The Magazine

We Shall Overshare

Mary Katharine Ham, twitterer.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Allison is "furious. They think they'll break me, but they will only make me fight harder in the end."

Either I've got a friend in a gulag somewhere or I've got one who's tripped over one of the potholes of modern life--the overshare. Given that her message didn't arrive via waterborne bottle or scribbled in the margins of a dusty Russian novel, but via her Facebook update, I think it's safe to say that her little tiff at work hasn't placed her in physical danger.

It has, however, caused her to illustrate the dangers of living a life online. As millions of us have taken to MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to connect with friends, share stories, and post pictures at a speed and volume heretofore unknown, we've also exponentially multiplied ways to humiliate ourselves. It's perhaps understandable then that the online life has its detractors. Facebook has been dubbed "mind-numbingly dull" and Twitter a service for "people who need to expose as much of their lives to public scrutiny as possible." As an enthusiastic user of both, I concede that these statements are true. Yet I cannot spurn the new social media. As a result, my online life is a balancing act.

Sure, I could settle for a routine in which only traditional social skills are required, but where's the fun in that? I long ago mastered not talking with my mouth full and placing a napkin in my lap, and still felt the world needed people like me--pioneers of electronic propriety--to make tough choices. Is my personal hygiene regimen or lack thereof fit for public consumption? Probably not. What about a pictorial on the proper position for a keg stand? Not a good idea, regardless of my prowess. Does my social circle need to know that the sour cream at Chipotle tastes "a little off"? Tough call. Could be a public health issue.

It's a daily game of public Frogger, hopping frantically to avoid being crushed under the weight of your own narcissism, banality, and plain old stupidity. Just as it took Alexander Graham Bell a couple of tries on the telephone to realize that "Hoy! Hoy!" simply wasn't going to work as the standard greeting, so it took a brave South African man to discover that calling your boss a "serial masturbator" on Facebook will get you fired. There are thousands oversharing online as I write, paying the price with a gradual erosion of their dignity, so you don't have to.

Ironically, the antidote I've found for my own tendency to overshare online is more sharing online. Everything on my Facebook and Twitter pages is openly available. It's amazing how reasonably you act when everyone you know (and many you don't) is watching you.

I make a conscious decision to broadcast my life every day, and I accept the consequences. In a way it's a quintessentially conservative formula: The extent to which you take personal responsibility for your actions dictates the risks and benefits of your online existence.

For me, the weird ("Will you send me a picture of your feet?") and embarrassing (thank you to whoever uploaded the middle-school band photos) is outweighed by the rewarding (getting to see my cousins more than once a year). Facebook is such a natural extension of my daily life that it became a fitting public place to memorialize my grandmother with a simple picture when she passed away. What others would do at a gravesite, I did on Facebook.

There's another attitude I've resolved to cultivate. Even though the new social technologies are built to feel like they're all about you, it helps to remember they're not. When pondering another photo shoot for my profile picture the other day, I couldn't help recalling the Facebook users who raised $800,000 for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital only last week.

Similarly, when I'm tempted to post self-pitying status updates that sound like I'm in prison instead of my condo, it occurs to me that Twitter and Facebook also host actual dissidents. Their status updates were a frightening enough breath of freedom that Iran blocked Facebook last week, only to lift the ban days later as Ahmadinejad distanced himself from the unpopular crackdown. Every new technology needs its pioneers. Many are banal, but some are truly brave.

They make me think of other pioneers. The historian Donald Jackson recounts that Lewis and Clark "wrote constantly and abundantly,  .  .  .  legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose." So do I, and almost always in 140 characters or less.

MARY KATHARINE HAM