To share or not to share?
Every now and then people tell me they could never share personal things the way I do on the internet. I never quite know what to do with a comment like this. Some people seem to feel the internet is not for personal things.
Private or Personal?
Superficially it is easy to agree with that. I trust that the majority of users with a sense for boundaries would instinctively keep private things private. The concept of privacy has undergone a strenuous journey, though. A few decades ago we were able to disappear, i.e. truly disengage, for any period of time by physically removing ourselves from home, office or the everyday focus of life, and then simply not leaving a phone number. But today, our personal lives seem to disappear like the dry part of a kitchen tissue that’s placed on a wet spot. Privacy is becoming rare and we feel we need to protect it.
It may be generational, but what I see happening is a confusion about what is personal with what is private. I address this point because – other than feeling like lecturing today – in my view there is an important distinction sharing something which is private versus something that is personal.
Private information is truly only for the people directly concerned. A medical condition or a relationship issue would fall into that category. Think of it like private property: only the owner(s) and those who are invited are allowed to be there. It is not open to the public. Your passwords are private. Private, by definition, means something that, whilst it visibly and objectively exists, such as facts and data, is not meant for the public.
Many people get uncomfortable, or even recoil, when others share private information too freely. I have vivid memories of an evening, a few years ago, with some women I hardly knew who freely shared sexual preferences that made me want to get a lobotomy.
Personal, however, is different. It really can only relate to one individual. A personal story, a personal preference or a personal problem… whatever follows ‘personal’ is related to one person only. My personal view belongs to me in the sense that I decide what to do with it: keep it, share it, change it… whatever. And the personal perspective also makes things interesting, otherwise you can stick with facts and statistics.
Sharing personal experience online
Here’s another filter I use for sharing personal things on my blog, along with most writers. It goes way beyond sharing personal experience and is all about making what’s out there relevant, useful, entertaining or, hopefully, fun to read.
I learned this first when I started out as a travel writer two decades ago. My editor reminded me to think about how my personal experiences would affect my readers, such as: when you come to beach x in August, you can witness how waves, testosterone, and alcohol can turn a scenic spot into a party venue for sun burnt teens. But get there between September and the first half of July and this 2-mile beach will be yours to hike, surf and relax. The reality was that when I went in July prior to writing about it, I was shocked to see so many drunk youth. But my editor’s point was that writing I was shocked to see so many drunk youth would not do much for readers.
Under my editor’s watch I had to consistently turn my personal experience into useful travel guidance: how I dined in a restaurant, talked to the chef and found out that despite slow roast lamb being his most successful dish on the menu, the chef himself is vegetarian and makes pumpkin ravioli that is truly worth traveling for across the country to try. How I slept in a supposedly haunted country house is relevant when I find an angle that is most likely to interest other travelers too, such as the fact that the hotel’s priciest bedroom is facing the farm side of the estate where you will reliably be woken, if not beforehand by a ghost, then definitely by a rooster at 5am.
Sharing one’s journey of life – forgive the tired metaphor – is a similar process, but I decide what to share, and how. It is a great experience when readers tell me they were moved, inspired or amused or when something I wrote affects them. It means it was relevant to them, and that of course is personal too.
In my blog writing I allow myself to be personal, explore experiences, views, reactions and thoughts, and I get to know myself and others, possibly at the expense of being relevant only to some readers. But best of all, I am in my happy place. Here, I can say what I think. It means I have to think first, and that I truly love.
What’s the deal with oversharing?
Some people choose to share with the world where they are spending the weekend, what they are eating and yes, the cute kittycat… It is fashionable to nitpick those posts on social media. A friend recently complained how very irrelevant most postings are. But then, isn’t that the nature of social media? Agreed, some stuff out there is perfect troll-food or, at best, annoying, and also agreed that there are more effective uses of social media, which I make a point of supporting. But trivia will always happen. The self-nominated internet police may watch and criticize, but within boundaries we decide to share what we want to share and what not – it is the beautiful nature of an evolving medium that does not have an editor.
Open or closed?
I used to be extremely private until I realized that there is nothing hugely unique about my life’s journey. Many of us have similar experiences but perceive them differently, or, vice versa, come to similar conclusions from different angles. The only thing that makes anything unique at all is our personal perspective. I noticed, getting older, that a well reflected experience can encourage others to travel their own lives more consciously – and to find the better beaches.
What about undersharing?
And yes, pitching it like this this means there is a possibility of undersharing as well: Some dismiss social media as a platform for themselves, yet keep feasting on what other people put out there. This is a personal preference and as such perfectly legitimate.
I would like undersharers to consider this, though: there are a lot of people who share quality content, life hacks and expertise. For some it takes courage to write. It is encouraging for any person who creates content of value to get feedback. Instant feedback is one of the unique and fabulous features of publishing on the internet. When I published my first print book in 1997, I sometimes would get a critical letter (!) from a disappointed reader in 1999, telling me that a Bed& Breakfast I had raved about has just closed. This would make it into the 2000 edition. Times really have changed.
My point is, undersharers: as digital citizens, learn to appreciate good content, give feedback if you can, share things you like and by those actions make the internet a more relevant place for yourselves and those you connect with. Clicks are one of the core organizing principles of the editor free world. It is an easy way to help those who put themselves out there to learn from their online audience, and your response will feed positively into the selective nature of the internet’s google-shaped content offer. It is a unique chance to co-write our cultural history in digits and pixels.
So instead of simply removing yourself from the evil digital troll-forest, reward what matters. Define and shape the internet with your choices. It is a great time to get noticed.
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