Thanks to social media, what was once perceived as ‘too much information’ is now the new norm. Jennifer Lipman urges us to consider whether we should think more carefully before we click...
At a concert recently, I decided to tell the world what I was doing. I tweeted a picture of the performer and ‘checked in’ on Facebook, tagging my companion as being there at the show with me.
Why bother? I wasn’t seeing a particularly cutting edge band, nor did I have a particularly enviable view. The friend was my former housemate; I wasn’t going to win ‘cool’ points by identifying that we’d spent the evening together.
But letting people know what we’re up to is becoming the norm. According to Ofcom, we spend more than 20 hours online every week, with almost three quarters of us using social media and 80% logging on daily. From photos of our dog/baby/cake to mummy bloggers debating breastfeeding; and from the surreptitious Twitter check while in the office to extreme examples like live-blogging your labour pains, people are increasingly happy to share – or overshare.
So what’s behind this? Well, thanks to technology and especially smartphones, sharing comes easily. “I’m not sure how much of this is a matter of choice,” says Professor Tom Buchanan of the University of Westminster, who has been researching online behaviour since the 1990s. He notes that the platforms are designed to prompt ‘frictionless sharing’, constantly encouraging us to broadcast to the world.
Vicky, who blogs professionally at SingleMotherAhoy.com, points out that whereas when we relied on landlines, we were careful who we trusted with our number, “nowadays people keep their mobile next to them 24/7. We want to know everything that’s going on.” Equally, society is no longer set up to reward privacy. We need to disclose personal details to shop online, for example, while jobseekers can’t avoid being on LinkedIn, and
if someone doesn’t have a Google footprint, we are instinctively suspicious. Is sharing just another part of that?
What’s clear is that it’s at least partially about us craving approval. “It’s this deep need that lots of people have, even if posting what they’ve had for breakfast, to be noticed, verified, thought of as interesting,” says Dr
Jane McCartney, a consultant chartered psychologist who runs the weight-loss forum stopovereating.co.uk. She suggests social media has given rise to a belief that we can be well known for far more than Warhol’s 15 minutes.
Of course, we tend to share a photo-shopped version of our lives (quite literally; a survey by Photoion Photography School found that 68% of adults will only share edited images). “People like to subtly (or not so subtly) boast about the good stuff – isn’t my husband wonderful? Aren’t my children the cutest?” says Francesca, who blogs at theparentsocial.com. “It’s a way to project a certain image.”
And it’s not necessarily healthy. “There’s a risk we make ourselves sadder by thinking everyone has a more interesting life – forgetting we only put up the good, fun stuff,” adds Tom Stewart, who runs tech consultancy System Concepts.
Still, for the army of bloggers sharing personal matters, it’s not purely about approval. Vicky has been blogging for 15 years. “I set up my blog as an outlet,” she explains. “I wrote about having a breakdown and escaping an abusive relationship.” She was overwhelmed by the feedback. “I found that reading my words was helping others. So many people think they’re suffering alone.”
What’s unarguable is that our boundaries have shifted, on and offline. Looking back to when Princess Diana died, the outpouring of grief – considered so unBritish – seems positively tempered with the benefit of hindsight. These days, emotional moments such as engagements or births happen in public, and we’ve become more open about discussing once taboo subjects like depression.
Some suggest it’s a generational thing. As McCartney points out, older people appreciate when sharing becomes oversharing, because they’ve grown up with established boundaries, “whereas the under 18s just see everyone doing it and it’s normalised. The boundaries are not as entrenched.”
Not that older age-groups aren’t sharing; Ofcom found that half of those aged 55 to 64 are on social media. They may use sites like Facebook differently – fewer selfies, more snaps of the grandchildren – but sharing is hardly just for the kids.
Worryingly, the long-term implications of this disregard for privacy are unknown; it’s easy to forget that Facebook was only founded in 2004. Technology, warns Stewart, has opened up possibilities “quicker than we have developed the new skills and etiquette to deal with it”.
And, he adds, pointing to the risk of identity theft, “the personal nature of smartphones encourages people to forget that they are doing the equivalent of standing on a mountain and shouting.”
It’s not just data that is vulnerable. Francesca’s sister-in-law posted about going abroad, and returned to find that her home had been burgled. “It could have been a nasty coincidence, but when you stop and think, broadcasting your impending absence is never going to be a good idea,” she reflects. “The information doesn’t necessarily stay within your friendship groups.”
And once out there, it’s out there for good. If someone – a boss, an ex – wants to dig up dirt, the sarcastic tweets or drunken photos you posted when it was just you and your phone are there for the taking. “People don’t take that into consideration… they think they can delete it,” McCartney sighs. “They have to have in their heads that if they’ve pressed send, someone will have it.”
Vicky was on a date recently when it emerged the man had read her blog, which made her feel rather uncomfortable. “He wanted to make conversation about the things I’d written, as if I’d told him personally,” she says. As a result, there was no second date, though she remains sanguine. “You could attract a weirdo like that walking around the supermarket.”
She chose not to blog about the bad date, but many do, posing an ethical question: is the story all yours to share? Indeed, Buchanan points out that sharing is sometimes forced upon us, such as when we are tagged in a Facebook photo that may reveal things about your life that you’d rather keep under wraps. Yet we have little opportunity to give consent, while social media companies are notoriously poor at removing contentious information.
This is particularly pronounced for parent bloggers; schools have to get permission to take photographs in order to protect pupils’ privacy and identity, for example, but there’s nothing to stop mummy writing about her child’s habits for all the world to read. Aside from concern that pictures might be exploited by online predators, the question is whether, when the kids grow up, they’ll mind. “That child might turn round in 20 years and say it’s fine, but they might say it’s not,” warns McCartney.
“I do worry about the amount some parent bloggers share about their children,” agrees Jo of slummysinglemummy.com – and front of mind is the fact that her children read her blog. “It might get you a lot of traffic to talk about how dull parenting is, but how are those children going to feel in years to come?”
So where does the line lie? When is it too much information?
Jo will only share things she’d say to someone’s face. After a recent break-up, she blogged about her distress, but omitted the details. “My personal feelings feel more like mine to share, whereas a relationship is a joint project.”
For Francesca, the line is drawn at blogging about your sex life, or about a personal grievance. “I especially hate to see people berate their other halves online,” she says. “Sort it out in person!” Yet, like other bloggers, she’s conscious that there’s no hard and fast rule; mostly we make it up as we go along. “Am I disclosing too much? You have to go with your gut,” says McCartney.
What’s clear is that we need to figure out the etiquette of sharing – and fast. The platforms we use may change, with young people reportedly leaving Facebook in droves, but our enthusiasm for sharing looks unlikely to wane. “Many people – particularly the generation growing up with social media as a key part of their lives – are going to have to grapple with some complicated issues about privacy and self-presentation over the next few years,” agrees Buchanan.
In the meantime, the advice is to think before we click. “Perhaps every smartphone should have a 20-second delay,” suggests McCartney. She sighs. “People will never go for that.”