I’m part of a generation used to living their life in full view – our collective adolescence measured in a succession of messaging apps and social networks. Each of them encouraged increasing levels of openness and entrenched the message: sharing prompts caring or, better yet, attention.
For much of my life, almost everything became fodder to be shared online. Funny texts from friends, videos of strangers on the street, stray thoughts about sexual proclivities. Privacy, both mine and that of the people I came into contact with, was a mythical concept. If I had experienced something, surely that made it my anecdote, to do with as I pleased? This approach caused problems. A man I was dating texted me to ask if a particular rant about bad communicators was about him (yes). A colleague warned me about sharing pictures in my underwear, prompting a furious reaction. Family fractures resulted from drunk tweets. But why, I would think defiantly, should I censor myself?
Over the past two years, though, something has changed: I’ve started to properly pull back, prompted by the ongoing presence in my life of someone I love very deeply, whose attitude to privacy is the antithesis of mine. I had learned to see sharing as widely as possible as an act of pride. To me, posting a candid photograph to 10,000 followers was akin to loudly claiming my beloved for the world to see. He took a different view: attention from faceless avatars meant nothing to him. Why, he asked, did I feel compelled to perform my life for these people?
It was a good question and one I wasn’t quite able to articulate an answer to, becoming defensive at first. Even now, I’m not sure there’s a single way to understand the drive to broadcast every facet of my existence. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that oversharing was a behaviour I learned early – as a toddler, my mother tells me I would run around, pointing at people and announcing what genitalia I surmised they had, informed by the iconic 1973 kids’ sex education book Where Did I Come From? – and engaging in it resulted in an incredible amount of positive reinforcement as I grew older. There are other reasons of course: realisations and breakthroughs I’ve had since beginning the process of redrawing my boundaries. But I’ll keep those to myself.
Another factor was starting out as a lifestyle journalist in the twilight of the 2010s. A first-person essay boom was in full swing and leveraging your personal life was one of the few routes to get noticed if you lacked contacts or journalism qualifications. Young women desperate to stand out from the crowd were coaxed into sharing intimate, and often traumatic, details about their lives for clicks. In this arena, to lay yourself bare was an act of ambition – one, we later discovered, that can be difficult to scrub from the internet. Meanwhile, a new crop of digital-first and reality TV celebrities had emerged, defined by their “authenticity’” and willingness to present their entire existence for public consumption. Positive reinforcement for laying it all on the metaphorical table was high.
Reprogramming yourself is a fascinating exercise. The urge to share is most insistent when I’m alone, prompting the horrific realisation that somewhere along the way, my brain has been trained to process reality through an audience. Sharing became how I made my own life real; if a tree fell in a forest, and I didn’t tweet about it, did it even happen? At times, I feel like something terrible and irreversible has taken place; that I’ll never be able to walk down a street listening to a beautiful piece of music and not get the urge to convert the sheer joy of the experience into a social media post, or a text to a friend to make it real.
But every time I resist that grubby pull, there’s a small rush of triumph – and liberation. Now I’ve had a taste of what keeping things close feels like, I crave it. It’s a delicious secret, a reclamation of power I wasn’t aware I’d surrendered. Choosing what to share, with who and when, prompts necessary pauses – do I really need to mention this detail? Is this information I want out there long term? Do I even have the necessary consent to trumpet a certain story to all and sundry?
None of this means I’ve stopped sharing altogether. That would be a lonely life indeed. But I have become far more selective about exactly what information reaches an audience wider than my inner circle (and I’m not alone; there is a burgeoning backlash against oversharing, counting Taylor Swift and some UK teens among its converts). Last year, I read the playwright Joe Orton’s diaries, published after his 1967 murder. As detailed in John Lahr’s introduction to The Orton Diaries, Orton always intended for posthumous publication of the work and believed “the value of a diary was its frankness”. His entries are the last word in confessional writing. But they were penned safe in the knowledge that the public would only read them after Orton was long gone. As a result, the man who jumps off the page feels utterly free, for better or worse.
I’m now realising that complete openness was limiting. Privacy is a cloak, under which we are at liberty to explore the intricacies of the self, beholden to no audience other than ourselves. I have grown up in a generation that overshares in order to be heard. Only through the slow, gruelling process of learning to be private am I really beginning to listen to myself.
Moya Lothian-McLean is a journalist who writes about politics and digital culture