The Age of the Perpetual Overshare

26 February 2017

Let me start by saying that I really like Facebook. No, scratch that, I love it. As someone who went to four different schools, attended university more than 600 miles away from home, and then moved to London without even waiting to attend my graduation ceremony (or indeed telling many people), I love being able to stay in touch with all the fabulous people who’ve drifted in and out of my life. I am so immensely crap at correspondence – letters, emails, Whatsapp – it all brings me out in a social anxiety sweat. But, with a simple ‘friending’ on Facebook, and the occasional ‘like’, comment, or quick chat over Messenger, I can check in with people I last saw when I was eleven. Some of these remain nice friends to have purely on a social media basis, but I’ve been able to meet up with others in real life, and some friendships have been rekindled stronger than ever.

In exactly one week, I will have been a Facebook user for a decade. I remember how exciting it was to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen for ages, and to see what was happening in their lives. I had only been engaged for three months, and it seems so quaint now that we told our family and friends about our engagement either over the phone or in person. Just a few months later, and it no doubt would have been a photo of the ring and a gushing announcement (#soblessed).

However, much like any good thing (ice-cream, gin, democracy…), there are downsides. Facebook, and social media in general, doesn’t just present external dangers in the form of trolls, fake news, and distressing images and videos of every variety. It also presents an infinite number of opportunities for you to genuinely offend others, compromise your own privacy and reputation, and generally make a tit of yourself. While all the lurking nasties are enough for several blog posts (and books!) all on their own, I think for now we can just stick with the slightly narrower topic of how to keep your shit together when conducting yourself on Facebook.

• Consider your audience

I am the last person to suggest self-censorship on Facebook, and I don’t feel inhibited when it comes to strong opinions, or indeed bad language. However, it helps to remember that I am friends on Facebook with, among others, my mother, my mother-in-law, my former boss, and one of the teachers at my son’s school (we became friends after he was in her class – being social media besties with your child’s current teacher can get complicated). I don’t think of any of them with a sense of hand-wringing anxiety before I click ‘post’ (all the aforementioned people know I swear like a sailor anyway), but it’s always good to bear in mind that, if there are things you would never say in person to some or all of your Facebook friends, then you probably need to rethink why it would be okay to do so from behind a keyboard.

• Enough with the vague venting

A good rant can actually be quite amusing, and your friends may be entertained, or make you feel better. However, an obnoxiously vague rant about how you’re always taken advantage of because nice guys finish last, quite plainly directed at someone you’re Facebook friends with, will only make everyone who sees it smash their foreheads on their keyboards, and then click ‘unfollow’. Hot tip, we all think we’re nice guys, and we all think we’re being taken advantage of from time to time, which raises the tough question of who all these ‘other’ selfish bastards actually are…

• Be grateful for what you have, and sensitive to those without

Just as you find my posts about my children (and the endless accompanying photos) a bit grating, so too do I find your extravagant PDAs and photos of your cats a bit heavy-going. However, it is your God-given right to post what you like about your own life, much as it is mine, and I don’t feel the need to hoik up my ranty pants about what people find important enough to share. Where I do think we need take a pause is in understanding that our posts are seen, and can’t be unseen, by friends who may be struggling to conceive/have suffered a loss in pregnancy/grapple with the reality of never being able to have children. Much along the same vein, there will be those who have recently been divorced, bereaved, bankrupted, or lost a dearly-loved pet.

Don’t stop posting your thoughts or photos or rants, but try to practise genuine, non-smug gratitude as much on Facebook as we all should in real life. Some people would give anything for the opportunity to have the very children you are cheerfully joke about giving up for adoption, and they’re smart enough to understand that you’re being entirely tongue-in-cheek, but it will probably still hit a nerve. If someone chooses to be offended by something you say because they hold a strong view to the contrary, then that should be part of a healthy difference of opinion and debate, but maybe a bit of sensitivity and kindness would make social media, and life in general, just that little bit more bearable for those genuinely having a tough time.

• Don’t like stupid shit or pages

It’s true that some people are a bit new to Facebook, and struggle to get to grips with their privacy settings and who can see what on their timeline, but I am continually astounded by the way in which seemingly intelligent and tech-savvy people ‘like’ racist, pornographic, or right-wing content and pages, without apparently ever realising that WE CAN ALL SEE YOU. The same goes for sharing funny videos that originally come from deeply misogynist or dubious pages. I’m personally a little more forgiving of the sharing of ‘fake news’ that seems credible – this is a fairly recent hot topic (even if it’s not a particularly recent practice), but we’re all working out what is actually genuine. It’s not sensible or forgivable, however, to click ‘like’ on some utterly bonkers BNP-style racist propaganda, unless of course you genuinely want to announce to your 247 Facebook friends that you are, in fact, a big ol’ racist…

• Don’t announce other people’s news for them

This is a particular, personal bugbear (although, thankfully, it’s never actually happened to me). If your friend has just squeezed out eight pounds of brand-new human, and you’ve received a call or text message to that effect, but there is nothing yet on social media, it is not your job to make the announcement on their behalf on their Facebook wall. The same goes for engagements, divorces, deaths and boob jobs. If they haven’t personally posted about it to their wall, stick with a private message until they do. Thunder stealers have their own special section of hell, alongside queue-jumpers and people who mispronounce ‘specifically’.

