users share 3,600 photos, 100,000 tweets are sent and 684,478 pieces of content are shared on Facebook. Running out of information to share with each other, we source more and more from our personal lives.
There is a paradox in the way we are sharing more, letting more and more people know about our lives in the offline world, while being less present face to face. Although discontent is growing online about what we are giving up in order to connect all the time, there is no mass movement to step back. Personal information feeds our online, networked lives. And we’re just getting started.
“Those little devices in our pockets are so powerful that they don’t only change what we do, they change who we are,” Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, said last year. “Some of the things we do with our devices we would have found odd or disturbing only a few years ago. But they’ve quickly come to seem familiar . . . People text or do email during corporate board meetings . . . Parents text and do email at breakfast . . . Children deny each other their full attention . . . We even text at funerals. We remove ourselves from our grief or revelry and go into our phones.”
Turkle’s warning sums up our dawning realisation that being immersed in technology that was meant to enrich our emotional and personal lives might not always be good. More people are suggesting that we should disconnect, at least some of the time, from social media; experts say there’s a balance to be struck.
Books, research papers and other studies question how social social media really is, how appropriate sharing is, from Blair Koenig’s blog – STFU, Parents, about about the modern parent who can’t stop archiving their child’s life on social media – to Ben Agger’s book Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age.
Oversharing is becoming automatic. The impulse to put a photograph online immediately is rarely questioned.
There is a link between the changing nature of celebrity (and television) and how we share.
When given the opportunity to share our own lives, when encouraged to broadcast ourselves by YouTube, or to answer what we are doing and how we are feeling on a Facebook status update, when provided with the ability to share photographs of every meal, night out, holiday, sunset, walk to work, partner and pet, a networked global population has jumped at the chance.
The two pillars of modern celebrity of the past decade, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, both became famous because of sex tapes, intrusions from which they both benefited commercially. The past decade of reality television has depicted the most intimate, mundane and gratuitous moments of people’s lives.
The dark side of sharing is intrusion. In the not-so-distant past tabloid newspapers and their lawyers would argue that a celebrity could hardly complain that they had been snapped having an affair if they had previously posed at home with their children for Hello! magazine.
So can we now revolt if something embarrassing surfaces online after we have broadcast so many personal details about ourselves?
“The reason social media works is that people like sharing things they feel other people may not know about yet,” says Stephen O’Leary, the founder of Olytico, a data-analytics company that tracks social media. “So everybody likes to be the person who says, ‘Oh my God, have you heard?’ And then the extension on that sentence changes based on what you’re interested in. If you’re interested in sport it could be about a transfer, if you’re into music it could be a new band coming to town, and if you like celebrity gossip it could be about a celebrity’s marriage.
“But there is also an element of, ‘Oh my God, have you seen?’ And it can be real-life situations in which the person or event you want to share is not famous but is controversial, and being the first person to share it is the thing: the person who is retweeted, the person who is liked on Facebook, the person whose Instagram photo is liked. There is a finders-first syndrome, and people want to be the first finder.”
Jonathan and Anna Saccone-Joly, who live in Cork, have made a living out of sharing, by broadcasting a daily show about their lives on YouTube. As a programme it’s mundane, but many of the Saccone-Jolys’ videos get hundreds of thousands of views.
“We’re in a bit of a different position to kids who might overshare stuff, because we’re adults,” Jonathan says. “We make very conscious decisions about what we share and don’t share. I’ve built an entire business around sharing, but because I share a large portion of my life I keep another part private.”
He believes the impetus to share is rooted in an insecurity that generates a need for endorsement. “Everyone wants to get liked or get a thumbs-up. I suppose Facebook is just a schoolyard; there’s a lot of competitive things brought on. So if you share that little bit of juicier stuff, maybe more people might like you. There’s a sense of peer pressure.”
The Saccone-Jolys have broadcast trips to the shop, Anna’s pregnancy, their wedding, what they eat. It’s as entertaining or as numbing as an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Given the number of people who watch or subscribe, the couple are able to make a living from their videos.
