My Facebook friend Maxine is a good person. She’s honest, but maybe a little too honest. She shares the kind of stuff online that would make most people uncomfortable.
Her most-recent post focused on an article she was reading while using the bathroom. Yes, the subject of the article was interesting, but her Facebook friends didn’t need to know where she was reading it.
Of course, oversharing of personal information is nothing new. The term “overshare” was Webster’s New World Dictionary Word of the Year in 2008. Some trace the origins of the phrase “too much information” back to a Duran Duran song of the same name from the 1990s.
The phrase quickly morphed into its own acronym, TMI. Overshare with a friend in the late ’90s and early 2000s and the response was usually “T. M. I.” Do a quick search on Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag #TMI to read examples. Be warned. Most #TMI posts are cringe-worthy.
Social scientists have grappled with the question of what drives people to overshare information, positive or negative, on social media. We’re just now beginning to understand why people divulge excessive personal information on Facebook, and how truthful they’re willing to be.
In the September issue of Computers in Human Behavior, Erin Hollenbaugh, professor of communication at Kent State University, and Amber Ferris, professor of communication at the University of Akron Wayne College, examined why some people were more honest than others in the information they shared on Facebook. The Facebook honesty variable is intriguing for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the implications it has for people trying to find more information about other people (e.g., pre-screening potential dates).
According to their study, Facebook users who posted honest, positive self-disclosures did so as a way to maintain their offline, personal relationships. Self-esteem played a role here, too. Facebook users with good self-esteem tended to be more positive in their posts.
However, users looking for online companionship were actually more negative in their disclosures. “If you’re lonely in your offline life, that negativity seems to spill over into your online life,” Hollenbaugh said.
More surprising were the intentions of those who posted negative, dishonest information. Hollenbaugh and Ferris found that Facebook users who want to create new online networks often built those networks on less-than-honest self-portrayals.
“There was a clear pattern where Facebook users disclosed dishonest, unintentional, negative information,” Hollenbaugh said. “These people don’t expect to be held accountable [offline] for what they say [online].”
There could be another reason why people are more negative on Facebook than in-person, Hollenbaugh noted. “People who are developing online relationships might feel freer to disclose lots of negative information because they can spill their guts about all the horrible parts of who they are without fear of in-person rejection.”
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor and chair of the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator newspaper on social media and society.