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Think Before You Post: The Impact of Over-Sharing

By Stacey Ross:

We all have done it at least once. No, I’m not talking about prank calls. I am referring to posting something online we later ended up regretting, otherwise known as over-sharing or TMI (too much information!).

Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Google+, referred to as “the world’s virtual campfire” have become common meeting grounds for millions. Due to their easy accessibility, magnetic appeal, and explosive popularity, they beckon us not only as stellar tools for building valuable connections, but also to shed light on the reality that “what is said here, is spread here,” which has its pros and cons.

In 2011, The New York Times commissioned a research study called the Psychology of Sharing to examine how and why people share through social media. Seventy-three percent claimed that they process information more deeply and thoughtfully when they share it, and 68% claimed they share to give people a better sense of who they are. How much of that falls under the “you are getting carried away” umbrella is very subjective, though.

As part of some (unscientific) research I did with a local psychologist for several publications, I interviewed and collected data from approximately a hundred people who considered themselves avid online enthusiasts, and who devoted at least a couple hours a day to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.  My questions centered around how well they looked out for their own well-being, given that they spent so much time online.

I found that many began to grow a strong comfort zone with their “digital selves,” so much so that they gradually became more and more open about their personal lives. I will never forget witnessing on Twitter the play-by-play events of a mom before and after her child was severely injured in her presence; the tweets of an avid Twitter user, whose day started bright but ended in her toddler's death; and a suicidal woman who reached out for help via Facebook.

I spoke with a girl who helped a grieving dad, whose own daughter was killed after she revealed her address to an online stranger. I regularly see details of people's private lives that reveal the names and ages of their kids, their address, where they bank (good ol' Foursquare), and when they typically leave their houses vacant. Crucial in engaging in social media is coming to grips with the reality that our online personas tend to grow lives of their own, warranting come precaution.

Some of my interviewees' self-reflection of the concept of “over sharing” indicated they were comfortable with the boundaries they had set, while others confessed that they had exposed more information about themselves than they should have, leaving themselves vulnerable. Those that felt this way did so because they, or someone they knew, had been hurt because of something they had shared online.

A few of the folks I interviewed were willing to have others gain from the lessons they learned:

Jenn: “Know your intentions!”

Web developer, Jenn, regrets taking the online plunge without having a solid plan.

“I genuinely come from a place of wanting to help people, and that led me to becoming too soft with my networking pals and online friends as far as how much I charged them. It really came down to valuing myself and my work. It took a bit of time, but I came to realize that I needed to be conscious about how to distinguish my social life from my professional life, because I was way too cheap, and that attracted people who were just not ideal clients! I soon learned what earned media was, and I got smart!”

Karen: “Guard your heart.”

Actress, Karen, learned about building friendships the hard way.

“My work involves having a public persona and in some instances that online status is the basis of what can genuinely feel like a tight friendship. I ultimately became devastated by a few members in my actors' guild whom I thought I had grown a strong relationship and trust level with, both in their company and on a personal level. Turns out I was a friend of convenience for them to gain attention, and that was their primary motivation for such engagement. Being unsure about my authenticity led me to question my naivety.”

Krystal: “We need to have a conversation about discretion.”

Krystal, a college freshman at an esteemed Southern California university, offered the following:

“It’s as if the girls are marketing themselves and they are not even in the field of marketing. They update their status, feel compelled to share their new outfits, and flaunt their BFFs.”

“I have found that at my university so many of my colleagues are compelled to update their Facebook accounts daily and they write posts that resemble  intimate diaries! I don't understand why it’s important for so many to post their love life status, bathroom mirror poses, or an announcement of where they are all the time. When did this become so necessary to broadcast to the masses? Honestly, I am bewildered by how absurd some of this gets!”

Chuck: “Establish a communications protocol.”

An international software engineer, Chuck, was kind enough to go into detail about the problems he faced at work.

“I work about 80-90% remotely, so my team and I are reliant upon a lot of telecommuting and emailing or texting. The dynamics of shifting to a remote model was something that I had to adapt to and, when push came to shove, we were just not communicating effectively!”

“People assign meaning to a message according to their cultural context (physical cues, environmental stimuli, etiquette, etc.), and things can get chaotic if impressions are not aligned with intentions. While I had always thought of myself as flexible and a very easy going guy, I grew to find that our different cultural approaches towards communication were dividing us as a team. As leader, I needed to implement a fair and realistic plan that would work for everyone. I was told to close shop for a couple weeks and take a cultural training course. I did so, and returned a much more effective leader!

Deanna: “Remember, eyes are on you!”

“One of my mom friends in Jersey would check in on Foursquare everywhere she went and would even post her location on Facebook. She had a few hundred followers and did not consider anything she posted as something that would ever pose a problem. She would post her kids'  first day of school photos and all sorts of images of her daily life.

Come winter, she flaunted her Christmas tree and all of the gifts under it, as well as her Christmas decorations in the front of her house. The perfect cocktail for disaster is posting a photo of your house exterior, including the address and the kids standing in front of it. Oh, and an announcement that your family is going on a week’s ski trip! Fast forward – they returned to a vacant home!”

Helen: “Remember, your privacy is pretty much forfeited.”

“I had it coming,” said Helen, a thirty-something single professional and social butterfly. “I told my co-workers that I was not feeling well and was going to stay home the evening of an office event that is a biggie for our business and that I should have attended. Actually, I was not so sick that I couldn’t attend a fundraising gala across town instead, and many of my co-workers caught wind of my indiscretion. Never underestimate the power of the post. The next morning, my photo was not only on the front page of a very popular website , but it was tagged and went viral! The Internet can help keep you honest, but in my case, I missed that mark and had to deal with the consequences!”

My take-home from all of my interviews is simple and intuitive: Before we invest too much time in our online world, we would be wise to take caution, exercise discretion, and explore the value and implications of what we post, even if we think it is only to our 300 “closest friends.”

Stacey Ross is an online consultant, social media enthusiast, freelancer and owner of SanDiegoBargainMama.com. A former teacher and middle school counselor, she is now a mom of two who researches and freelances about lifestyle topics involving family and well-being.

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