Shop Talk: Overwhelming Undersharing

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The New York Times published an article last week called T.M.I? Not for Sites Focused on Sharing.

In it, Brad Stone wrote about the growing number of sites that allow you to share absolutely everything online, from your location (Foursquare and Twitter), to purchases you’ve made (Blippy and Swipely) to the number of push ups you’ve done (iPhone app Skimble). The underlying message of the piece was cautionary, discussing the possibilities of identity and financial theft, and when Blippy announced early this week that Google had crawled and saved users’ transaction data (including airline confirmation numbers and parts of credit card numbers), Stone’s article seemed justified.

It’s one of thousands of headlines and articles decrying Gen Y’s need to share, share, share, on the likes of PBS, Washington Times and SFGate. There’s even a blog called Facebook Overshare that showcases TMI updates like “My bowels are being evacuated quicker than a plane sinking in the Hudson.”

While all of these pieces make good points, their cautionary bent is beginning to feel less than fresh. The Don’t Overshare mantra is starting to sound like the fable your grandmother repeated all through your childhood—by your teens, you rolled your eyes when she told you to watch out for the big, bad bytemonster called Google Crawl. At this point, the majority of us using social media in our professional lives have internalized a set of mores, and we won’t be detailing our bathroom antics or updating every purchase we make to Facebook. Overshare horror stories don’t really do much other than allow us to pat ourselves on the back and look with curious superiority at those strange creatures like Hudson Bowels.

And anyway, the appeal of the digital universe isn’t that we get to overshare, it’s that we get to undershare. PR verbiage aside, this magical realm doesn’t exist in real time, and when we enter it, we get to pause and construct, research and edit: Sharing information online is all about choosing the most flattering photo, the wittiest IM zinger, the tidbit most relevant to any given audience. We get to consider who we want to portray before we hit enter, effectively constructing whatever identity we choose at the tap of a touchscreen. And often, for myself at least, that identity is more flattering than the one I present to the 3-D world—digital me gets all the refs (thank you Google search bar!) and never has bad breath.

In fact, many social media users (myself included) could benefit from a little more judicious oversharing. Not that we need to be giving everything away a la >Emily Gould, or Julia Allison, but there’s something to the confessional attitude of (selectively) sharing the more unflattering moments of our lives online, the imperfect brush strokes and flaking paint curls adding texture to our ongoing self-portraits. In WIRED’s July 2008 cover story Allison said that she tried to create a magazine profile of herself online “with every post or update adding dimensions to her as a character.” Not a bad thought. There’s something very compelling about bloggers who judiciously break down professionalism and show us their flaws.

Take Sadie Stein’s Jezebel article from last week The New Decornographers: Bloggers With Perfect, Beautiful, Craftsy Lives. In it, she critiqued the culture of craftblogs, that showcase only the picture-perfect woman ”[Working] with a vintage letterpress and [living] a sepia-toned life in Asheville, cozy in her moss-hung frame house.” Stein shot up-close flattering photos of her own home (muffins cooling on the stove, wall-hangings and flowers) then panned back for a shot of her coffee-table buried in a pile of papers, gadgets and coffee cups. Way to make a point. Or Jenny Lawson, a.k.a. The Bloggess, who usually shares details about her own life coated in self-effacing humor, but her piece One Day I Will Be Normal about her struggle with depression and anxiety attacks reached out to her readers in a very real way, asking for support and advice. Her story got 568 comments and advice-seekers to her column still reference it today.

While there’s certainly a danger zone in oversharing, it’s important that anyone trying to build up an online presence remember these bloggers. While the cry of the day for media professionals is Don’t Overshare, there are times when digital confessionalism can be a strategic move. It’s universal to have bad breath.