The Oversharing Era

For better or for worse, we live in the age of Internet oversharing. But lately, especially in light of Facebook’s recent moves with Timeline and so-called frictionless sharing, it seems the sharing pendulum may have swung too far.

Facebook’s new Timeline feature is yet another effort on Facebook’s part to make our lives fit into neat little boxes ideal for sharing. In this case, it’s our whole Facebook lives, posts and pictures from our first Facebook status update to now. For kids today, that means it will encompass their entire lives, really. On one level, that’s pretty cool. But on another it’s terrifying. It’s almost as if we’ll have parallel lives: the real one and the other we “curate” on Facebook for the world.

Frictionless sharing is on its face innocent enough but could easily turn sour. Frictionless sharing is Facebook’s new sharing feature that allows users to share what they are doing, instantly and automatically without hitting a like button or manually posting anything. (That sounds a lot like Beacon, right?) Whether it’s reading an article on the Washington Post online or listening to a song on Spotify, the activity appears seamlessly on Facebook’s Ticker (another new feature). Creepy right? Most people think so; and not just that, there are major privacy issues at stake.

The cookies that enable this frictionless sharing apparently remain open and continue to track users’ online activity even after they have logged out of Facebook. Obviously privacy activists and groups are all over this, and now even members of Congress are getting involved. Representatives Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Joe Barton of Texas wrote to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday asking it to investigate Facebook’s business practices. In response to the many complaints from users who were surprised to find everything they were listening to was being posted on Facebook, Spotify has already modified its integration with Facebook so that “private listening” is an option. It seems that it won’t be long until frictionless sharing meets the same fate as Facebook’s previous similar feature Beacon.

Sharing does have use and value. Facebook’s mission of connecting the world is undeniably inspiring. On a daily level, Facebook helps you stay in touch with the people in your life. On a larger scale, Facebook sharing has become an important communication tool in times of crisis, as we’ve seen with natural disaster situations like Japan’s tsunami and earthquake, and with sociopolitcal activism in the Middle East. Yet it seems we are still in the process of finding a balance between that kind of openness and privacy. In some ways, it’s a question of dignity. Every new technology leads to abuse. Think about how people still rudely abuse cell phones or all of the sketchy chatroom activity when the Internet first started, as Chris Hansen can attest. But this is different in that the design is not neutral. Facebook is pushing us to share more and more. It’s not an accident or byproduct. It is part of a powerful company’s “product roadmap.”

The truth is, though, there’s no going back on the overall sharing front. You can’t hope to stop it, only to control it. Online sharing is just a fact of life at this point. It’s up to us to learn how to share responsibly and make sure that companies like Facebook aren’t forcing us to overshare.

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