Why do people share embarrassing information online?

iPhone at hockey game.
The messages on this iPhone look innocent enough, but sharing too much personal information online can lead to disaster. See more pictures of popular web sites.
Mike Stobe/Getty Images/National Hockey League

That photo you saw on Facebook was hilarious -- until you realized it was a picture of your Aunt Maggie. As you surf the Internet, you may stumble upon a blog or social networking site and see something that makes you wonder why people share embarrassing information online. To find out, we need to understand how many people participate in online communities.

As of 2009, millions of people maintain profiles on social networking sites, including personal blogs. More than 50 million blogs exist, and their contributors post a total of more than 1.5 million comments a day [source: Sifry]. In Canada, the average Joe or Jane has a profile on seven or more online sites like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn [source: Shaw].


We've come a long way since the chat rooms and instant messengers of the 1990s, where we could create a digital identity as an avatar cloaked behind the anonymous cover of a screen name. Today, many people not only post their true names and actual photographs online, they also share juicy details of their personal lives that some consider too much information or oversharing. That information -- like tales of binge drinking or casual romantic encounters -- could come back to haunt anyone who chooses to share his or her life online. Yet, some people insist on baring it all in the name of self-expression.

Psychologists and sociologists disagree on the reasons for our society's lack of inhibition. Some say that we feel better about ourselves than we ever have before. Others blame loneliness and the growing lack of traditional community for the need to air our dirty laundry like we're in a confessional booth. What most experts agree on is that people share potentially embarrassing information online for one reason -- to get attention.

In the next section we'll learn more about oversharing and why even some future doctors would jeopardize their careers by putting questionable posts online for the entire world to see.



Overshare Beware

Woman on webcam.
Webcams can lead to embarrassment in the wrong hands.
B2M Productions/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Oversharing online is becoming more and more common. Webster's New World Dictionary defines the word overshare as "to divulge excessive personal information, as in a blog or broadcast interview, prompting reactions ranging from alarmed discomfort to approval." This lack of inhibition, according to cyberpsychologist John Suler, evolved from the early days of online chat rooms and has spilled over into real life. Now people are sharing personal and sensitive information in face-to-face conversations with co-workers and new acquaintances and taking the same approach in online social networking activities.

In 2008, the University of Florida published the results of a study of its medical students' online activities. The school found that a large number of their students shared information on Facebook that most doctors don't share with their patients [source: Lockette]. Some of the shenanigans included these future doctors dressing like pimps, engaging or promoting excessive alcohol consumption and joining groups with names like, "Why I Hate Medical School." This led to medical schools stepping up to counsel their students on what's appropriate information to share online and what isn't.


For better or for worse, sharing potentially embarrassing information online simply is a sign of the times. Experts say members of Generation Y -- those born between 1982 and the mid-1990s -- experience loneliness from being raised in broken homes, unlike that of previous generations. These teens and 20-somethings gravitate toward their peers rather than their nuclear families for emotional support, and tend to become friends with their co-workers [source: Dahl]. Blend these elements with the fact that Generation Y has collectively grown up communicating with household members and classmates via e-mail and text messaging, and it's no wonder that offline activity makes its way to online social networking sites.

But sharing overly personal information online isn't just for kids -- people of all ages are doing it. For example, a single overshare on Twitter greatly embarrassed the Virginia Republican Party in February 2009. The party was trying to convince a Democratic state senator to switch sides. This would have created a 20-20 tie in the Senate, given the Republican lieutenant governor the tie-breaking vote and handed control of the state Senate to the Republicans -- until the party chairman tweeted details of the standoff [source: Newell]. Then there's French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who found his intimate relationship with then-lover Carla Bruni splashed all over the Internet once she started sharing details of her past online [source: Harrop].

Letting your hair down and venting online is healthy -- within reason. Some sociologists consider oversharing a shortcut to forming close friendships. Showing vulnerability, they say, is like an office icebreaker that speeds up the bonding process. But saying too much or the wrong things online can undermine your plans for college, career or business. Some employers and college admissions directors don't have time to check or don't care; however, others base part of the selection process on what turns up from searching an applicant's online profiles.

For more information on social networking online, take a look at the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

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