What with the internet and social media, the society we are currently living in nurses a culture of oversharing. We now share everything, including our bodies, tastes, habits and histories; nothing really is taboo. Without a second thought, we let those we know, our ‘friends’ or followers, what we’re reading, eating, where we’re going and what we’re buying. At face value, this may seem harmless though there is plainly a sinister undercurrent to this seemingly innocuous habit.
More and more, we offer up our personal information to be consumed by others, the essence of the issue lying in the fact that all of our actions have become performative and about marketing, be it a service, product or most often ourselves. Though this fascination with the intimate details of people’s lives is nothing new, this “narcissism epidemic”, as The Guardian refers to it, can be traced to the rise in popularity of reality TV, from shows like The Real World to Big Brother to Keeping Up With The Kardashians which glamorized the minutae of the everyday and gave audiences a taste for ever more in-depth access to peoples’ lives.
Effectively, sharing everything about ourselves on social media creates a ‘cult of the self’ where the ordinary and banal is made exciting with the automatic assumption that others are interested to hear about it. Scrolling through my Facebook feed, I see incredibly personal posts about chronic illnesses, people opening up about their sexuality and generally filling us in on almost everything, even what they had for lunch. Though there are undeniably positive aspects to this
honest direct approach to sharing, my first impression is that it indicates a fundamental insecurity, a fragility where we look outwards for affirmation and approval rather than inwards.
This apparent self-confidence actually masquerades as insecurity as we are totally dependent on others in how we see ourselves. Though we might share some good news that we are excited about, such as a pregnancy or a promotion at work, by putting it on social media we are also seeking approval from our audiences. So often is it the case that someone will share a photo of themselves that they feel confident about, only to remove it days later because it hasn’t accumulated the right amount of likes to justify its being on their profile. The phenomenon is entirely different to self-love as rather than looking inwards and being content with oneself one must look outwards to achieve a similar degree of satisfaction.
Earlier this month, Anna Freedman wrote an interesting piece for Dazed and Confused magazine about the Kylie Jenner’s decision to delay releasing news of her pregnancy until after the birth of her daughter Stormi. Freedman writes of how the young woman’s decision was “a masterclass in how to publicly strategise the private and intimate phenomenon of motherhood”. Much like the oversharing that has proved so profitable for her family, Kylie Jenner has now shown how “privacy and intimacy can be employed as skillful marketing tactics”. Even privacy is now a marketing tool, though it is important to remember that this ‘privacy’ swiftly came to an end after the birth when an 11 minute video was shared chronicling her journey through pregnancy to mollify fans who felt they had been kept in the dark. Kylie Jenner is only one of many who have shown that online performance now knows no bounds, promoting the idea that the key to success lies in the ‘share’ button.
Like all things, though, it’s not all bad; undeniably, there are some positives to this direct approach to social media. Things that were once taboo, such as medical or mental health conditions, for example, are more widely discussed. Similarly, sharing platforms can be used to find like-minded people or those that you identify with, the internet often acting as a space for marginalized groups, such as the LGBT community, to come together. We are becoming more and more confident with expressing ourselves and, in this way, wearing our hearts on our sleeve, though while this approach may be direct it is not necessarily honest. Though we might share a lot about ourselves, we share carefully and choose exactly what we want people to know or to see to align with how we want to be perceived.
In sharing intimate details of our everyday lives, it is no surprise that studies show that narcissistic traits are becoming more common and more pronounced, particularly among young people who are the principal users of these sharing platforms.
The graph shows the Narcissistic Personality Inventory score set against the year, gleaned from an online self-test, it being clear that there has been a definite rise in narcissistic traits in recent years. This trend is clearly only likely to continue in a society that tells us that everything we do is fascinating and that everyone would like to hear about it. Zoe Williams again puts it well writing for The Guardian as she sums up the belief as “once you are important enough, nothing is mundane”. In sharing everything about our lives, we are hoping – consciously or not – to obtain some kind of approval or reassurance about ourselves that is undoubtedly a hugely unhealthy habit. TIME magazine recently ran an article that links poor mental health to social media usage, particularly of Instagram, accounting for higher levels of depression and anxiety based on poor self-esteem. When we log in to our social media accounts, we are bombarded with stories of our friends going out or on holiday, news of their successes and photos showing just how attractive they are, inevitably leading to negative comparison making about ourselves.
So much of this oversharing is borne out of the need to market oneself – so telling about the society that we live in. Nowadays, the individual is king, a philosophy that breeds the need to market oneself to succeed. According to Jean Twenge, joint author of The Narcissism Epidemic, “Economic prosperity does seem to be linked to individualism” partly explaining the boom in sales of products marketed and advertised over social media and sharing platforms, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. On sites such as these, people become a highly lucrative brand, the Kardashian sisters evidently a case in point. On Friday, he BBC reported that Kylie Jenner’s decision to tweet that she no longer uses Snapchat regularly “wiped $1.3bn (£1bn) off Snap’s stock market value”, an indication of how interlinked the personal and financial are in our heavily digitized modern society. Zoe Williams writes insightfully of how the careful curation of our social media accounts creates “a competitive culture in which asserting one’s difference, one’s specialness, is the bare minimum for being market-ready.”
Oversharing and self-branding is now an ingrained a part of our everyday, bleeding into our all aspects of our lives including our personal relationships and work life; suffice it to say, it is difficult to know how to adopt healthy digital habits that preserve and promote mental well-being for the future. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, recently announced that the site would be working to prioritize “more meaningful social interactions” over paid-content like media articles or advertising as “We[they] feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being”. TIME mentions a report on social media usage conducted by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health which “recommends the introduction of a pop-up “heavy usage” warning within these apps or website” which seems to have considerable popular support.
Regrettably, neither of these proposed solutions adequately seem to tackle the multifaceted and vastly complex underlying issue, though this is hardly surprising. Perhaps, along with policy changes and the actions of major corporations and civic bodies, it will really take the will of the people who use these platforms for any meaningful change to take place. Maybe rather than living our lives as open books, privacy might replace oversharing as the new social media trend, as unlikely as the prospect may seem. With all this uncertainty, it seems that all we can really do is think before we share and wait and see.