Are you over-sharing online?

Social media gives us an instant, remote community to share our lives with, be it funny stories from our day or emotional support in times of need. But do you know who you are truly sharing your posts with? Are you over-sharing? And if so, why do we do it?

by Ali Roff

oversharing online, saying too much online

Online over-sharing – we see it everywhere.  

But why is it that grown-up people put their personal lives up online, visible to hundreds, thousands or even millions of readers or viewers, that in times past they would only have wanted to share with close friends?

Dr David R Brake identifies the reasons why we over-share online:

  1. We aren't getting the physical cues that would tell us how many people are reading or viewing what we post. The moment you write a post or snap a picture, it is generally just you and your phone or computer interacting. Of course, your favourite social network service does give you some indication. When it tells you, however, that you are about to share something with your 'friends' that might give you the impression that status update is only going to the people who really like you. It is easy to forget that the average person on Facebook, for example, has 200 'friends'. If - as one in five of us does - you allow your posts to be read by 'friends of friends' the number of potential readers shoots up to tens of thousands. One study has indicated that the average Facebook poster underestimates their audience size by a factor of four.
  2. You also can’t get as clear a sense of their reaction to what you have sent. Say something to someone face to face and you have the chance to see what they think of it. On the telephone you can hear someone’s tone of voice as they reply to what you say. But with social media people can read what you write or hear what you say without giving a response – and I found that because people enjoy posting and enjoy imagining positive responses to what they post, they tend to envision their audiences as friendly – even to the point of forgetting negative reactions they can arise.
  3. It’s easy to forget how long your 'digital trail' lingers. The social meaning of posts changes over time – youthful indiscretions that would once have been forgotten can now be unearthed years later, and pictures of a child posted by proud parents might turn out to be an embarrassment once that child had grown up. If there are visible reactions they tend to appear within a short time of a given post, and social media websites usually present the most recent postings most visibly, giving you the impression that those postings are transient like conversations. However they can have a lingering 'afterlife' – indexed by search engines for example – and are normally kept by the social media companies themselves, used to build up a picture of their users to help marketers sell to them.
  4. A number of big industries rely on your willingness to 'share' what is happening in your life (perhaps 'reveal' would be more apt). As a result, there are plenty of advertising messages encouraging you to sign up for services and purchase devices that enable you to share more. Moreover, as friends increasingly belong to such services, the pressure grows for everyone to stay and participate in them or risk missing out.

Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks And Exposure In Social Media by Dr David Brake (Palgrave, £16.99) is out now.

More inspiration:

Read Online photos: do or die! about online dating on LifeLabs

Read Sex, lies and social media by David Head on LifeLabs

Photograph: iStock