Sharing Online: Bottled Messages at Sea
As the internet continues to grow as a space where anyone theoretically has equal ability to share with others, there is a need to understand the ways in which sharing online is occurring. This paper contributes to an existing body of literature about online sharing by focusing on the internet as a public sphere engaged with in private and public manners in novel ways. Through conducting interviews, observing social media platforms and analyzing existing literature, this study examines how sharing is conducted online and how this is impacted and informed by the public nature of the space. Online behaviour is mediated by a combination of the awareness of the public accessibility of online spaces and a trust in the privacy provided by security settings and a code of reader etiquette. The newness of this space of interaction leads to uncertainty over boundaries and accepted behaviour. This study will shed light on online sharing behaviours to enhance the collective understanding of the internet as a technology of new media.
When asked why people share online, Vladimir responded with the following:
It's like throwing [a message in a bottle]… You’re not expecting a reply. You're not doing it for any purpose… Some people just toss it out and if it gets to someone, that's great. That's awesome. That's cool. You got a reply back. It's a story to talk about. But you get a kick out of doing it and … you get a kick [out of] imagining someone receiving that message and replying back to it. Even if it doesn't happen, even if they don't reply back to it. It can be warming. It can be comfortable. It can be reassuring. I feel like if I yell out something in the middle of a forest, it'd be different than if I made a post about it because if I’m in the middle of the forest, I'm just yelling.
Upon reflection, I was struck by this particular statement pulled from one of the interviews I conducted throughout this project. The message in a bottle metaphor for a post online intrigued me in how it encapsulated the online sharer’s perspective of interacting with a space that may or may not respond. Nevertheless, Vladimir felt strongly about the feelings that posting in this particular type of space elicited. In his eyes, it is comforting to know someone may be listening. In most of our daily interactions we either expect to be heard or expect not to be heard. There is an intended audience and we presume our message will be received. We interact with spaces assumed to be public or private and we act accordingly. However, when an individual speaks online, they are speaking in a space where they are aware their message may or may not be heard. They are sending a message in a bottle, as it were, that they know may or may not be read upon writing it. The internet poses as a unique space that is inherently publicly accessible but that is interacted with in a novel combination of private and public ways.
Jürgen Habermas’ definition of the Public Sphere presents a good place to begin. In his descriptions, the Public Sphere is a space of interaction where the concept of space is not limited to a geographical location (Varnelis and Friedberg, 2008). Craig Calhoun describes Habermas’ public as the “people in general, or the specific people of a place or group. To be in public is to be in their company—or exposed to their gazes (Calhoun, 2013, 71-72).” To interact with the public is to share with strangers. In contrast, Habermas’ private is highly intimate with restricted access that closes itself off from public eyes (Calhoun, 2013). This emphasis on the gaze of strangers as well as the act of sharing ties well to the ways in which people post and interact with content online.
The internet as a space of interaction is odd in that despite its explicitly public nature, it is not interacted with exclusively in this manner. Individuals post online simultaneously expecting to maintain a measure of privacy while also hoping to gain recognition. In addition, the internet as a space of interaction requires the speaker and listener to be distant resulting in a disconnect between the two. As a result, the internet poses as an interesting space in which the public and private combine in new ways and in which proper social etiquette is still in the process of being determined.
In this study, I largely rely on four interviews I conducted with people that I will refer to by pseudonyms who either frequently posted online or had been frequent posters in the past. Many of the people I interviewed claimed that their social media presence was for themselves. For example, it helped them keep track of their memories. One such interview subject, Anne, went so far as to describe her Facebook use as “it’s for me. It’s just for me.” She then stated with regard to her frequent posting habits that “If you don’t like it, unfollow me. Fine.” In this case, there is a clear use of the internet for purely personal and private purposes. The intention behind Anne’s posts, she claimed, were not to reach a large audience but for her own uses. This falls in line with another study conducted on bloggers where it was found that “neither interaction nor a desire to reach an audience is always central to blogging practice (Brake, 2012, 13).”
