Oversharing… and activism

Earlier today, @nathanjurgenson tweeted a column from the NY Times opinion pages by Roger Cohen. It’s here if you want to read it in full but, to save you the hassle, Cohen makes the claim that people overshare on social networking sites and that he is inundated with inane updates.

Nathan makes the point that “people share mundane info all the time, why such different standards for the web?”. Everybody can probably provide examples of this. My girlfriend works at a shop which sells greeting cards (am I oversharing here?) and many customers will often tell her why they are buying this or that card – for my daughter’s graduation, because I missed our anniversary, because I really like this girl in the office but she doesn’t know and…

This sort of phatic communication is the basis of most if not all human relationships, from the fleeting to the long-standing. But this isn’t my main issue with Cohen’s comments.

Readers of the column, in the comments section, have also made the point that Cohen can choose not to listen. He doesn’t have to read all the tweets, all the status updates. He doesn’t even have to close down his accounts in order to do this. But this isn’t really my main issue either.

My issue is with this. Cohen states the following:

Now I was determined to get through 2012 without doing a peevish column, not wishing to appear cantankerous or curmudgeonly, determined to be sunny and youthful as the times demand, but everyone has a tipping point. Mine occurred when I came across this tweet from Claire:

“Have such a volcanically deep zit laying roots in my chin that it feels like someone hit me with a right cross.”

Good to know, Claire.

I don’t know if Roger Cohen follows Claire on twitter (as I haven’t bothered to look). What I do know is that Claire’s comment is a real comment that has been posted to the website oversharers.com. And it was posted there in June 2010, and is dated from February. So not only is Cohen’s argument based on seemingly flawed understanding of how people communicate as well as a flawed understanding of social media (he can choose not to listen), it seems he wasn’t necessarily listening in the first place – that his twitter feed, or Facebook feed, isn’t actually as full of inane details as he is making out. Going to a website that decontextualises tweets that are interpreted as oversharing to then recontextualise that tweet in order to make the point that people are going around relaying seemingly mundane details to whoever may listen is a little bit shifty.

And the irony of Cohen being in a position to share details about his own life seems to be lost on him.

So, what about activism? (see the title of this post). I realise that Cohen isn’t talking about activists nor about the sort of sharing that activists might do. But at the root of Cohen’s argument is the idea that only some people should be allowed to share information (columnists of major newspapers, for example) and that some people are in a position to judge on other peoples behalf the usefulness of that information (columnists of major newspapers, for example). This is a problem for activists. Politicians and the media often utilise a variation of this argument to discredit activists, further emphasised when they speak of social media in dualistic terms (see @nathanjurgenson again!). Protester’s opinions are discounted; they don’t reflect what the real people on the streets think – and at the same time, we don’t really want to know what the real people think because that’s oversharing. This is further tied together by describing activist’s social media use as “rabble-rousing” or as “hate campaigns” (see articles in The Sun, for example) – and usually one specific figure is condemned for doing this, missing the point that social media is used by people in order to express their politics, using the means they have available to them.

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