Researchers Try to Explain Why We're Such Attention Whores on Social Media

In a new article, a bunch of researchers try to explain our cultural obsession with oversharing. Sadly, we still don't have a firm grasp on what our problem is.

Aug 19, 2013 at 7:02pm | Leave a comment

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Here I am on a beach in Hawaii (with chickens!) a few years ago. Yes, this photo was shared on Facebook.

Thanks to this golden age of social media, we all know and loathe our fair share of chronic oversharers. You might even be one yourself (how dare you?!).

There are three types of oversharing that drive me bonkers: 1) the lovey-dovey romantic oversharer who thinks everyone on her Instagram feed needs -- no, NEEDS -- to see every blissful second of every incredible moment of her burgeoning codependent relationship; 2) the bodily-functions oversharer who thinks everyone on Facebook needs -- NEEDS! -- to receive regular updates on the state of his bowels and how much satisfaction he gleans from a hearty poop; 3) the career-achievement oversharer who constantly tweets nuggets of workplace wisdom he's gleaned from his brief climb to the top of some corporate ladder no one cares about except him. Oh, and food oversharers -- I also hate those (I don't need to see photos of your green smoothie, thanks, or the "gorgeous" apples you just bought from the farmer's market down the street. They're APPLES, friend. We know what they look like).

Anyway, according to this story in Slate, researchers have a bunch of theories about why we’re all so taken with telling SO much about ourselves to SO many randos on the Internet. Here are distillations of their wisdom.

WE SUCK AT COMPARTMENTALIZING

Sherry Turkle, an author and social scientist, thinks we’re losing the ability to compartmentalize. Last year, Harvard researchers found that sharing our innermost feelings and thoughts "activates the brain’s neurochemical reward system in a bigger way than when we merely report the attitudes and opinions of others." OK then!

For her part, Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal says that our obsession with disclosing things is partially due to the narrowing of our private lives through the expansion of social media and reality TV, as well as our "subconscious attempts at controlling anxiety" via self regulation. She says, “When having a conversation, we can use up a lot of mental energy trying to manage the other person’s impression of us. We try to look smart, witty, and interesting, but the effort required to do this leaves less brain power to to filter what we say and to whom."

It's easier -- or it SEEMS easier -- to manage how others see us when we're in full control of what we're putting out there. It's almost like a one-sided conversation; no one can fight with your vision of who you are on Twitter. (Well, they CAN, but...)

WE DON'T KNOW WHO WE ARE AND WE NEED PEOPLE ON FACEBOOK TO TELL US

According to Professor Russell W. Belk, chair in marketing at York University in Toronto, there’s a “disinhibition effect” that online sharing helps foster. “When we’re looking at the screen we’re not face-to-face with someone who can immediately respond to us, so it’s easier to let it all out,” he says.

Belk also notes, "The resulting disinhibition leads many to conclude that they are able to express their 'true self' better online than they ever could in face-to-face contexts. This does not mean that there is a fixed 'true self' or that the self is anything other than a work in progress, but apparently self-revelation can be therapeutic."

So ... People are turning to Facebook as a means of weird DIY pseudo-therapy? Or hitting YouTube to help them shape their sad little formless identities ("there IS no me unless you tell me there is") into something more palatable for the masses? Oof.

WE ARE SLUTS AND ATTENTION WHORES

Another thing fueling Internet exhibitionism is, Belk says, the “tension between privacy and potential celebrity.” In other words, for some people, "the longing to be popular far outweighs the longing to be respected." Yup, sounds about right.

The article mentions that, according to a 2010 study, "Facebook users who didn’t mind if strangers could view their profile, as opposed to those who did, were 'significantly more likely to post inappropriate content and to portray an image that would be considered sexually appealing, wild, or offensive.'"

In other words, oversharers would REALLY like it if all those sexy selfies convinced you that they're hot and funny and good in bed.

OOPS, ACTUALLY WE DON'T REALLY OVERSHARE AFTER ALL

Slate concedes, "Some might point out that the perceived increase in oversharing is nothing more than that: a perception." Why? Because it's not like EVERYONE we know is oversharing on social media -- "it’s not that there’s an eruption of people willing to bare everything online; it’s that those who do typically post more status updates and garner more exposure on news feeds."

Plus, a Washington Post survey discovered that only 15 percent of U.S. social media users believe they share either “everything” or “most things” online. That’s really not that many, right? Not as many as you might think, anyway.

So though it may SEEM like everyone and their mama is Instagramming every second of every long, boring-ass day, it's really just lame old Tom and Jenna doing that. So maybe we should all simmer down, block Tom and Jenna, and leave the rest of our feeds alone.

Thoughts? Feel free to overshare about your oversharing habits below. Also, you should follow me on Twitter.