in defence of oversharing on social media
'U ok hun? DM me xx'
You don’t need to probe too deeply to find evidence of our culture’s inclination towards online oversharing. Take the recent TikTok craze that saw teenage girls dancing to voicemail messages left by their unfaithful or abusive ex-partners. Or the concept of ‘sadfishing’ (that is, seeking sympathy by oversharing online), which earlier this year was considered a sinister enough phenomenon to have caused a minor moral panic amongst parents. Think of people cussing out their exes on their Instagram stories or in viral tweets, or your mum’s friend Carol announcing that she’s had it up to here with “fake people and backstabbers” through the medium of a vengeful, 500-word long Facebook post.
But however endemic the practice may be, it’s still usually thought of as a bad thing. We criticise the people who overshare as narcissists or attention seekers. If we’re talking about our own capacity to overshare, meanwhile, it’s usually with wry self-deprecation; another bad habit to file alongside smoking or eating too much bread. At a time when the discourse around mental health urges us to open up and talk about our feelings, it’s surprisingly rare to see a defence of oversharing. But what does the term actually mean? To accuse someone of oversharing implies there is a correct amount of personal information to share, and a respectable manner in which to go about doing it. But this is obviously subjective -- so who decides what’s too much and what metric are they using? Whether deliberately or not, the concept of oversharing can be weaponised in order to stop certain people from speaking about certain topics.
What makes oversharing difficult to define is the fact that it’s so context-dependent. “One of the things I found in my research is that there are different norms for different platforms,” says Dr Ysabel Gerrard, lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield. “No-one’s going to accuse you of oversharing on Tumblr, for example, because that’s kind of the point -- it’s supposed to be like journaling and it’s more likely to be anonymous. You’re far more likely to face this accusation on a platform where you use your real name, which is mostly the case on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.”
Even between these platforms, though, there are different norms of behaviour. It’s become a cliche that while Instagram is about how showing off how enviable your life is, on Twitter there’s reverse clout in posting knowingly about how miserable you are; there’s a particular strain of sardonic humour which involves portraying yourself as a wretched, pathetic, albeit very cultured loser. Certainly I've found myself simultaneously posting jokes about my depressive episodes on Twitter, while uploading photos of my brunch and torso to Instagram. This, Dr Gerrard suggests, is not a coincidence. “People have a huge degree of agency or autonomy over how they use platforms but the cultures around them are still really intimately tied to how the spaces were imagined by their founders. By posting in certain ways, we’re often responding to how exactly how these platforms want us to behave.”
Although it's hard to define oversharing, it's clear that when an individual is seen to violate norms on a given platform, the consequences can be damaging. Dr Christopher Hand is a lecturer in cyber-pyschology at Glasgow Caledonian University who specialises in online harassment. “What we’ve found,” he says, “is the more people tend to present about themselves, the less sympathy others have when things go wrong. People tend to be judged as bringing about their own negative experiences the more they share them.” This means that spilling the details of your private life online, in a bid to win sympathy, could be misjudged. It also suggests a disturbing callousness on the part of social media users.
It’s not quite so simple, though: Dr Hand’s research also suggests that the more you post on a given platform, purely in terms of volume, the more likely you are to be perceived as socially attractive, outgoing and vivacious. But it matters whether the content you produce is perceived as positive or negative. “That’s where the question of ‘oversharing’ gets really complicated,” Dr Hand says, “because different people perceive what is appropriate very differently.”
Behavioural norms differ across micro-communities within platforms, as well as between different ones. In the online circles I move in, tweeting about sex (often extremely crudely) and mental illness (often to an extreme degree of self-exposure) barely raises an eyebrow. But if I were a politician or a primary school teacher, this probably wouldn’t be the case. But if you do feel as though you’re overstepping the boundaries of whatever online communities you frequent, Dr Hand’s advice is simple. “Consult with people you trust,” he says. “Talk to people you have a strong relationship with in the real world.”
It’s tempting to view online oversharing as a compulsion, but in fact it can be a deliberate, considered and political act. It can also be really funny. Take Jamie Hood, for instance, a poet and writer based in New York who, alongside finishing her first book, RAPE GIRL, runs a Twitter account which is unabashedly candid about anything from sexual trauma to her day-to-day experiences as a trans woman. “My Twitter absolutely invests in oversharing as a productive concept or way of being,” she says. “I think there are countless things, intimate, personal, or other, that we should feel more license and comfort in talking about publicly.”
“I also want to use my social media to document a livable life,” she continues. “That is, I want the laments and heartbreaks and desires and sufferings of a trans woman (I don't see myself as categorical or speaking for the trans woman) to be representable as a totality -- rather than being simply a political leveraging point or else a trauma porn headline. Too often, especially in mainstream media, trans people are only our deaths, our deadnames, or our 'threat' to society. We have entire lives and interiors, and I think some of my 'oversharing' is about suggesting that I'm not simply an ideological cipher.”
For marginalised groups, speaking candidly about pain and trauma over social media can provide comfort and representation. Yes, there’s the risk of triggering (which is particularly potent when it comes to speaking about body image and eating disorders) and this shouldn’t be downplayed. But there are still ways of talking about sensitive issues responsibly, and we should also be wary of telling survivors of trauma that they should shut up and keep it to themselves. Despite what you might hear on World Mental Health Day, “opening up and talking about your feelings” is not a panacea, nor does it do anything to address the structural causes of our problems -- but some people really do find it valuable. As Dr Gerrard says, “On social media, you see people sharing stuff online in a way which they simply can’t with their friends or families. If people are sharing a lot but they’re creating a space they don’t otherwise have in their life -- then that’s amazing and can be integral to their survival.”
This is the view which Jamie takes. “I appreciate nothing more than when I share content about, say, rape trauma, or harassment, or the struggles trans women face in their daily worlds (particularly in relation to romantic disappointment) and someone reaches out either publicly or privately to tell me it made them feel part of something, or allowed them to honor their own feelings about painful shit,” she says. “This is a hard life, and it keeps getting harder. I'm not some guru or saviour, but if me being a sad slut on the timeline, who's willing to talk about almost anything, brings anyone joy or pleasure or comfort, that's the good shit! By putting myself and my privacy and my intimacies on the line, I hope I'm engendering more belonging and less shame for anyone who feels they need it..”
This gets to the heart of why oversharing can be useful. But whether it’s useful or not (sometimes it can be utterly banal), the condemnatory attitude we have towards oversharing seems strangely at odds with the culture at large. There’s a collective hypocrisy in urging people to ‘open up’ while also harshly judging any content which is symptomatic of mental distress. Does ‘opening up’ just mean calmly and dispassionately announcing that you’re struggling? Should it just be posting ‘hi guys -- i have depression right now, FYI’? Is anything else just too uncouth to be tolerated? Oversharing may not be necessarily healthy or productive; sharing your personal pain on social media may do little to diminish it, but how we perceive others pain and decide to engage with it can become more healthy. Rather than condemning oversharing, we should try to respond with a greater deal of empathy than we currently do. If we react with empathy we can utilise social media as a vehicle of support, rather than ridicule.