Writer: How To Know If You’re Oversharing
Whenever I write something that I intend to make public, I undergo the same temptation.
“This time,” I think, “I should say more and hold back less.”
I consider revealing a deeper level of my own archaeology, to dig into my own private history and to do so more unabashedly. No more skeletons, you might say.
The temptation is spurred on by the idea of allowing myself to be more vulnerable as a writer. There are many advice-givers out there who commend the idea of vulnerability on the premise that it makes you a more accessible writer. This is surely true. I often find myself browsing through stories of personal trauma, and not only do they impress me because of their frankness, I also have the deep sense of peering in on someone else’s life. It is a powerful form of writing, and in comparison I find my own words sometimes slipping into shades of grey, as it were, eager to say something personal yet holding back, concerned about revealing too much.
Accessibility or susceptibility?
In the keen rush to produce frank, honest writing, to share wounds and compare injustice against injustice, I sometimes wonder if confessional writing is in danger of moving into compromised territory. Can accessibility tip over into susceptibility?
Reflecting on how social media invites us to expose our lives, I’ve become interested in the process I call the digital gaze, which explores the ways we look at each other on the internet, especially on social media platforms.
In social media, dialogue with others is not implied. Unlike other forms of communication — letters, emails, texts, or calls — that assume a two-way process, such agreement isn’t required with social media. After the initial connection, networks can endure for years without a plan for the frequency or direction of the exchange. The transactional nature of social media is not reported on, has no expectations. It is merely notional and indistinct.
In this sense, the content of social media is generally free-floating. The communication that ensues has no privileged context allotted to it, no organized space or time. Like advertising billboards or radio stations, it is offered gratuitously in the hope of interrupting the attention of its potential audience, which itself is in constant flux, tuning in and out at different points of the day. In this way, the audience is always indistinct.
The shifting hierarchies of power that ensue can potentially divide us from ourselves as we watch ourselves being watched. In other words, we partake in a type of self-commodification that, over time, is normalized.
My concern over this actually began many years ago, when I read about the story of Carmen Hermosillo, an early web blogger otherwise known as humdog, who grew dissatisfied with the utopian idealism of digital networks. All the way back in 1994, she wrote an influential online essay, Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace, in which she presented her thoughts on the darker side of sharing too much. Here is an excerpt that really stuck in my mind:
i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. […] i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul.
The quote reveals a great deal. Principally it tells us that to be observed on social media is about granting a favor to others. In this scheme, we think of ourselves as the ultimate controllers of the exchange, yet we tend to overlook that we are constantly shaping our representations to elicit positive judgments from others. Social media relies on the perception of granting others access to our lives, but we purposefully disconnect from our realities, even distorting time, in order to accord with the gaze of others.
I understand that for many writers, their goal is simply to be open and honest. I have the same goal. The very appeal of self-expression is the opportunity to share and to do so sincerely. For me, the question becomes problematic when the writing seeks to be confessional for the sake of winning attention. Whilst such writing can be courageous, it can also teeter on the precipice of self-commodification, where the true beneficiaries are not the writers themselves but those seeking to derive greater profits from it.
So how do you know if you’re oversharing as a writer? There can be no hard-and-fast rules, but a simple question should help: am I in control of my revelations, or are they being extracted from me by some larger force to which I feel obliged or enslaved?