The dangers of oversharing are not virtual any more
If we overshare in haste, it may just be because we’ve lost our bearings in the real world
The phenomenon of oversharing refers to the impulse to reveal aspects of ourselves online that we would not necessarily share in a face-to-face conversation or interaction with another person.
Oversharing is encouraged and made easy by the proliferation of social media – and the selfie has become the perfect vehicle not only for sharing, but also for sharing more than we normally would. The problem for our children (and many parents) is that once you’ve shared that revealing selfie, it leaves an almost indelible digital trace that could haunt you forever.
But what is it about online interaction that makes oversharing so tempting?
As our real lives and online lives become more intertwined, we find ourselves increasingly living in both of these worlds at the same time. This has led to significant changes in how we relate to other people.
The first change is that relationships are speeding up. As French cultural theorist Paul Virilio’s research shows, modern social interactions are increasingly based upon an expectation of instant responses. But we don’t just want answers immediately – we want them constantly. Many people expect friends and connections to be available online all the time. In other words, we have come to expect online presence all the time. We are heading for a world of no more downtime. The syndromes of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO, for those of you who need a translator for millennial-speak) and sharing too much information (TMI) mean that many people (especially younger people) feel compelled to be online all the time so as not to miss out on anything.
This suggests that “real life” is becoming less interesting than life as mediated by a screen. We are now expected to be in both places at the same time, all the time. This is also known as tele-presence, in which someone is more present in their online world than they are present in real time. Real-time presence becomes presence at a distance, with minimal experience of shared time and space with those physically around them.
Another aspect linked to oversharing is the involvement of parents in children’s lives, through what’s known as helicopter parenting and sharenting. Parents not only befriend their children online, and then overshare their children’s successes, but also expect to have control and access to children’s activities at all times. Apps such as Live360 allow parents to track children’s every move. Naturally, from a safety point of view this is very helpful, but from a teenager’s perspective, it’s usually very annoying. This is a form of oversharing, and therefore teenagers are already using codes to communicate that they’re being monitored by parents or older siblings.
Research by sociologists such as the US’s Danah Boyd and Ben Agger shows that, since at least 2012, teenagers have been using “prison code” and “subliminal tweeting” or “subtweeting” to evade parental tracking online. These may consist of texts using acronyms and emoticons that are unfamiliar to adult readers, and may even lead to teens staying up late or getting up very early in order to have adult-free social interactions.
But the ultimate oversharing tool is the now ubiquitous selfie. Oversharing is a complex phenomenon, but it does seem especially common among a specific gender and age group – females, teenagers and young adults (16-25) tend to overshare more. The more comfortable we become with social networking services such as Facebook and Instagram, the greater the potential for oversharing.
In many cases, we tend to confuse oversharing with intimacy, but as Agger shows in his book Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age, oversharing and intimacy are not the same thing. Agger writes: “Oversharing is not the same as intimacy. Intimacy is sharing based on trust.” One can switch off screen-mediated “intimacy”, whereas intimacy in the flesh requires reciprocity and commitment over time and space, and thus has duration. Agger points out that oversharing has more to do with “deboundaring” or “thin boundaries”, situations in which the boundaries between the private and public, between self and others, are weakened.
Oversharing may also be a symptom of loneliness, low self-esteem and a search for recognition and belonging. The ever-expanding reach of communication networks globally appears to have an inverted correlation to an increasing sense of loneliness. And if we connect oversharing and selfies, the selfie can in some instances be interpreted as an unusual manifestation of vulnerability and low self-esteem.
Oversharing in an age of instantaneous hyper-connection may, ironically, be a cry for durable connection grounded in real time and space. If we overshare in haste, it may just be because we’ve lost our bearings in the real world.
• Amanda du Preez is a professor in visual culture studies at the University of Pretoria’s department of visual arts. The research on which this piece is based forms part of a larger National Research Foundation project.