Are We Sharing Too Much Information via Social Media?

    by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo
    May 11, 2007

    i-350e264c8a188811bb363d0122c8c345-Jennifer Meosphere.jpg

    Social media — the online tools we use to keep in constant contact with friends and to spy on strangers — is something many of us believe makes the Internet a more fun, more personal place to be. It makes it easier to keep in touch with people we care about, and facilitates relationships with people we might have never met offline. But for all of its positive points, social media might also entice users (including me) into lowering our guard and sharing too much of ourselves with an audience of unknown observers.

    The question “what are you doing?” — which I used to ask my friends on a fairly regular basis — has become obsolete to me. “Oh, wait, don’t tell me. You’re sitting at a cafe in the Nob Hill district of San Francisco, having a latte and reading an email from a colleague in New York.” How did I know? Because their lives are being broadcast, hour by hour (sometimes minute by minute) to me via the web application Twitter, which keeps me in the loop through text-message broadcasts about things I previously didn’t know (or needed to know) about my friends. I recently found out that one friend starts drinking gin and tonics quite early in the afternoon. Another can’t sleep because she frets over the price of good bedsheets. Who are these people?


    Another question of days gone by is “what did you do last weekend?” A quick look at photo-sharing community site Flickr will not only tell me what my friends and associates were doing, but will show me what time the photo was taken, where it was taken (on a map, of course), what kind of camera they have, what exposure and focal length were used, and so on. Even art no longer holds a mystery.

    This level of detail is what people reveal constantly in recounting their daily lives, in different ways and through different outlets, online through social media. Some of us may not realize it, but the bits and pieces of ourselves online paint a picture of who we are — a picture that is so clear one might question whether we aren’t letting too many strangers into our lives.

    Where did this obsession with sharing everything about ourselves come from? In the early days of the Internet, we hid behind “handles” on bulletin boards, cowering in fear of the possible “freak” on the other end of our dial-up connection. Now we strip naked, offering up not only our real names but also our exact location and activity at that very moment. Do we think that just because someone is savvy enough to use Web 2.0 they aren’t up to something bad?


    Seinfeld-esque Nightmare

    My own shift from a private person to online personality came back in 2003 with the appearance of Friendster. I worked at a dot-com startup where everyone around me was obsessed with the new concept of social networking. Through Friendster I began the journey of knowing too much about the people in the next office, who I previously knew little — or just enough — about. Through “testimonials” on the site I learned that the buttoned-up middle manager was, after 5 o’clock, the leader of a “bicycle gang” and the mild-mannered graphic designer was a real ladies’ man. I was also made to meld my professional life with my personal, as co-workers flirted with my friends online and friends asked to be introduced to single colleagues. A Seinfeld-esque nightmare.

    And it’s not just current co-workers who can become too close for comfort through social networking. Clients, potential employees or employers are no longer strangers either. We all know something about one another, whether it’s because of sites like Friendster or LinkedIn, or because the minute we schedule a meeting we are Googling the other person to dig up “dirt” about them.

    Perhaps looking at one’s photos or hearing that they had tuna salad on rye for lunch isn’t all that harmful in and of itself. But what about the sum of each of these parts of one’s online life? If someone puts them all together, they might know more about me than my closest friends. And not getting into the obvious sinister possibilities of all of this information falling into the wrong hands (identity theft, stalking, etc.), isn’t one’s very identity — the one we try hard to manage — compromised by the version of one’s self which emerges in bits and pieces online?

    Would clients be less likely to hire me because they know, through my blogging, what my political views are? Would a suitor have second thoughts if they found out, via LastFM, that my musical tastes mirror a late night Time-Life infomercial? Would a potential employer not call back because — perhaps worse of all — they see that I spend way too much time online, constantly updating the world about the banal details of my life?

    In everyday life, we edit ourselves, with the intention of showing only the best or the most relevant part of ourselves to each person we meet. With so many tiny pieces of our lives online, we can’t do that. Putting it all together to really get the full, “fair” picture is probably a task that most of us wouldn’t take on, and someone stumbling upon just one “piece” of your online identity — something seemingly harmless or insignificant to you — could mean a change in how a person views you. Should we care?

    Some web applications help along the “piecing” by aggregating all aspects of your online life into one place. Jaiku, a text-update service similar to Twitter, allows users to add feeds from their Flickr photos, LastFM recently played tracks, bookmarked sites on Reddit, and just about any other feed of their public Internet stuff to their profiles.

    How about a record of every city I’ve visited, all the airports I’ve had layovers in, all the hairstyles I’ve ever had and the different types of offal I’ve eaten? Well, there’s a site for that, too. It’s called Meosphere”, and if it were to converge with the other services previously mentioned, we’d have all our bases covered.