For those with kids, some further things to think about:

• Again, consider your audience

Do you know every single one of your Facebook friends personally? I have one or two that I’ve worked with in far-flung places of the world, but I’ve never actually met. Even knowing everyone personally is no guarantee of anything – the harsh reality is that any potential danger to your children is just as likely to come from a close family friend or relative. The important thing to consider is just how much information you’re providing in any given post or photo. As much as I strongly reject the Daily Mail-style hysteria that suggests that just about everyone you meet must be a paedophile in disguise, it doesn’t hurt to consider what information you’re sharing. An obvious one is school photos with the school logo in view. Again, I’m not suggesting that a first-day-of-school photo of your child is headed straight to the Dark Web if you share it on Facebook, but at least give it a moment’s thought. No social media account is completely secure – even if you do a good job of maintaining your own passwords and access, your Facebook friends might not.

• Consider your children’s response to what you’ve posted

If your children are still small, this needs to basically take the form of an imaginary conversation with their teenage/adult selves. Would they be happy with the photo or funny comment you’ve shared? How would you explain to them why you’ve shared that part of their lives and childhood?

I often post about my kids on Facebook, and I’m fully aware that I am going to refer to them on this blog, but I try to have this conversation with them in my mind each time I post about them, or indeed the more complex parts of my personal life. It’s not necessarily that it shouldn’t be said or shared, but it should always be a conscious, deliberate thing.

• Your children’s future digital footprint

Anyone old enough to read and understand this post has likely had the benefit of a childhood free of social media, but our children don’t necessarily have this choice. We have all (hopefully) been able to choose what is part of our legacy on the internet, but by posting about our children, we have removed this choice from them. This is not something to feel guilty about – our parents and ancestors left us with some serious shit to deal with (the environment is a good place to start…), and that is just how the passage of time works. However, that same imaginary conversation I mentioned above really needs to enter into your thinking when you post about them online in any format or forum (blogs included!) What will a potential boss be able to see when they type in your child’s name one day?

• Privacy settings

Please make sure you are aware of your privacy settings on Facebook and all your social media accounts. Because my Instagram account is completely public, I don’t post pictures of my boys’ faces. I have many friends who do, and others who use their children as part of their business or brand building (something that can provide opportunities, financial or otherwise, for the family as a whole). There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. None of my friends who appeared in ads or on TV as children have ever complained about their moment in the spotlight – it was usually great fun. Likewise, it’s entirely your choice to never post a photo of your child anywhere online, and this does not make you awkward or self-righteous.

The important thing is that you are fully clued-up about what everybody on the internet can see, and how you would deal with any possible implications. Even being trolled on Instagram can be bloody hurtful, so you need to be totally clear on what you’re sharing, and how you feel about the possible infringement on your own, or your children’s, privacy.

• Consider the amount of time you spend on Facebook (or social media in general)

This one is less about what you’re actually posting on Facebook, and more about the behaviour you’re modelling. I’ve had the odd tut from people on the tube when I’ve been on my phone and one of my boys has been sitting next to me or in their pram. It’s really no-one else’s bloody business how or when you choose to use your phone. The only thing that is important is the behaviour you want to model for your child. If you feel you spend possibly too much time on Facebook, consider whether you’d like your child to spend the same amount of time each day on social media. If not, then the example begins with you. Facebook and Instagram were my best friends during hours of breastfeeding in the middle of the night, and if I see someone on their phone at the playground, I don’t automatically assume they’re a rubbish parent. Just make sure that you’re happy with the picture of digital engagement you’re presenting to your kids.

I am probably guilty of getting it wrong on some, or indeed all, of the above points. In fact, I first wrote down the blog title idea of ‘The Age of the Perpetual Overshare’ after only a year on Facebook, and I’ve watched with interest how social media has evolved, as well as our relationships with it. Its pros and cons could be listed over several hundred pages, but, ultimately, it boils down to one simple concept. It is the responsibility of each one of us, either as individuals or on behalf of our children, to clearly define how we want to conduct ourselves in this vast online space. Nobody wants to end up the digital equivalent of that person at the cocktail party with their skirt tucked into the back of their knickers.

C x