Growing Up in Public

Two years ago, a letter writer to the Sunday New York Times Magazine submitted the following question to a column called The Ethicist:

“Many of my friends on Facebook are having babies. Nearly every time I log on, I see (in my news feed) many pictures of these babies, almost to the point of oversharing. Now, I love babies and feel it’s acceptable to post a photo from a holiday gathering or a first picture of a newborn. But when this happens every day from a specific acquaintance, is it a violation of the baby’s privacy?”

The relevant question here isn’t whether an infant has a legal right to prevent her/his likeness from appearing online (that’s another story for another post). Of interest here is our compulsion to telegraph ourselves through the Internet, which remains one of the most polarizing aspects of social technology. How much information is too much information?

May your life someday be as awesome as you pretend it to be on Facebook.This is not a diatribe against Facebook. There is nothing more wonderful than catching up with old friends or enjoying the kindness of our extended network. It’s digital cross-pollination at its best. However, there is also something disconcerting about our weirdly obsessive tendency to document the self-measured events of our lives. We want the world to know what’s happening because the events that we report are uniquely ours. And yet, what we choose to reveal creates an interesting dynamic regarding the amount of tolerance we assume to have among our personal relationships.

It’s not uncommon to use social media to celebrate our personal successes or milestones. Facebook, in particular, is an easy jumping-off point for others who want to find us online, so we naturally want to put forward our best image. In a sense, the fairy-tale digital marketing that one does is not that different from other behaviors conducted offline, such as when we put on our best clothes for a job interview. The everyday anxieties that plague our self-esteem and performance retreat into the background; up front, we are confident and successful.

George Costanza in Seinfeld clearly oversharing his worst assets.
George Costanza in a famous Seinfeld bit, clearly oversharing his worst assets.

In many ways, the Facebook post has become a sort of interstitial greeting to confirm our continued relevance on the planet. If we don’t hear anything from a friend or follower after a period of time, Facebook allows us to “poke” that user into providing us an update. Perhaps we’re genuinely concerned by the silence and just want to be reassured that everything is fine. Or it could be that we’re seeking some sort of balance: I posted seven updates this week, so the least my friends could do is let me know that they’re still alive.

Facebook status saying "Our marriage is over"Sometimes, though, the tendency to reveal too much creates an uncomfortable blurring of social boundaries. Consider the case of Michael Ellsberg. At the end of July 2014, Ellsberg posted to his 25,000 followers that his marriage was breaking up. His former wife, Jena la Flamme, posted the same message on her wall. Publicly breaking the news about their divorce represented what journalist Hannah Seligson called “managing the marital brand, even after its dissolution, creating and honing their message much like a corporate news release.”

The psychological motivation behind this behavior, according to a team of researchers in North Carolina, is the predictably narcissistic desire for acceptance. Among 515 college undergraduates and 669 adults profiled, the study showed that the rate at which a person tweets or updates a Facebook status can be tied to one’s self-image. According to the results of this survey, older users (who did not grow up with the Internet and often need a calculated reason for updating one’s status) preferred Facebook as their vehicle of choice.

The age demarcation between social media platforms is notable. Although it’s mistakenly thought to be a young person’s game, the use of Facebook has now been declining steadily among teenage users for nearly three years. At the same time, a Pew Research report confirms that more than half of Facebook’s users are aged 65 and older. Most Facebook users typically log on least once per day, and some resort to drastic means if they are unable to access their accounts for any length of time.

Cover of Craig Brod's 1984 book TechnostressAll that being said, the tendency to overshare is not necessarily (or even fundamentally) a bad thing. One could even argue that technology has made us more social, not less. Rather than close us off from the world, social media provides a vehicle for us to find companionship during times of personal turbulence, often exposing us to support resources that would otherwise be unavailable. This wasn’t always the case with the digital world. As a point of comparison, here’s an excerpt from Craig Brod’s 1984 book Technostress about one mother’s frustration after buying a computer for her introverted eleven-year-old son, Bill:

“I thought I was doing something good when I bought the computer. I figured Bill would like it and watch TV less. The problem is now it’s the thing he likes to do most. He always had difficulty playing with other kids, but now he doesn’t even make an attempt. I’m sorry I ever brought it home.”

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