The internet is an emotional vampire.
Scroll through your latest social network updates—or the headlines on Medium and other blogging sites—and you’ll find countless stories in which authors have vomited up their most traumatic experiences, private thoughts, or personal struggles, from alcoholic dissipation to intense anxiety to surviving cancer.
The internet rewards these personal disclosures with attention, shares, and conversation (though that conversation can be critical or even downright cruel). In an online ecosystem in which there is ever more competition for clicks, there’s a strong incentive to mine our pain and personal relationships in order to come up with the next viral story.
It’s a temptation I have often yielded to myself—particularly in the past year, in which I’ve started to write about my experience raising an autistic son. As a chronic over-discloser, my tendency to process my feelings by puking them up in front of random strangers aligns quite nicely with the way social media feeds on emotional pain.
But I’m increasingly concerned that in its hunger for intimate human stories, the internet is transforming disclosure into a literary imperative. Those of us who were once prone to keeping our own counsel may find our stories pried out of us by eager editors hungry for page views. Those who already shared a goodly amount of our secrets are encouraged to share even more. That pressure stems both from the culture of the early social web, and the specific characteristics of today’s blogging platforms.
Over-disclosure and the birth of the social web
In her article, Blogging Infertility, Cheryl Miller neatly sums up the dilemma of today’s bloggers:
[T]he openness and transparency encouraged by the Internet pose new challenges, particularly for something as intimate as human reproduction. Allowing the world to read about—and comment on—your political opinions is one thing. Allowing the world a front-row seat to witness your struggles to conceive is another. The blogosphere’s much-heralded opportunity for connection and expression, over time and amid the cacophony of competing voices, can lead to a form of leveling that risks rendering even the most serious topics banal. And the medium’s encouragement of self-exposure can transform private pain into voyeurism.
That voyeurism is enabled by the speed with which online story-sharing has transformed from a small group activity to a public forum. Writing only five years ago, Aimée Morrison was able to describe mommy blogging as a community of “tight reciprocal networks of writer-readers built from and maintained through interlinked individual sites of textual production.” Mommy blogging was more conversation that publication, she argued, because
the communities generated through personal mommy blogging are deliberately small in scale;…these blogging texts circulate according to network rather than broadcast theories of transmission, and this distinction alters the relationships between members of this public, as well as their relations to the texts that frame their communities.
I well remember this kind of intimacy on early blogs and online communities, in which the confessional nature of many posts reflected our sense that we were speaking to a small, connected community of readers. As social media turned mainstream and blogging audiences grew, bloggers like me may have known that we were no longer speaking to a closed circle—but the changing nature of the web made our continued over-disclosure more likely, not less.
Usability feeds over-disclosure
The role of contemporary websites in fostering a culture of over-disclosure is crystallized in Alter and Oppenheimer’s article, Suppressing Secrecy Through Metacognitive Ease. Through a series of experiments and analyses, the two psychologists investigate the role of “fluency,” which they define as “the metacognitive experience of ease or difficulty associated with processing information,” in shaping the level of personal information people are willing to disclose. They present several layers of evidence for the idea that self-disclosure is influenced by the usability of an interface, whether that interface is in print…
In the first study, participants completed a social-desirability scale, which measured their willingness to disclose socially undesirable thoughts and behaviors. To examine the effects of fluency on self-disclosure, we presented the scale to participants in either a clear font or a difficult-to-read font… Participants tended to choose a greater percentage of socially desirable, nondisclosing responses when the SDS was printed in the difficult-to-read font.
…or on a screen:
Grouphug (http://www.grouphug.us) is an anonymous on-line community in which people disclose personal secrets to other readers, who correspondingly issue virtual hugs. In August 2008, the site’s creator elected to change the site’s background from black to white, which rendered the site substantially easier to read. To extend the results from our lab studies, we examined whether users’ confessions disclosed more information when the site adopted its new, easier-to-read format….Confessors tended to disclose more embarrassing information in the fluent condition than in the disfluent condition.
Alter and Oppenheimer suggest that “[g]iven the importance of eliciting self-disclosure in many contexts, physicians, Web designers, and health care practitioners might benefit from fluency-based interventions.” But they also note that “given the rise of the Internet and the proliferation of privacy-violating crimes like identity theft, internet-security programs might strategically include disfluency to deter people from too readily disclosing private information.”
The problem we have on the Web today, I would argue, is that usability has become so good that it lends itself to the kind of metacognitive ease Alter and Oppenheimer describe. Most of our online experiences cue us for over-disclosure—beginning with the world’s most widely-used social network, as Schoon and Cain describe:
The default privacy settings on Facebook allow for maximum exposure, and it’s not unreasonable to think that, in the absence of shared knowledge, the boundary between public and private becomes all the more difficult to set.
