This American Overshare

One of my favorite things to do at work is to turn on an episode of This American Life, and tune everything else out while I work on whatever task is at hand. As you can probably imagine, this has resulted in my burning through a pretty generous number of the popular podcast, and developing a strange affinity for Ira Glass (but that could be another post entirely).  

The show has had quite the run so far, with archives dating back to 1995 (when it was broadcast under the title Your Radio Playhouse–the show wouldn’t be called This American Life until 1996), and so far I’ve listened to at least one episode from each of the 16 years its been around. The other day, I chose an episode from 1997, entitled “Tales from the Net;” it’s one I’d highly recommend not only because it’s enjoyable and engaging, but also because it shines light on the way we use the Internet now, 14 years after its broadcast date. And let’s face it: in Internet years, 14 is a pretty long time.

One of the more interesting anecdotes from the episode comes from a college-aged woman who maintains her own website. Her site’s most popular features is its webcam, which takes a picture and refreshes every three or so minutes. The webcam is positioned in such a way that it can capture everything that’s going on in her dorm room, and she makes no bones about the fact that this inevitably means she may occasionally appear naked on the Internet. She even seems to relish the idea that people may be tuning in to her webcam broadcast for the sole purpose of seeing her in the nude, or in some other compromising position. She receives 700 emails a day, 400 (if I’m remembering my numbers correctly–it may be 300) of which are responses to a game she plays with viewers called “Guess that Curve,” wherein visitors are charged with the task of identifying which curve of her body is featured in a picture she’s posted. She’s accepted offers to go to dinner with male visitors to her site, but indicates that she’s drawn the line when the issue of sex has come up. Toward the beginning of their interview, Ira asks her what it is she likes about having the webcam set up, and she explains that it keeps her from feeling lonely. Even if there is no one watching, having the camera there creates the illusion that she has company, and that she’s connected to someone else in the world. Later, Ira asks her if she considers herself an exhibitionist at all. She doesn’t.

As I listened to her story unfold, I couldn’t help but think about the relationship between the Internet and the phenomenon that has come to be known as oversharing. Most often, the overshare is pinned on the rise of sites like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Flickr, and the popularity of tumblrs and blogging. Maybe it was around before then, but these tools have led to overshare overexposure. What’s interesting, though, is that this story demonstrates that oversharing has been around longer than Facebook status updates, 140-character tweets, and Blogger; that before there were hugely popular platforms for oversharing, people were creating their own.

A 2007 article from MSNBC suggests that oversharing’s increase in popularity comes from an increase in individualism–that we overshare because we know how interesting we are and we want everyone else to recognize it. But this story from This American Life suggests an alternative explanation, and one that is far less self-absorbed: maybe oversharing is less about the individual and more about a desire to make a human connection, a way to establish a bond between people. After all, the overshare isn’t a one-sided process, there are the people who share and there are the people who receive the information. It’s a two-way street. No one wants to feel lonely, and the desire to seek out and build relationships is a basic human impulse. No one can deny that we’re social animals, and in many ways, we need the company of others not only to survive, but to thrive.

So I’m curious to hear your perspective: where does a community of readers and writers, like the one that exists here, fit in to all of this? Is this site (or any blog, for that matter) a collective expression of narcissism? Or is it a valid tool through which we can build and develop relationships? In short, which came first, the Internet or the overshare?

By Emilie

Runner, yogini, knitter, Manhattanite in spite of myself. Also blogging at

12 replies on “This American Overshare”

Is this site (or any blog, for that matter) a collective expression of narcissism? Or is it a valid tool through which we can build and develop relationships?

I have wrestled with this very question, which seems like an act of narcissism in itself, kinda like commenting on it here. Ahem.

My defense:
1. There are still plenty of mancentric places on the web to justify another ladyspace. Especially a ladyspace that tries to be free of bullshit.
2. Starting anything new takes a certain amount of ego, but most of our traffic is word of mouth, not from attention whoring. We’ve never once used naked pictures of ourselves.
3. This community is awesome. We have the best commenters on the web, our writers are all witty and smart, everybody plays nicely with each other, even when they disagree. It’s internet Xanadu.
4. Morbid Curiosity Monday and the Frisky Feminist, at the very least, are for the common good.

And to your larger points…

Ira Glass is hot. Like Alton Brown, Stephen Colbert and Neil Degrasse Tyson, he’s sexy smart.

I think the upside of all the oversharing is that these generations are going to have such rich histories to pass on to their kids and grandkids. I would have loved to have read my grandma’s teenage blog, if such a thing existed. She was a badass.

Personally, I fall on the side of ‘valid tool through which we can build and develop relationships’. But like you, I’ve also struggled with this quite a bit (although it’s mostly in relation to my personal blog). I think the accusation of self-centeredness is a really hard one to deal with, and as a result we sometimes end up over-analyzing in the hopes that we won’t end up in that category.

