Oversharing is a canard

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That’s a page from Ben Agger’s Oversharing (Routledge, 2012), a short book that I am pretty sure is written for high school students. I think that nearly everything about this refusnik advice about how to use social media is counterproductive and wrong, as it derives from what strikes me as a wrong interpretation of what “oversharing” is. While Agger rightly regards social media as capitalism’s attempt to deploy technology to subsume sociality — it tries to capture our interactions with friends and reorient them toward value production (brand building, immaterial labor, etc.) — he wrongly connects oversharing with pornographic self-display and people making banal observations about everyday life, which seems myopic to me, a misunderstanding of how social media is used.

I’m not sure there is a proper amount of “sharing” by which you can declare anything that exceeds that is “oversharing,” and I don’t think sexual content denotes “oversharing” simply because it makes some people uncomfortable.

The ethical yardsticks with sharing have to do with who exploits the information, who profits from it, and whose consent has been obtained or overridden. What “sharing” definitely does not do is threaten one’s authenticity, and there is no moral obligation to have “authentic” experience by Agger’s or anyone else’s standards of what authenticity is supposed to mean.

The problems with social media use have to do with the for-profit platforms trying to restructure social behavior along capitalistic lines as a social factory for value production and to commoditize social interaction, which has the ideological effect of making people see themselves as isolated monads who can consume social relations with others as nonreciprocal, as experiential goods.

But Twitter use does not “dumb down the culture” because the messages are short. That seems to completely misapprehend the medium’s potential, and to neglect the way it’s used by certain populations.

Facebook does not foment narcissism or borderline personality disorders so much as it encourages one to view oneself as a social entrepreneur, reigning over a small self-broadcasting media empire. It instrumentalizes sociality, but that shouldn’t be psychologized or abstracted from the economic conditions that produces that behavior. It’s not individuals’ becoming mentally ill, which could then be corrected through “individual choice.” The ideology of individual choice, in fact, fuels capitalistic social media and is the basis of the problem. Facebook wants you to subscribe to the idea that individual agency reigns supreme; that is its chief affordance vis-a-vis social life: you are able to pilot it on a purely self-centered basis, the same way you might navigate a shopping website.

Online connectivity has completely intertwined itself with social life in the U.S. and there is no exercise of individual agency that can reverse the effects of that for the individual. By all means, don’t use Facebook, but don’t do that with the ostrich-like attitude that ignoring it will make the importance of online social networking go away for anyone.

I won’t even get into Agger’s insistent fetishizing of presence and “real” conversation vs. texting. But  as Nathan Jurgenson insists, it is important to recognize that smartphone use doesn’t replace presence or IRL social interaction, but is embedded within it and chnages the way we experience it. It is not enough of a critique to try to wish smartphones into the cornfield. The technology emerged from a society we belong to and has been widely adopted by that society for reasons that also shape all of us and that must be reckoned with. As I see it, that means looking at how capitalism structures desire and identity and looks to wage-ify and commodify all human practices, and at the capitalist organizations orient technology to those ends. It doesn’t mean looking at social-media users with contempt for their alleged vanity and lack of self-control.

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