The internet is a weird place. We interact with people by the thousands (some even millions) every day, but through a middleman. Our communication transcends geographical boundaries and language barriers. We form friendships with total strangers. Sometimes, we’re who we say we are. Sometimes, we say we are someone totally different, or better versions of our true selves. Rarely, though, does our internet presentation bring our whole selves to the table.
The internet is also incredibly new, and its wide accessibility is even newer. It was fully commercialized in 1995, and the number of people globally who use the internet was at 7.4 billion in 2017. What I’m getting at here is that interacting over the internet, relationship-building via the internet, self-presentation, and societal expectations on the internet—all of these are so new, we are still navigating them.
What I want to talk about today is sharing personal information online, and oversharing.
Body language, non-verbal noises, facial expressions—they’re all social cues we as humans use to understand how a person reacts to what we say and do. Some people are better at reading people’s reactions than others. But online, these social cues are removed. Did that person not respond to what I said intentionally because it upset them, or did they just get distracted? Or did they not have a good response? We’re left feeling obsessive when we check time stamps and read receipts, backlogs of communication to search for hints of annoyance with us. But really, what we’re doing is human nature. We’re searching for social cues that are removed from our virtual interactions.
There’s also a perceived anonymity of interacting in a virtual way. People are much more likely to lash out at others on the internet, or bare their souls to the world. Of course, we know that anonymity in this day and age is long gone. We connect our names, faces, email addresses, IP addresses, geographic locations, etc. to almost everything we do on the internet. It’s frighteningly easy to find out someone’s entire life history through a Google search. People get fired or not hired for jobs constantly because of it.
The paradox of virtual interaction is that it can feel both intensely intimate and impersonal all at once. The psychology of it fascinates me. But the intimacy is what I want to address here.
I see the good and bad of this paradox. People who would have previously not had communities and resources are now able to. Minorities. Artists. Authors. Having a community is essential to human survival, and the accessibility to a virtual community is incredibly beneficial for many. But there is also a trend to feed on misery. For unwell people to tell each other it’s okay to not try to get better. For complacent people to tell each other it’s okay to remain complacent. For people to only have to associate with people who look, think, and act just like them. These are all the dark and damaging parts of virtual interaction.
One pattern that I have noticed has emerged from the misery feeding frenzy is for people to overshare. Here are some examples of intimate overshares I’ve seen, usually blasted out to one’s entire online following, or sent to internet friends without content warnings: death of loved ones, personal health issues, mental breakdowns, past or current abuse, and past or current toxic relationships.
First, the why. I think it’s people who have the combination of A. thirsting for a community, and B. experiencing falsely perceived intimacy. I don’t think these people are bad people, and I don’t think they are thinking much before sending this information out into the world. I think they’re probably very lonely, and I get that. We live in a world that’s literally disintegrating before our very eyes. We work more jobs, more hours every year for stagnant wages and little to no healthcare. We are asked “how are you” every day, and are expected to say “good” when we’re falling apart. This world, the human experience—it’s all lonely. Life is lonely.
What I want to communicate to these people, though, is that our online presences do not exist in a vacuum. If it’s not already obvious, a lot of us are just barely hanging by a thread. Seeing an account of someone’s trauma without being asked if we want to see that can really derail a person’s mental and emotional well-being. When one person discloses something dark and personal, the person (or people) receiving that information take on a portion of that emotional burden.
We talk about sexual consent now, but we don’t talk about consent in other areas of interpersonal interaction. That, to me, needs to change. Because when you send a tweet to thousands of people about something that will emotionally affect them and don’t bother to ask them if they’ll be okay if they see it, there’s no consent involved. If you direct message a person you’ve had fun small talk with and tell them about your trauma without asking if they are okay hearing that information, there’s no consent involved there either.
I understand it’s hard to determine if the people you interact with online are acquaintances, close friends, family, or strangers. Truly, I do get that. But the rule here should be that you always, no matter what, ask the people you are speaking to if they want to hear the ultra-personal thing you want to share. No one is obligated to be your emotional dumping ground. No one is obligated to act as your stand-in therapist, or see you as a best friend. No one is obligated to be there for you when you’re not feeling well, or answer endless questions about identity to help you find yourself. All of those things are emotional labor people do willingly, and after consenting to doing them.
I’ll close here with a request to you, because if you’re reading this, you’re obviously interacting with people online. Be intentional about what you put out there. Every statement you make has a consequence. The internet acts as a megaphone, both amplifying and spreading the tonality of your messages. Be aware of the messages you choose to spread. And please, ask for consent before you overshare.