In a similar way, the interviews presented posting online as a way to work on the self. It was described as a cathartic release. In the case of one interview subject, Pepper, posting online posed as an emotional outlet. She stated “If I was sad, I’d go on Tumblr. Just republish [sad] pictures a lot and that would calm me down.” In a psychology study, Christelle Duprez and her coauthors determined that the primary motivator for sharing emotional experiences with others is simply the cathartic release of venting (Duprez et al, 2015, 779). It is worth noting that a response from the listener is not required in a venting interaction. This is demonstrated with Pepper who continued to explain that she did not intend or hope to get responses when she would post on Tumblr in this way. She simply wanted to release those feelings so that she could move past them.
In the case of another interview subject, Karen, posting online both provided an outlet and a space to challenge herself to be unashamedly confident. Her posts are considerably explicit both in text and in images. When describing her use of social media, she said “I like to expose myself. It’s kinda like a self-esteem challenge.” Through making herself vulnerable in her captions and photos, Karen claimed to practice self-love and self-expression.
In Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone’s study on parents who blog about their parenting experiences, they noticed similar claims amongst their interview subjects. So-called “Sharenters” claimed they posted for themselves and that expressing their experiences online provided a creative and therapeutic release (Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2017, 115). They claimed that it also helped them organize their memories (Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2017, 116). These examples of how posting online can be “just for me” demonstrate how the internet is used as a private space. One that is intimate and can be interacted with in a manner that is generally restricted to a wider audience.
At the same time, the internet is also a place where one shares with others. There is a certain positive association with the act of sharing. Patricia Lange describes this as a social expectation that “through sharing and offering personal openness, we may develop as individuals, enjoy a sense of fellowship with friends and strangers, and perhaps even improve society (Lange, 2018, 1101).” Online, this is heightened by how social media like Facebook frame sharing as an act of altruism and empowerment (Meikle, 2016). This message was mirrored in my interview with Karen who described her posts as bold demonstrations of self-love. Posting when she felt content allowed her to build her confidence. Posting when she felt upset allowed her to feel validated. In the case of the “Sharenters”, they too felt that sharing their stories online allowed them to feel that their subjective experiences of parenting were valid despite the lack of representation of these narratives in mainstream media (Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2017). Therefore, sharing is expected to, and in fact does, perform beneficial work on the self and on others.
Users of online spaces are aware that they are interacting with an audience when they post online. Vladimir’s message in a bottle metaphor can also be interpreted as the potential outcomes of “throwing something out there.” There is a certain amount of hope that someone may stumble upon the message and that it may spark something. This presents a paradoxical expectation that the internet can be used for private purposes while simultaneously hoping to reach an audience. In my interview with Anne, she emphasized that while her social media was “just for herself”, she liked the idea of one of her followers smiling at one of her posts. “It might make someone’s day. It might make them laugh,” she said. This possibility was evidently important to her. In a similar sense, Karen described posting about her insecurities online with the hope that a friend would reach out to her. She described a recent post to me with “this is how I’m feeling right now. I feel like shit. Somebody tell me that I’m not a bad person. I need other people to validate me. And it works and I got so many messages.” Though evidently different, both examples are similar in their hope to reach an audience that may respond. While most of my interview subjects emphasized that their uses of social media was primarily for themselves, it is worthwhile to note that they also demonstrated a desire to have their posts noticed.
Due to their awareness of an audience, users will curate their profiles appropriately. These profiles are spaces of “storytelling” where identities are presented in selected “fragments” rather than as a whole (Blum-Ross and Livingstone, 2017, 112-113). They are spaces where identity is performed. What is posted online is what is chosen to be made visible of the self to the public (Meikle, 2016). In her chapter on the right to be forgotten online, Safiya Noble highlights the ways in which posts on the internet are immortal and easily accessible (Noble, 2018). My interview subjects were aware of this accessibility and it informed how they curated their profiles and interacted with this space. In Zeynep Gürsel’s description of image brokers that mediate which photos would be useful to the news, she describes how the image brokers consider what images would be reflected on as important in the future. They are considering the “futurepast” (Gürsel, 2016). In much the same way, individuals consider what their posts would say about themselves in the future looking back. Jean-François Blanchette and Deborah Johnson sum this up when they described how users “hesitate over every act because every act has permanence, may be recalled and come back to haunt one, so to speak (Blanchette and Johnson, 2002, 36).” The most obvious example of this is the concern that employers may discover past inappropriate posts. Referring to the potential for unexpected readers on any given online post, Amanda Lenhart and Susannah Fox stated “bloggers blog simultaneously for an audience and in apprehension of them (Lenhart and Fox, 2006, 102).” This apprehension is what informs the curated decisions for what to post online.