    While the average Web 2.0 junky might not be all that careful about what we share, teenagers who are practically being raised on social media are more prudent with their information than you might expect, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The study found that most teens actively manage their profiles to avoid strangers accessing their information. At the same time, 63% of teens said they thought that someone who was “motivated” could piece all of their information together and endanger their online anonymity. Beyond anonymity, there’s also reputation management to think about, and perhaps teens have the most to lose as what they share today could come back to haunt them in the professional world in the future.

    As a heavy user of social media, with a profile on most of the more popular sites and on beta lists for services that are yet to launch, I have to wonder: Is this too much?

    What do you think? Is social media dangerous for our privacy? Which social media sites do you use and why? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

    Tagged: privacy security social networking
    • “”Are We Sharing Too Much Information via Social Media?””

      There is an angle you don’t mention. The people who post what they earn online. These individuals post photos of paychecks in the 000s, cities they live in, restaurants they eat in, cars they drive, and even photos of their families, including children (!!).
      See any of the most popular “make money online” blogs (shoemoney, John Chow) and you’ll see what I mean.
      I am sorry and afraid for them.

      If everyone know all these details, what stops them from tracking them down and doing the worst things to them and their families?

      These guys live in an imaginary bubble of security, when the rest of the world would do anything to have even a 1000th of what they have.

      In some places -Russia, Brazil and others- they would kill you just to get your nice looking watch. NO questions asked, no time wasted, just a bullet shot by, perhaps, a 14 y.o.

      For me, the “my future employer will find out” is the least significant problem.

      The real issue is wether or not they know what you look like, what you do, and where you usually hang out.

      I know they could find that out about me, I took that decision fully conscious of the risks a long time ago. But you won’t find addresses or images of my loved ones so easily, or images of my friends coupled with their names.

      What many people are writing online today is akin to a golden invitation for kidnap…or worse.

      It is the dream of the mafias! Identifying quickly, easily and discreetly the most valuable individuals…


    • i’ve had more than my share of difficulty with expressing even the tiny tip of the iceberg of my political theories that is expressed with my website. when i got on the cbs evening news, it was great for business, but the “long tail” of total jerks is something that most people online do not understand. (yeah, me and mine received some f**kin ugly threats for speaking against the bush regime). freedom of speech is limited by guns – the first and second amendments simply do not mix at the extreme ends of each.

      hurl with me at ashcroft and gonzales who have with no reservation been coddling neo-nazis with weapons caches for eight years; they are armed to the teeth, and social media just about gives them a database of people to attack once Limbaugh gives the word. It could be just like Rwanda.

      god forbid that comes to pass, of course, but i remember reading a sci-fi short story when i was younger about a TOTAL race war in the USA and having grokked that vision, yes it could happen here.


    • Should the question be Where did this obsession with sharing everything about ourselves come from? or When did this obsession with concealing the truth about ourselves begin?

    • J. McLaughlin

      I have no problem with my privacy because I have never revealed anything about myself online. I see my friends in person, talk to them on my cellphone, email them…That is all I need. I guess I simply value my privacy. The last thing I ever would want to be is famous, look at those who are, papparazi are maniacs for all the worst things that happen to them. It’s like high school, only worse.
      NOT FOR ME.

    • If the question is truly “are we sharing too much,” I think the answer has to be no. Everyone shares what they think is important to them. Someone who doesn’t want to share information simply wouldn’t participate in such social forums.

      I have a variety of online as well as offline friends. Were I to gather all of these friends in one room, a fistfight would ensue within fifteen minutes. So yes, I use a few social networking sites, but prudently, and often not interlinked.

      Others share much more and do so much more transparently, linking all of their information together — music to face, face to blog, blog to Twitter. But just as I wouldn’t wear a political T-shirt to a job interview, I personally don’t feel comfortable interlinking all of these avatars just in the interest of radical transparency.

      I regard this not as concealing, but rather as choosing — choosing the time, place, and manner of my speech to suit the occasion.

      I phrased it this way to a friend: I reserve the right to grow up, to mature, and not to have everything about me stored ad infinitum. For me the “when did I become aware of privacy” moment came with the birth of DejaNews (now Google Groups). Nobody posting to alt.swedish-chef.bork.bork.bork knew that their messages were going to be retained and searchable for eternity. We can’t predict what will be done in twenty years with the information that’s visible now.

      I haven’t read the Pew study, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see that many of today’s youth are being prudent with their information. They know that knowledge is for life, but information is forever.

    • Are we sharing too much? Yes, probably. I wonder if there’s a day down the road where intimacy will take on new shades of meaning. Information is not ‘knowing’ someone, it’s a series of factoids that might be collected to create an outline of a person. But it says nothing about how kind someone is, or how generous or how hot-tempered.

