Social media is our public diary — and it’s only getting more intimate.
Oversharing in conversation is nothing new. Throughout thousands of years of social interaction, people have divulged certain secrets, vulnerabilities, and desires to perhaps the wrong listener, with results ranging from mild embarrassment to shattered reputations. Thanks to social media, the ability to make these confessions to a potentially much wider audience is easier than ever.
What isn’t as straightforward is defining what constitutes oversharing online. Each platform has its specific norms and users who have their own opinions on what content they consider too cringe or vulnerable for public consumption. For instance, when people express negative emotions on Facebook, it doesn’t seem so out of place, according to a 2017 study. On the contrary, Instagram is where users expect to see positive content — albeit content that isn’t particularly authentic. One study, from 2021, suggests the norms on TikTok empower users to embrace both difficult and positive experiences when they post.
However, as social media continues to occupy an increasingly intimate space in our lives, as Ysabel Gerrard, a senior lecturer in digital communication at the University of Sheffield, thinks it will, what we post — and how audiences interpret it — will shift. Gerrard, who studies young people’s experiences of social media and digital identities, says that when social platforms become a place to store meaningful memories, the way we post will only become more personal. But does this give us permission to post through it?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On one hand, I see sharing details online of something difficult or frustrating as being cathartic. But what is too much?
The thing about any digital phenomenon is that everything has a pre-social media alternative. Loads of sociologists have talked about what is acceptable communication and conduct. But now, we’re re-asking those questions in relation to social media. What is actually new here and what has stayed the same from previous social norms?
There is something that is distinctive and new, which is that it really depends on what a person’s account is for. Social media has become so embedded in so many people’s lives — not everybody’s, obviously not everybody uses it — that people tend to do what Emily van der Nagel calls compartmentalizing your identity across different accounts on different platforms and sometimes across multiple accounts within the same platform. What might be an overshare on one account might feel completely different to your audience on another. For a lot of people, how you interpret an overshare is based on what you imagine that person’s account to be for, and that might conflict with what that person intends their account to be for. If you’re talking to someone face-to-face, you’re in that specific context. Those contextual cues are lost and dispersed when it comes to social media.
How much do the norms of each platform play into how much people are comfortable sharing?
That, to me, is the crux. There’s an article by Martin Gibbs and a few other authors about funerals and grief. But actually, that’s a vehicle for them to discuss what they call platform vernaculars, about how each platform is a really complex combination of policies, technologies, visual aesthetics, finance models — everything that combines to make a platform a platform. What they’re saying is each platform is so distinct that your identity manifests differently across each platform. You could have the same username and profile picture across all the same platforms but your behavior and your emotional connection to that platform, the people you speak to or the people you don’t speak to, is so fundamentally different across platforms. That’s why we often see this tension in how people interpret other people’s content. Is it an overshare? Is it not an overshare?
If I say to you, “Pick a post on a platform that you think is an overshare and show it to me.” If you surveyed X number of people with loads of different identity markers — age, gender, ethnicity, social class, religious background — I would be really shocked if you got consensus on that. It would be really tricky.
I recently saw a very vulnerable post on Instagram about a breakup and I remember thinking, “This feels like too much for Instagram.” But I think if I saw it on TikTok, it wouldn’t have felt so out of place.
How each of us goes into a specific platform not only shapes how you post and what you do there, but it shapes how you receive other people’s content. That person who shared that, maybe for them, their Instagram occupies a really, really intimate and personal place in their life, but yours doesn’t and that’s where you get that mismatch of expectations versus understanding.
I feel, in my own life and research, that social media is occupying an even more intimate role in our lives now. We’re using platforms that are really familiar to us, particularly Instagram, in way more intimate ways than we ever have — and there are quite a few trends to back that up, for instance, finstas and photo dumps. That’s all signposting us toward a place where the platform has a really intimate role in our lives, and perhaps that shapes what we share and therefore how people interpret that.
Could you elaborate more on how that intimacy manifests?