Therefore, it might be expected that online sharers would be hesitant to post anything online at all. However, my interviews demonstrated a range of trust in privacy online that informed their decisions. On one extreme there were those who considered the internet to be like Orwell’s “Big Brother,” always watching and surveilling. Vladimir belonged to this camp of people and when asked about his current behaviour online he said “Once it’s on the internet, it’s on the internet. It’s not going anywhere else. So I feel like I would only be comfortable with things being online that I would be perfectly comfortable with everyone seeing.” On his social media, Vladimir said he hoped to convey ambition and an impression of the good life. Similarly, Pepper hoped to appear nice and proper. Both believed that their content could be viewed by anyone at any moment and so always wanted to ensure that they never seemed inappropriate or unprofessional. Anne was even more concerned with the lack of privacy online and withheld any information she deemed personal whatsoever in an attempt at erasing herself from her online profile entirely. Interestingly, what is considered private information differed between individuals. For example, where Vladimir considered socio-political personal opinions to be “too personal,” Anne did not. Therefore, while the varying degree of trust displayed in privacy online had an important impact on the kinds of posts made, so did the subjective opinion of what was too personal to post.
Karen at the other extreme, has more trust in the internet. As mentioned previously, she uses the internet to work on herself. She frequently made herself vulnerable online trusting that this information would not be leaked to unwanted eyes by her followers or her security settings. She hoped to present an image of authenticity online. At the same time, she was very aware that she did not want her employers, coworkers, family or childhood acquaintances to see her posts. In a study with bloggers, David Brake determined a list of reasons why posters may not be concerned about unexpected viewership. This may explain the trust that Karen and those like her display despite not wanting certain viewers to see their posts. He states that the blogger expects the reader to be sympathetic but also that readers are subjected to a certain etiquette. This prevents certain behaviours like posting negative comments and sharing with employers. He notes that the blogger may demonstrate trust because they may not deem their posts to expose any sensitive information. Lastly, he proposes that the poster may not ever look into their viewer statistics and so remain blissfully ignorant of their viewership in actuality (Brake, 2012).
Some users intentionally attract a large audience with which they will share. While some, like Anne, claim to simply post online primarily for themselves, others use specific tactics to increase the likelihood of being seen. Users may use hashtags or they may time the upload of their posts. Karen and Pepper demonstrated an awareness of social media algorithms by stating that, in the past, they would only post at certain times of day in order to get more viewer response. They were aware that the most recent posts would be displayed on the top of newsfeeds and would time their posts based on the schedules of their followers. Pepper’s previous uses of social media went further to create “drama” with the intent of being talked about. Being talked about was important to maintain status in her particular friend group. She went so far as to express that even negative comments on her profile were welcomed in a sense. Creating “drama” and timing posts were some of the ways in which Pepper maintained this level of attention. Through these strategies, some internet users are not only aware of the public eye but actively seeking it.
It is worth noting, however, that individuals who make posts online are sharing with an audience that is physically distant. Like most forms of new media before it, such as the television, there is a disconnect between the location where the posting occurs and where it is received (Scannell, 1996). Therefore, the sharer can only receive feedback from their audience if they actively respond through comments or likes. This is unlike a face-to-face interaction where a response can be determined through body language (Brake, 2012). The attached clip from a YouTube video by two well-known youtubers, Dodie Clark and Hazel Hayes, discuss this disconnect. Hazel later goes on to say “There’s no guidelines in this. There’s no etiquette. This hasn’t existed before (Clark and Hayes, 2017).”