      Also, if everyone is a friend, then no one is a friend, because having friends is about not just sharing information, but responding uniquely and interacting with said friend. FaceBook is the social equivalent of a Christmas letter.

      On piecing stuff together…someone I work with, a woman in her mid-thirties, for some reason doesn’t get that people can and will do this. For instance, on a Wednesday, she wrote on her Facebook profile about her high game score. The next day, I received an email that she was late with her proposal. A few hours later, I received an email about a mysterious ‘personal issue’ that would prohibit her from completing her proposal on time. A few hours after that, her Facebook entry told me that she was leaving town early for Passover.

      Not too much information, really, but just enough for me to roll my eyes in disbelief.

    • “Too much” is in the eye of the beholder, right?

      It’s interesting to me to think about how much someone shares online versus off – how some people feel so much freer in one space over another. Is one kind of sharing more authentic than another?

    • Javier,

      That is indeed an angle that I didn’t mention, but it’s true that too much personal information in the hands of evildoers — be they identity thieves or the more sinister characters you mention — is something all of us should concerned about.


      Thank you for sharing your personal experience with this issue. The fact is that putting ourselves out there online — especially our political selves — is something that has the potential to garner attention, both positive and negative.


      Very good question as well. That happened before the birth of social media, offline, when we began believing that not showing 100% of who we are to 100% of people was somehow the best way to present ourselves.


      Thanks for your comment. Those of us who have made ourselves public online — for all the fun and socializing that it offers — may one day envy your decision to keep your life limited to your immediate circle.


      Your choice to keep “offline” friends away from your online circle is very interesting. It’s true that just as in “regular” life, online we have different friends in different circles, and sometimes there’s no reason to mix the two. And I agree that “choosing” is not the same thing as “concealing”. We choose to show different sides of ourself all the time, simply by the words we choose when speaking, so this happening online doesn’t, in my opinion, make us “concealers”.


      Your anecdote is precisely the kind of “horror story” I had in mind when reflecting on the question “what are the possible negative outcomes of too much information online?” It makes me shudder to think of other situations where online info put someone in hot water. Also, I agree that not everyone is a friend, and just because someone knows more random details about say, our musical tastes, doesn’t make them as much of a friend than someone who’s known us for years. That said, I have made some “real” friends through social networking, and shared tastes and affinities were what helped along those relationships.

      Thanks to everyone for your comments.

    • Amanda,

      Another very good question. I’ve often thought about the fact that, in the online realm, there are people who hide some things about themselves on certain sites (things I consider innocuous, like their camera data on Flickr, the photo site) and expound on personal information like where they live, their work, their likes and dislikes. I guess that what is insignificant to some is a big deal to others and vice versa.

      As you point out, it is curious to see how some people will remain completely private offline, but online go out of their way to tell the world about themselves. There has got to be a reason why we see the online space as “safer”, when in reality it might be just the opposite.

      As far as one form of sharing being more authentic than another, I think it’s more about what the information is rather than the space in which we share it. It may mean nothing to me to admit to the world that at this moment I’m craving an ice cream sandwich, but I would hesitate to offer up something more personal to people I don’t really know. Neither piece of information is more authentic, but one might be more or less significant than the other.

      Thank you for your comment.

    • hmmm….when does “I” become “TMI”? pretty quickly these days…

      When what you expose of yourself begins to interferr with your work and your life in various ways, you begin to learn the boundary. Most young people in college–and some who stay in media–haven’t had that boundary pushed yet. But, eventually, they will. We all learn over time…

    • Of course, one is going on the presupposition that the person posting at these various social networks is actually telling the TRUTH…but how do you really know? They could be adding extra zeros to the income listed on the page, they could’ve given themselves a more glamorized title. For example, I have on a myspace profile for occupation: Singer/Songwriter/Director Of First Impressions. The latter is a fancy word for receptionist lol…but when you’re trying to make it in the music biz who wants to be labeled as a receptionist who “dabbles” in music…when you feel you are an artist who has a survival job while waiting for your big break? It’s all a matter of perception! Besides, anyone who reviews someone else’s page and judges had better be careful with their own pages because as the cliche goes, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, lol.

    • Pratman

      Lol. I just wrote the most insightful message but i didnt “verify” (who am i suppose to verify with? do they need ID?) so now that that did not work out and i hardly remember what i wrote i have no more insight to bring except for the level of detail towards social interaction that the internet has brought us to is quite astounding considering that the first computers were made like 41 years ago. we are a small slive of time in the spectrum of everything else out there. Where do we take this? What do we do with it? Evolution. lol

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