I wrote a piece for the Conversation about the photo dumps trend on Instagram. It got me looking back at literature on tangible photo albums: how people craft them, why they use them, how they interpret them. One of the things I realized was that the photo dump trend is showing us that we’re wanting to curate a set of photographs and reflect on important pieces of our lives — maybe it’s a holiday, maybe it’s a season, maybe it’s an event — instead of just putting that one powerful aesthetic picture. That has resonance with photo albums and how we would craft and carefully place photographs in tangible albums. That shift, to me, signifies that we’re using the platform more intimately, which means that we are using it more as a form of archival. It means that we have relationships on certain accounts with certain people that feel intimate, that feel like you’d want to share those moments of your life with. Instagram in particular is becoming more meaningful and a form of memory, and it may be suggested that we think it’s going to be around for a while if we’re willing to put these pieces of our histories in there.
We all are aware of the fact that there’s usually an audience when we’re posting in this public way. How does the way people interact with or potentially perceive us play into what we choose to share?
There’s an understanding that certain forms of intimacy will generate more clicks, more likes, more views, more virality. You do need to go into these things with a healthy degree of skepticism and think, “What was the motivation behind that?” There’s a lot of discourse around the weaponization of tears, especially in terms of race. There are forms of intimacy that are not innocent.
But to me, I think a good chunk of content out there is genuinely people who want to use social media as an outlet to express their emotions, to share stories from their lives. There are lots of stories where social media has saved people’s lives because people got access to communities where they feel seen and they feel heard and they can find people with common experiences. A lot of people wouldn’t admit this, but [maybe] they’ve created a throwaway account on Reddit, and they’ve gone on to a subreddit and they’ve shared the most harrowing, intimate personal details about their lives because they need help and they get that support. Because that’s in a really bounded context — in a subreddit, where it’s supposed to be — it’s not considered an overshare because the norms of that space dictate that it should be there.
When you’ve got something like Instagram or TikTok, it really depends on who you are and who uses the platform. You’ve got all these different audiences from different parts of your lives that have been collapsed into one: you’ve got your work colleagues, you’ve got your one-night stand, you’ve got your partner, you’ve got your partner’s family, you’ve got your parents. It’s really hard to post anything without someone somewhere having something to say about it, whether it was an overshare, inappropriate. That’s why subreddits and more niche spaces are so valuable and so powerful, and they’re not really the places where people get accused of oversharing. The places we accuse people of doing this on are your more mainstream, generalized platforms.
How can oversharing backfire?
There’s a very obvious way it can go wrong, which is when a person says something objectively harmful or hurtful and then it escalates from there. But to me, there are two main micro-ways that it can go wrong. One of the ways oversharing goes wrong is when you post something, and someone is in your audience who isn’t really the intended receiver and it backfires. Another way that it can go wrong is when you post to the wrong place. It’d be fair game on this platform, but not this platform.
So should we be posting through it?
I’ve done a lot of research into how people with, for example, depression and who have eating disorders are sharing, what they’re talking about, and how they’re using different platforms. I’ve tended to focus on people who do this anonymously. I’ve written a lot about how people conceal their identities in order to talk about these things, partly, for a lot of people, because they are stigmatized, and people don’t want their legal identity being linked to what are essentially their innermost thoughts on their health conditions.
On the flip side, you’ve got a lot of people who are putting their names and faces to lots of different things. I saw this TikTok the other day of this girl whose partner had died. She was sobbing and the first words that came out of her mouth were “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” I thought it was a really powerful sentence. We assume there’s so much craft and thought that goes into these moments. A word that gets bandied around a lot is “attention-seeking.” There’s a lot of disparagement of people who do that, but like I said, social media has become so intimate as part of our lives. It is probably getting to a point in society where it does feel more normal and more natural to talk about how you feel and post it.
There’s a really simple explanation where you can say it might benefit someone else who is going through that. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that is the case, that it’s helping to destigmatize certain things and that it’s been really helpful. But that, to me, is a simple explanation. What else is happening on top of that is that we are having, as a society, a very different level of intimacy toward social media that we might not be comfortable admitting at this stage. I don’t think it is as easy anymore to just say, “That’s an overshare,” or, “That’s cringe.”