Why does oversharing online feel so good?
For years, I’ve made my living as a writer, often sharing personal details about my life online. I first embraced the connective power of the internet as a young mother who didn’t have much of a support network off-screen. It felt good to be honest, but I also wondered fairly often who was judging me for my online oversharing. Sometimes, I would stay awake with anxiety about the one person I knew wouldn’t like something I'd shared on Facebook or written an article about.
Still, I expanded to writing about more than just my motherhood. My community of followers expanded too. The more I wrote — whether it was an article for a media outlet or an emotionally-driven Instagram post — the easier it became. During the past 10 years of connecting with friends and followers this way, I’ve shared some of the most intimate details about my life. I talked about the end of my marriage, a new relationship and subsequent devastating break-up, and a mental health crisis that landed me in the hospital for four days.
I’m not a celebrity or an influencer so it’s not as if all eyes are on me, but I still get nervous about what I candidly reveal to the free world. What makes me keep doing it, I think, is the hoards of people who reach out to me to share their similar struggles. It feels rewarding and healing to connect over things we don’t often talk about outside of a therapist’s office.
In some ways, my online sharing was deeply ingrained to not just how I earn my living, but also, how I live my life and form my identity. It didn’t feel particularly unhealthy or harmful. But I also started wondering where my limits were — or if I had any anymore. After all, I’d talked about relationships, sex, and briefly, losing my mind. What wouldn’t I disclose?
Millennials get a bad rap for how we connect by sharing what used to be deemed “too personal.” It's something my family has struggled to understand, too. "Why did you need to write about that?" my mother sometimes asks (usually if I'm writing about sex). As a mother myself, whose daughter is close to having her own online presence, I am admittedly starting to wonder about the things my kids will read. And while I think I'm prepared to have those challenging conversations about this content, am I really? Data collected by a cyber security consultancy shows that most parents regret things they’ve shared online. I don’t have any huge regrets but I can think of a handful of pieces from early in my career that I wish I’d never written.
Luckily, my oversharing hasn’t hurt me professionally. But TMI shares — whether they’re about ethical beliefs or in the form of salacious photos — have been known to lead to firings if a company feels someone’s personal content doesn’t reflect the company’s values. It could also get really awkward if something you didn’t intend for your professional colleagues to come across ends up circulating around your workplace.
Stepping back and examining what we share online is likely a good practice for anyone — whether you’re in the spotlight or not. Most of us want to connect and relate in a way that is healthy and authentic, but not harmful. Questions like,“Does the share seem attention-seeking versus support-seeking?” and “Does it imply that anyone reading should understand the person posting really well?” are worth our consideration, says Dr. Jen Golbeck, a professor of informational studies at The University of Maryland, College Park and the author of several books about online sharing.
Basically, looking at not just what we’re sharing but why we’re sharing it is essential to understanding how our well-being relates to our interactions online. Because if we’re oversharing for validation or improved self-esteem, well, it might be painful when we don’t get what we came for. For example, posting a sexy picture to Instagram is totally your prerogative (and more power to you). But if you are indeed thirst-trapping and don’t end up garnering enough praise or attention from that one person you might’ve posted it to entice, you’re likely to feel like crap.
Connecting to people successfully online sometimes means being less successful at connecting in person. But screen-time cannot replace face-to-face interactions; it’s well-documented that IRL interactions are the ones really essential to our mental health. It can be isolating to life a life solely on-screen, yet it’s easier than ever to fall back on that when other connections aren’t easily made. This was true for me in the past, like when I was that new mother without much of a village — the beginning of my online sharing journey. I probably relied on the internet too much for relief in a way that wasn’t completely healthy. But I don’t regret it.
In terms of what to reveal and what not to, Dr. Golbeck says there isn’t one concrete answer. We all have our own boundaries. “If you're happy for that info to be out there, and you're not violating anyone else's right to consent about their lives being shared, then I think you're in an okay space,” she says. Essentially, it’s not really up to anyone else to decide what’s right for us or what should be deemed “appropriate.” As a self-proclaimed oversharer, I have to agree.
For me, there’s definitely been a learning curve over the years in terms of what to share. But overall, I’m mostly content to have my personal stories out in the world. As long as I’m being authentic, I’m content to talk about my struggles, as unflattering as they sometimes may be. My attitude is akin to the old adage: "when you learn how to heal yourself, teach others," that has become important to me in my work and in my offline life, too. I may always be an oversharer. But whatever the label, the internet is a part of me, for better or for worse. And I’m pretty okay with that.