Tuesday, March 5, 2013

truth-telling on social media.

I’ve had some version of this conversation with several people for the last few weeks, so if you’ve been present for the real-life conversation, this will probably some (boringly) familiar to you.

The basic question at hand: how much should we (I) share on social media? And not only how much, but what guidelines do we use as criteria for our selection? In other words, if I don’t want to share everything on social media, how do I determine what is presented and what stays private?

Obviously, there are some extreme options out there. One option is to over-inform about hardship, updating your audience on every headache, injury, prescription medication, or stressful midterm encountered. I see people sharing openly about marriage troubles, missing departed loved ones, having tension at work (and don’t get me started on the people making polarizing political statements), and I can’t help but feel uncomfortable with all of this. We all need an outlet for the frustrating or disappointing parts of life—yes yes yes--but I seriously question whether social media is always the correct outlet for such feelings.

Here’s why: more often than not, I suspect these individuals are posting such information because they crave the instant validation that comes with social media. Negative posts get attention because they elicit an emotional response from readers. The audience can instantly respond to your hardship, or even just “like” a post (what exactly does it mean to like, say, a Facebook status talking about betrayed trust?), and the poster feels supported in their hardship, justified in their opinion. I also wonder to what extent these negative posters feel isolated and disconnected in real life. Many of the things I see posted online are things I would much rather discuss with a trusted friend in person, for the simple reason that not everyone on my Facebook feed or Blogger roll needs (or wants) to know the nitty gritty details of my life. It’s hard for me to understand the reasons for posting such personal and angst-filled updates in a social media setting unless 1) You don’t have anyone you feel comfortable discussing this with in your real life relationships (isolation) or 2) It’s incredibly validating and satisfying for you to get so many reactions and responses to your hardship (too dependent on others for validation?).

Another extreme option for social media presence is to highlight only the good, the beautiful, and the stylish. There are individuals who appear to actually live in a magazine catalogue. Every outing looks like a still from an indie music video. Their Instagram photos look like DSLR shots. They never wear the same outfit twice. If they are married, you know you’ll hear about their cute married moments (“Breakfast in bed!” “Our first married Christmas!” “He wrote me a song/built me this/etc.!”). They appear to be traveling constantly.

The problem isn’t celebrating the highlights--being grateful for the good moments is just as important as grieving the hard ones. The problem is that this sort of social media behavior is both unrealistic and untruthful. Life isn’t always beautiful or breezy. There are messy or awkward moments that get glossed over, and viewers fall for the lie that your life is actually that perfect and easy all the time. I promise. I’ve fallen for it. This article sums it brilliantly: “Sure, there are great times that should be celebrated. Sure, when our kids do awesome things, by all means, let’s get our brag on. But let’s also not tell each other so many lies by omission. My life on Facebook is an airbrushed and Instagrammed image of my real life. I edit the suckage because I want people to think I have my shit together.” So if the negative Nancys are struggling with isolation or overdependence on validation, I think the cool kids might have a problem with shame and vulnerability. Like our ancestors in the garden, it’s second nature to try and use fig branches to cover our nakedness. We don’t want people to see us as we really are, because they might not like what they see. So we cover our shame. We hide from each other when we refuse to be vulnerable.

(And while it’s not quite as extreme, I think there is some combination of the two personas above, expressed as The Clever Person. You know, the person who is usually posting about something embarrassing or awkward in their own life, but they’re so funny about the sharing, they’re actually cool, or at least trying to look cool by being funny all the time. Yes, they’re sharing about hardships in a sense, but humor can be used as defense mechanism, so that there’s not actually any vulnerability or intimacy happening even if they portraying themselves in an embarrassing light. It’s a controlled way of exposing one’s self, which isn’t really vulnerable…).

And here lies the rub: how do we share our lives in an honest way on the Internet, walking the line between oversharing the bad and glossing it over completely? I struggle with this very question in a very personal way, and it is the question in the back of my mind before each photo or status or blog posted.

How much do I share about my confusion, frustration, and disappointment? I don’t post a lot about these things (or in specifics, anyway) because I don’t find it appropriate. There are people in my life, my husband and friends and family, who talk about these things with me in real life. We can make eye contact. They can offer me a tissue if I cry. They can ask me hard questions and I can hear the tone of their voice when they offer comfort or a new perspective.

On the other hand, the last thing I want to do is somehow contribute to making someone else feel the way I so often feel: that everyone else my age lives in a beautiful home, dresses impeccably, crafts, takes photos at a professional level, works at a non-profit, travels on the weekends, cooks gluten-free meals, goes to concerts, volunteers, and never feels tired or confused about their identity. I want to live my life in a way that invites vulnerability for others. I want to have the kind of intimacy that comes only when people can be honest about their fears and struggles as well as their triumphs. I don’t want to live my life as though it is one giant competition of coolness and success.

I’m not sure what all this means for my social media habits. In a cheesy way, I guess I’m still figuring it out, one post at a time. I’m attempting to listen to my gut instinct and walk the line of balance as best as I know in that moment, learning from my mistakes and from the behavior of those around me.

Does anyone else think about this?


  1. Oh my. This is so... yes. All I can think to say is yes. Yes, yes, yes.

  2. Sj, Thanks for bringing us long-distance folks into the conversation. I like how you bring up big questions. I think this is a healthy way of showing some vulnerability/depth without getting emotionally naked.

    Some days I look around our apartment, and I think, "would I take a picture of our place right now and post it on my blog?" It's been very revealing as to where my insecurities reside. I try to be real on my blog...but in my humanity, I think I tend toward the make everything look just right/ or be funny about it when it's not. On some level I do this because I need to laugh at myself and not take things so seriously sometimes. I want to give people permission to laugh at the messiness of life (when it's appropriate). It helps me find joy in all the daily frustrations and quirks.

    But it's always good to evaluate - Why am I writing this way? Am I hiding something? Am I giving an honest picture (verbal or otherwise) of who I am? How does the way I write and present my life impact others? So thank you for challenging me to take think about this.