Or as Julie Cohen puts it:
There are many reasons that one might prefer not to share information about all of one’s purchases or all of one’s private correspondence with all of one’s friends. The designers of Facebook Beacon and Google Buzz betrayed a fatal insensitivity to the fine contextual distinctions that we make all the time in our interactions with the world, and to our reasons for making them.
If both the culture and the interfaces of the social web are subtly (and not so subtly) herding us towards over-disclosure, how can we safeguard both emotional health and authentic expression? As it turns out, this isn’t an entirely new problem.
Personal narrative: literary genre or therapy?
For years, composition teachers and English professors have struggled with the kinds of intimate disclosure that are often catalyzed by classroom writing, and struggled with how to draw the line between writing instruction and personal therapy.
“Had we all been sucked into the self-indulgence vortex, eagerly fulfilling our desires for expression, approval, and entertainment?” Megan Brown wonders, in an article about teaching personal narrative. “As an instructor of an autobiography course, I have frequently found myself wondering if I am somehow compelling students to disclose their feelings and experiences to me, the judge and jury, the instructor-therapist.”
In her thoughtful article on healing writing, Wendy Ryden contrasts the idea that writing “ heals because it is a way to “get it off your chest,” with the reality that students “seek out the writing classroom to enact personal narratives with some degree of publicity.” Yet seeking out an audience poses risks
due to the dynamics of confessional discourse that hover over the production of the personal and threaten to “in-authenticate” it through coercive demands for that production. Thus, we have talk-show and reality TV-styled performances that require a handing over of the subject’s story to exploitive rules of genre in order to earn the audience’s acknowledgment or absolution.In a sense, one must buy the audience with the currency of one’s story, and one’s story is then in turn bought by the larger commercial apparatus governing the event. Such commodification cedes power for the experience’s definition to a consuming audience rapaciously feeding on the fodder of others’ traumas and intimacies.
Ryden argues that the solution lies in ” a hard-working audience whose role may nonetheless be defined largely by its…attentive presence.”
But not every writer can assume that sort of thoughtful, attentive readership, observes Anne Ruggles Gere:
As Hannah Arendt has observed, some experiences “cannot withstand the glare of public light without being extinguished” (123), and many students who feel marginalized by their color, sexual orientation, traumatic experience, or some other factor may be unable to share their experiences. The light of sharing personal writing on such topics would, they know instinctively, extinguish some part of them forever. The challenge for composition teachers is to recognize and respect students’ need for silence, to resist a voice like Freud’s that argues “I shall have to hear it” when another says “I prefer not to tell you.”
As both a literary and therapeutic genre, personal narrative needs to be carefully handled. Writers need be thoughtful about their own balance of literary and healing aspirations, and whether or not an audience is essential or even conducive to their mental health.
But the Internet makes that kind of reflection difficult, since it has little room for the kind of powerful silence Gere advocates: as a medium that too-often seems to favor those who shout loudest and most often, it hardly encourages us to hold back.
Writing and reading on the wide-open web
All of us can extract a few useful insights from the ongoing conversation about personal narrative in the classroom; the work here isn’t for writers alone. The kind of audience Wendy Ryden describes—the hard-working, attentive readers—well, that’s the kind of online consumer each of us should aspire to be. For better and for worse, we have collectively created a medium that evokes extraordinary levels of personal disclosure, and if tweets and Facebook likes are any indication, we clearly want more and more of it. The least we can do as readers is to rise to the occasion, and meet those writers with the kindness their vulnerability deserves.
But it is as writers that we most need to engage with the Internet’s pressures for over-disclosure, and to marshall the insights of the writing classroom. If you ever post personal news or reflections online—whether as a blog post, Facebook update or tweet—then you may benefit from asking yourself the three specific questions suggested by the literature on the boundary between writing and healing:
- Is it safe for me to share this piece? Or is silence going to serve me better?
- Am I writing this as part of a healing process? If so, how do I expect writing will help me heal?
- Do I need an audience in order to catalyze that healing process? If so, how do I reach that audience—and only that audience?
These are questions I have learned to ask of my own writing, not only as it affects my well-being, but as it affects my son’s. To get an honest answer, I have to turn off the portion of my brain that obsesses over social media analytics, so that I don’t let the prospect of abundant page views overwhelm my self-care instincts. I use multiple Facebook lists, and target certain kinds of posts very narrowly, so they only reach the people with whom I am ready to share this specific post. And when I feel tender about a particular story I am committed to posting publicly, I try to pay attention to the comments that thank me for sharing, and to skim past the jabs aimed at my soft underbelly.
As with so many online practices, this has spillover benefits that affect my offline life too. That inner voice I’m told some people are born with—the voice that asks “do you actually want to say this?” before you open your mouth—well, it’s starting to get a little louder. Far from exacerbating my chronic over-disclosure, learning to think before I write online is teaching me to think before I talk offline. If you want to know how that has changed me, and what it says about the childhood traumas that made me so extroverted in the first place…well, I’m sure I’ll be over-disclosing soon.