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?