When public spaces, such as the internet, are used in deeply private ways, it is called oversharing. This behaviour exists both online and offline. Urban dictionary, a website with definitions created by and voted on by users, defines it as the following:
“Providing more personal information than is absolutely necessary. Typically done when two or more people are conversing and details of one’s sexual life creep into the discussion - or overly gross and disgusting details are included. Sometimes used in referenced to loud cell phone users.” (MrShoujo, 2005)
This popular definition emphasizes oversharing as something unwanted, gross, and unnecessary. When asked to define oversharing, some of my interview subjects highlighted their experiences reading other’s posts. Anne stated it was anything that “no-one really wants to know about.” Others emphasized the perspective of the sharer. Karen felt that nothing was oversharing so long as the boundaries of the sharer were not surpassed. Through my interviews and observations of online social media platforms, I have determined that oversharing online consists of any instance where someone discloses more online than would ordinarily be disclosed in a public setting either in quantity or quality of posts. Therefore, it is the use of public spaces in a private and intimate way. As seen in the above Urban Dictionary definition as well as in circulated memes, there is a deeply negative connotation associated with oversharing. It is an act of crossing a social boundary. Calhoun describes the public as a space where “a person has responsibilities to others (Calhoun, 2013, 72).” Someone who overshares is considered rude for neglecting their responsibilities of etiquette in a public space. However, as Dodie and Hazel remark in their video, what this etiquette entails can be hazily defined.
This poorly defined online etiquette can be observed in the following message posted by an Instagram blogger who regularly makes vulnerable posts often pertaining to mental illness:
I have decided to keep this blogger as well as all other noncelebrity personal bloggers in this paper anonymous in order to protect their privacy. In the above screenshot, it is demonstrated that in this blogger’s eyes, discussing these posts in person is a breach of etiquette on the part of the reader. On the other end of this interaction is the reader of these posts. Pepper disclosed that she would frequently scroll past posts discussing sadness and mental illness. She felt guilty admitting this. However, perhaps in the above blogger’s opinion, Pepper’s behaviour is simply representative of reader etiquette, shielding the poster of the reader’s true reaction (Brake, 2012).
In a search for #oversharing on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, posts that chastise oversharers, such as the meme above, can be found alongside more intimate posts that mark themselves as oversharing. The latter includes baby photos, descriptions of bodily functions, achievements, and details of mental illness and hardship. Here #oversharing is used with a self-deprecating tone to undermine the post before it can be judged by the public. The screenshot below is an example of this usage of #oversharing. The poster demonstrates a need to explain herself for posting a selfie. The uses of #oversharing in these self-deprecating ways further emphasize that the act of oversharing is popularly considered to be undesirable, poor etiquette.
Sometimes posts reach unexpected eyes and, in these cases, the act of oversharing is not anticipated or desired by the sharer. This could entail having a post be viewed by specific unwanted viewers or simply an unanticipated number of viewers. All public spaces have infrastructures that determine the participants and the network of connections (Calhoun, 2013). However, unlike a physical setting, the internet’s public infrastructure is larger and more fluid. This means that one cannot make a post directed solely to one specific public group without the chance of it reaching another. Different publics entail different responsibilities and etiquette. When a post reaches further than the expected public, it becomes open to a different collective gaze. The result can be discomfort and tension. This example demonstrates how etiquette in online spaces remains awkward, incomplete and in flux. The code of conduct for the internet, whether to share information as if sharing to a wide public or as if sharing to a specific private, is not yet wholly determined. The proper degree of trust in privacy settings and readers is not determined as well. Some, like Karen, continue to demonstrate trust in the promised privacy of online spaces. Others, like Vladimir, refrain from sharing anything that would make them vulnerable if it reaches an unexpected audience.
The internet is undeniably a space of interaction with one of the largest publics. However, the way the space is used transforms the space into some new combination of private and public. While individuals have different goals in mind when posting online, they each demonstrate some selfish, private use of online spaces as well as hope to reach a larger audience. The ways in which interaction online is mediated is remarkably new and remains uncertain. Etiquette and boundaries are in the process of being established leading to, at times, tense and uncomfortable online interactions. Just like sending a message in a bottle, individuals throw their message out into a space of possibility. There is the possibility the message will be left unread, there is the possibility the message will reach desired eyes and there is the possibility the message will reach unwanted readers. Whatever the possibility, the sender knows that they will lack control over the fate of their message upon throwing it out at sea. They decide if it is worth the risk.
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