March 4, 2024

I recently made a new friend, and we instantly became Instagram mutuals. From her posts I get a sense of what she does on weekends and what she likes to cook. It helps me get to know her even though we don’t see each other often.

As I learned about her hobbies and how many brothers she had, I also noticed how much the act of sharing personal details had evolved. The photos or thoughts I casually posted online without a second thought might once be considered too much to broadcast. Who needs to know what I bought at the farmer’s market or how long I waited for the subway? But none of my friends or followers bat an eye, and they share in the same way – if not more – about their activities as well.

It is clear that what is considered redistribution has changed. How much of our lives do we have to share to reach that point?

Last year, a paper of Psychological Reports published the first psychological scale to measure judgment. The researchers gave teenagers a questionnaire that asked how much of their thoughts, emotions and personal life events they posted online. They suggested that oversharing is not just a thing, but that there may be some troubling psychological conditions associated with oversharing. The findings raise questions about why we post about our lives at all, and how we might define oversharing in a digital age.

ohno definition of the classification put forward by a 2012 psychology paper is that it is an “excessive generosity with information about one’s private life or the private lives of others”. Of course, what is considered “excessive” is open to interpretation. Considering something as a share versus an overshare will almost always be a subjective evaluation that depends on what is considered normal in certain eras or contexts. For example, influencers share a lot because they are paid to do so.

But with the internet, non-influencers have been given more spaces to share and judge.

The ways and amount that people share online can differ from their offline lives. The sociologist Ben Agger wrote in the book Oversharing: Presentations of Self in the Internet Age that a person who overshares online “reveals more of their inner feelings, opinions and sexuality than they would in person, or even over the phone”.

Online, “there’s almost nothing that can’t be shared,” says Reza Shabahang, a psychologist at the University of Tehran and first author of the sharing scale study.

To learn more about how people share online, Shabahang and his colleagues asked 352 teenagers in Iran to say how often they posted their feelings, opinions and values ​​on social media. Then the researchers asked if the teens enjoyed sharing this information, how much they posted about their personal lives, and if they thought there was anything “too personal” to disclose online. Teens who shared a lot online had higher levels of anxiety and attention-seeking tendencies. These teens also reported feeling higher levels of worry and an excessive attachment to social media, and many had an “intense urge to post.”

Judgment comes in many forms, such as “sadfishing”, or negative online sharing for the purpose of seeking sympathy. In 2023, Shabahang and colleagues develop A Social Media Sadfishing Questionnaire and found that this behavior is also associated with anxiety, depression and attention seeking. This is in line with another study from 2018, which found that people with greater social anxiety are more likely to engage in what the authors called “toxic self-disclosure,” or online disclosures that have negative effects such as isolation or cyberbullying, or negative effects on mental health.

But there is an element to redistribution that is not just about frequency or content. For example, I wouldn’t blink at a good friend who posts something very personal to her private stories, and we all know from experience that sharing online can bring you closer to people and communities, rather than just having negative consequences. There seems to be something else that causes a post to occur and act as a redistribution.

The rating scale of Shabahang and his colleagues is based on a psychological concept from 1973 called social penetration theory (SPT), from Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor.

Altman and Taylor thought that “self-disclosure” was critical to how people develop relationships; as time goes on, people share more personal information with each other. In SPT, there are two ways to self-disclose: with breadth, the number of topics you share about; and with depth, how deep you go about one subject. Width usually comes first, then depth.

Too much – or too little – sharing can stop a relationship in its tracks. “You want your level of intimacy to be kind of the same,” says Emmelyn Croes, an assistant professor at Tilburg University who studies how people get to know each other through communication technologies. “You don’t want to share very intimate details when someone doesn’t reciprocate.” Conversely, sharing works optimally when we reciprocate information in similar ways and this back-and-forth inspires us to draw closer.

There is more to it than, say, an objective daily score. If a person posts more or less than you, or what you believe is appropriate, you may feel that the poster is over- or over-dividing. But another person may disagree depending on their own opinions and practices.

Practices also evolve over time, meaning that what is considered “too much” can change, and there is also potentially significant cultural variation. Croes studied “momfluencers”, which became less accepting about publishing information or pictures of children online. This flexibility means that there may be cases in which sharing is seen as more authentic, or better for relationships, compared to a carefully understated social presence. Last year, some Instagram users called to “making Instagram comfortable again”, preferring less stylized “photos” to single, beautifully shot photos.

Algorithms make it more complicated, said Aparajita Bhandari, a critical media researcher at the University of Waterloo, because a person cannot fully control who their content is shown to. Because of social media’s recommendation systems, your content can be shared with people you don’t know. “Those boundaries of personal versus public are being pushed in these new spaces we’re in,” Bhandari said.

I asked my younger sister, who is 23, about her and her friends’ thoughts on sharing online. She agreed that it’s nuanced: they all have multiple accounts on different platforms. On Instagram, it’s common to have private, public, and spam accounts. It is frowned upon to judge on your main account – this is where carefully selected photos live. Private or spam accounts are for posting more with less judgment from others, and with that reciprocity of judgment built in.

ohverse sharing can have negative mental side effects because it can affect real life experiences, Shabahang said. For example, at a gathering, a person “might get caught up in taking a good photo” for social media, Shabahang said. “Then they lose the real pleasure of spending time with their friend.”

Yet disclosing information about ourselves is part of how we communicate who we are. The sociologist Erving Goffman argued in his influential book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life that presenting ourselves to other people is a process of impression management; sharing is a way to control what and how others think about us.

So sharing online is not a bad thing: when people interact in person or online, people try to learn about each other. It’s not just curious: this information helps define what people can expect from each other, and what their relationship will be. Goffman called these sources of information “sign vehicles”; this includes the environment where you meet someone, their appearance, how they interact with you. We can add social media accounts to that list.

I asked a friend who doesn’t have social media accounts if there are any downsides to being offline. She said she sometimes feels out of touch with major life events such as births and deaths. But her friend who recently had a daughter sent an email to people who weren’t on social media so they could hear the news. “I found it very moving,” she said.

Goffman wrote that just as a play involves a stage and a backstage, so does social life. The front is where the actor performs, and backstage is where they prepare for the role. It is easy to apply these thoughts to the Internet and social media: the Internet is the stage where we present our activities and thoughts, and backstage is offline. Spend too much time in either place, and you might miss out.

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