Jonathan believes the double-edged sword of sharing is just something people have to deal with. “You can’t really complain about it if you put it out there. Our privacy [is] intruded upon all the time. It’s generally positive, though. I’ve never felt threatened; it’s not a negative thing.That’s my fault. I take responsibility for that . . . I don’t know what it’s like to be in school on social media, because when I was in school there weren’t even mobile phones. But I’d say it’s hard, with all the sharing and people can see what’s going on in your life, who you’re with, young relationships. I’d say that’s tough.”
The dangers of oversharing on social media once related to the impact it might have on one’s professional life. But the personal effect has been more of a worry in recent cases, many of which have involved intrusion, or sharing by others against the subject’s wishes.
The idea of seeking permission before passing on private details seems to have been forgotten. The photographs from the Slane concert are a prime example of this, but there have been several incidents recently. These include the private Facebook conversation between friends, one of them a young woman who spent a night with two famous Irish rugby players, which went public last month and led to the woman being hounded by the press. In May a judge ordered the removal from the internet of a video of a DCU student who had been wrongly identified as having evaded a taxi fare. In January a video of a young woman ranting about her father’s profession late at night in a Dublin pizzeria spread across the internet until many users chastised its dissemination as an equivalent of bullying.
“While [sharing] helps us to create connections, there are risks, and one of those risks is that people feel it’s okay to share photos of us at our most vulnerable, [with the justification that] photos are shared all the time, so why not?” says John Buckley of the youth organisation SpunOut.ie.
Buckley talks about photographs uploaded when the subjects are drunk, falling over and at their most vulnerable. “The cause of that is something we don’t know,” he says, adding that there is a growing volume of research, but samples are generally small. Facebook is also believed to be carrying out “compassion research”, which might examine some of these issues.
Much of this behaviour is due to a dearth of empathy. The Roots of Empathy programme, which is run in some Irish schools and is supported by Barnardos, the HSE and the EU, shows that empathy, as well as being an inherent part of the human condition, is also a skill. “It seems to be missing online sometimes,” Buckley says. When it comes to making those intrusions and sharing inappropriate or embarrassing information about someone, “there are a huge amount of empathic people online who counter this. People are displaying empathy and people aren’t.
“People do that in the wider world as well. The internet is a vessel for human behaviour. I don’t think it can be blamed for human behaviour. I think people can do more to combat it, as can the platforms, but we are responsible for our behaviour.”
Another skill that needs honing in the age of social media is resilience, according to Buckley. “We’re still facing racism, misogyny, abuse in many forms. We adapt our resilience. When we were huntergatherers we were resilient enough to get through hungry times. Now we need to build an emotional resilience to get through comments that are aimed at us. We need to teach that better. These comments will potentially always be there, but how we deal with it can change.”
Buckley says that intrusion on social media among young people is “coming up more and more, particularly those photos and videos of us at our most vulnerable”.
The repercussions of becoming what could be called “shamous”, as opposed to famous, online are brutal. But they are also shortlived. Sharing on social media is a whirlwind, and platforms that depend on users handing over personal information are also hungry beasts that need constant feeding.
Although it may be scant consolation if you’re the person at the centre of an unwanted storm, the shortening viral cycle means something that explodes online can be old news within hours. Most sharing is benign: just people archiving their lives, connecting with each other, capturing daily moments. But as we increase the information we’re willing to share, privacy becomes a more archaic concept, and also a more sacred one.
“I think sharing is only going to become more prevalent,” says O’Leary. “We’re entering a generation in which people who are teenagers or even younger expect to document their lives online. They expect to share everything they do socially. Fewer and fewer things are considered off the record, or things they don’t want people to know about.
“I think in tandem with that there have been a number of high-profile cases in the past 18 months where the legal system has begun to catch up with what you can and can’t do online. So what I hope is that there’s a change in the content of what we share online. A realisation is forming that it’s not okay to share certain things.”