Also, Neil Degrasse Tyson–YES! I love how happy he is to be a total goofball on NOVA.

I draw a pretty big distinction between group blogs that verge on magazines, like this, and personal blogs that are much more self focused (by definition). I don’t think group blogs, especially ones with such a wide range of contributors as Persephone does, are (generally) self-absorbed because there is no single self to be…absorbed? (It’s past my bed time, articulation is apparently out the window.) We have things to say, a few people organized a place to say it (three cheers for them!), everything’s gravy. No empty networking, no naked pictures, just good writing and word of mouth.

Personal blogs, to my mind, tread a finer line, since it’s a single (or a small group of single) perspectives. It’s much easier to fall into navel gazing with little perspective on whether you’re falling onto the more narcissistic side of the line. That said, I think there’s worth to narcissistic writing if it helps you get a better grasp of yourself or a situation you’re in. But it’s the broadcasting that’s a bit… eurgh… to me.

Having a style blog (ostensibly) makes me think about this very regularly, and I still haven’t cohesively sorted it out in my mind. And then I realize I’m way over-analyzing, which is a form of self-absorption, and… sometimes you just need to hit post without thinking.

Also those dudes are all top notch.

Very interesting. Connectedness versus self-centeredness as the possible cause of oversharing. Personally, the constant bitching I hear about how “selfish” and “self-centered” my generation is when it comes to social media has always sounded hollow to me.

To me, when I post that I’m making a whole wheat pizza (again) for dinner, I don’t do so because I think I’m super amazing, having amazing thoughts, and that everyone should pay attention to me. I do it to feel connected to those on my FB list who, otherwise, are quite out of reach.

I think back to pre-internet days when chatting on the phone was the form of generational self-centeredness in vogue. “Don’t they ever get off the phone?” was the flustered refrain of parents about their children. “What do they possibly have to say that is so important?”

I think there are certainly a few instances of self-infatuated 20-somethings running around, but for my part, I want to hear all about everyone’s daily details, and be able to share my own. Not because we’re so special, but because we’re all so human.

I definitely overshare on the internet. I overshare in real life too, though. I think most of the time when I overshare, it’s because I just want some validation that I’m not alone. Most things that we consider “overshare” are actions or feelings or experiences that are typically experienced in private. And I think it’s normal to want to put that out there to see if someone else feels/experiences/thinks the same thing.
Also, I’m super interesting. So everyone should read my thoughts.

I think the overshare came first– for example in the 4-page typed “updates” from families tucked into Christmas cards. It just usually came in slower, larger chunks. I still had to look at 300 pictures of my cousins’ new baby, but we did it all at once, flipping through a photo album at their kitchen table during a summer visit.

But the webcam girl is a totally different thing, I think. Most of the “broadcasting” we do now isn’t in real time. We post more photos and videos, but they’re pre-recorded (even if it’s only minutes before). Webcams are usually used now for person-to-person communication (Skype, etc), rather than broadcasting nonstop real-time to the world. Her explanation just doesn’t jive with me. The girl was inviting hundreds of people she doesn’t even know by name to watch her living every minute of her life. She may have cultivated online or real-life relationships with some of them, but she could have done that just as easily in the various chat rooms or forums popular during that era. Maybe it’s the “guess that curve” game that makes me raise an eyebrow. That’s not about feeling lonely, it’s about wanting a lot of attention from anyone willing to participate.

There’s an aspect of …accusations is the wrong word, but…of these accusations of oversharing (by the general public, not you). It’s like how people will accuse others of doing things they dislike about themselves (gossipers calling other people out for gossiping and such). People are sometimes criticized for oversharing when really they’re living their lives normally and have the misfortune of telling friends a story that’s actually interesting or scandalous. The story gets around and suddenly YOU’RE the one who can’t keep a lid on things. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “guess that curve” girl is receiving a lot of criticism from other girls who resent the sexual attentions she’s receiving. There’s a real danger in taking people’s reactions (“She overshares!”) at face value sometimes.

I really didn’t know what to make of the whole “Guess That Curve” thing. On one hand, it did make me wonder when she said she wasn’t an exhibitionist–it seems that if you’re posting pictures of yourself on the internet and toying with (if not deliberately playing up) the sexual aspect of them, then there’s obviously a part of you that desires attention. And that’s doesn’t have to be a bad thing. On the other hand, could it be that it’s more about power than attention? Here I’m mostly extrapolating because that wasn’t something explored in the interview, but it’s kind of interesting to consider. There’s a part of it all that, to me, dips a toe in the overshare water very seductively, and then withdraws it quickly–she’ll share, but only to entice and not necessarily form a bond?

Again, all speculation on my part, which is a bit unfair considering she’s a real person. But I thought it had interesting implications in relation to the whole question of how much we do/don’t want to reveal on the Internet.

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