Oversharing in the Online WorldJohn Cave Osborne
Have you ever made small talk with an acquaintance only to have that individual tell you something so personal that it made you uncomfortable? I ran into this guy once whom I’d met at a party and hadn’t seen since. I shook his hand and asked how he’d been. Not that great. My wife caught me cheating. Pretty sure she’s gonna leave me.
What to say? I’m so sorry. Keep your head up. Everything happens for a reason. He countered my clichés with sordid details about his “hot” mistress while I hoped that the unwanted conversation would quickly run its course. I felt…violated? Probably the wrong word, but the feeling was certainly in that neighborhood. I felt he’d infringed upon me by offering such private (and unwanted) information.
I obsessed over the encounter for a week, vacillating between feeling like a victim and a jerk. After all, he was obviously hurting and just needed to air things out. To publicly own something awful he’d done. Who was I to begrudge him for that?
Someone with healthy boundaries.
At least according to a good friend of mine. But not just any good friend. One who’d gotten a PhD in psychology at Oxford. He explained why I felt the way I did by using the letter V.
The concept is simple. The further you get down into the V, the more intimate you are. At the top of the letter, it’s wide open — plenty of room for all the people you barely know. Acquaintances are here. And the woman you sat next to on the bus this morning. And that old man behind the newsstand.
As you get down to the middle of the letter, there’s not as much room, but there aren’t as many people, either. Your friends. Your co-workers. The people who are a regular part of your lives.
And at the very bottom of the V, there’s hardly any room at all, only enough for the people with whom you’re most intimate. Your spouse. Your family. Your very best friends.
It stands to reason, then, that the further down the V you go, the more intimate your exchanges become. That guy I randomly ran into? He was at the top of my V. Which meant that I was expecting some small talk about the weather, not the confessions of an adulterer. And my feeling of faint violation, my friend explained, was due to the fact that he had disregarded my boundaries. He chose an inappropriately intimate thing to discuss given our (relatively nonexistent) relationship.
I read something yesterday that made me think of the V. It was a piece by Lisa Belkin on the Huffington Post entitled What Should Parents NEVER Share Online? In it, she cited two controversial pieces which had prompted the most recent iteration of this oft-asked question. One was written by Dara Lynn-Weiss for Vogue. It detailed the aggressive diet she forced upon her seven-year-old daughter and even contained a confession that Lynn-Weiss had resorted to publicly humiliating her daughter when she once vocalized a desire for cake. The other piece appeared on Salon and was written by Jennifer Coburn who discussed in great detail the breakup text her 14-year-old daughter received from her first boyfriend. Both pieces drew considerable outrage, in part for the actions they described, but even more for the online sharing of intimate and potentially damaging information about the little girls.
I didn’t bother checking either article out, much for the same reason that I didn’t enjoy my encounter with the adulterer. I’m not interested in a reading about a random little girl’s first breakup, and I’m certainly not interested in a mom who thinks her pre-pubescent girl is too fat. But I am interested in the topic of oversharing. It’s something I think about as it pertains to my writing quite often, which is one reason why I always kept the V in mind.
I’m going to pause here to throw out a disclaimer. I do blog professionally, after all. And since I don’t personally know the vast majority of my readers, if I were to follow the V to a T (I’d get to Vermont?), I’d be blogging about how well I hoped everyone’s day was going. And that probably wouldn’t do anyone a lot of good. So, like any other personal blogger, I’ve made a conscious decision to “let people in,” but only to an extent one that my wife and I constantly evaluate.
And when we do decide that a certain story is okay to share, particularly one that could be deemed intimate, I do my best to write a post that’s sewn together by an uplifting thread such that it’s obvious that its intent is to inspire and build rather than shock and destruct. But as often as not, I try to steer clear of even those. For the more intimate stories you share, the fewer that remain.
Which is not to say that constantly sharing intimate stories doesn’t have its place online. It does. For example, one of my favorite bloggers writes about her special-needs children, and she pretty much leaves no stone unturned. Same thing with a close friend who often blogs about teen drug addiction. Both, in my opinion, are offering up some of their intimacy in the name of a greater good. And both, in my opinion, are accomplishing exactly what they’d hoped to accomplish by doing such.
But that’s not the type of intimacy I usually run across while reading parenting blogs. I’ve read more “shocking” posts in our genre than I care to remember, although sadly, by their very nature, they’re hard to forget. Some contained veiled references to suicide. Others detailed unfulfilling sex lives. And others, still, confessed to loving one child more than another. All such posts made me wince, much like I did at hearing the news my Seattle acquaintance shared. And unlike the bloggers who share details in the name of a specific cause, these bloggers don’t seem as benevolent, as I can’t see what greater good could possibly be gained by sharing extremely sensitive and potentially harmful information about your spouse, your child or yourself.
The skeptic inside me wonders if such people aren’t willingly trading a part of themselves — a part of their family — for a wider audience. I hope not, because that would be awfully shortsighted. For I remain convinced that in 20 years, there will be a very expansive (and lucrative) wing of psychology that deals with the inadvertent destruction left in the wake of the Internet over-sharer.
Some will argue that by sharing such intimate details, even the extremely personal and shocking ones, they’re confiding in the Internet community which is quick to rally around them and give them the support they need. But I would argue that all they’re really doing is diluting the intimacy they should be sharing with the ones they love most. And that such dilution is not only bad for their loved ones, but also bad for them.
Because a tree with many roots which are spread far and wide topples easily in the storm while the one with but a few that stretch deep into the earth can withstand most anything. Which is why I always try to honor that tiny little corner at the very bottom of the V when I’m online. The place that belongs only to the people I cherish most. The ones who serve as my roots and ground me to this planet. Because without them, I’m nothing.
No matter how many eyeballs my writing gets.
Read more of JCO Multiplied: 15 Things Every Stepparent Should Know, The 7 Deadly Sins of Fatherhood, 8 Reasons Family Road Trips Kill Your Soul Dead, or Raising Pretty Girls
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