How Much Is Too Much to Share on Social Media?

What counts as “oversharing” depends on what you’re sharing.

Posted Mar 10, 2015

CC0 Public domain/No attribution required
Source: CC0 Public domain/No attribution required

We often talk about the problem of “oversharing” on social media, and the disappearance of the line between public and private. But what’s the difference between sharing and oversharing? Research on self-disclosure suggests that we like each other more when we share, but on the other hand, disclosures that are seen as socially inappropriate lead to less liking.1 But where do we draw the line, and how does what we share on social media affect how other people see us? Recently researchers have begun to explore the effects of these technology-enabled disclosures. So here is some research-backed advice about what we should, and shouldn’t, be sharing on Facebook.

1. Don’t tell everyone what you ate for breakfast… if you communicate with them a lot

In a recent study, Stephen Rains and colleagues examined how superficial self-disclosures affected friendships. How do we feel about those friends who share every mundane detail of their lives with us?

In this study, participants selected one friend of theirs, and for a week kept track of all the technology-based communications initiated by that person (cell phone calls, text messages, social networking sites, instant messaging, and email). Of those communications, they were asked to estimate the percentage of them that involved the friend disclosing something. Specifically, they were asked about interactions that were “about her/him (i.e., information or facts about her/him/events in his/her day or life; her/his personal feelings, opinions or judgments)”. Participants also estimated the percentage of those interactions that were “about things that were trivial or superficial”. They also answered questions about the quality of the friendship and the extent to which they felt the relationship was costly to them (e.g., “My friend wastes my time talking about his/her life”, “My friend expects me to put his/her problems or concerns before my own”).2

So how did they feel about friends who disclosed a lot of trivial personal information? It depended on how much that person interacted with them. For people who had a lot of contact with the friend, the more superficial disclosures their friend made, the less satisfied they were with the relationship and the less they liked their friend. However, for friends with whom they had less contact, the amount of superficial disclosures didn’t affect liking. Their results also showed that much of the reason why these superficial disclosures reduced liking was that they created personal costs. So when it comes to those you communicate with most often, don’t tell them what you ate for breakfast, that you saved 20 cents on light bulbs, or how your doormat looks better if you move it two inches to the left. It can make your friendship feel like a burden and ultimately hurt the relationship.

2. Don’t whine.

Research has also found that people don’t appreciate a constant stream of negativity on Facebook. In one study, the 10 most recent Facebook status updates of 177 undergraduate students were collected and coded for the amount of positive and negative emotion expressed. When outside observers, unknown to those students, evaluated the statuses, the more negative and less positive emotions were expressed, the less the students were liked by the observers.3 And in fact, negative emotions on social media can be contagious.4

3. Show, but don’t show off, your romantic relationship.

As I detailed in an earlier post, a recent study found that when coupled people chose a solo a photo as their main Facebook profile picture, they were actually liked less than those who used a couple photo.  But there are limits to how much you should display your relationship on social media. In that same study, the researchers found that those who took their online coupledom too far with over the top lovey-dovey posts were liked less than those who didn’t talk about their relationships or who kept their affectionate posts minimal. So go ahead and show you’re a loving person by showing your relationship, but avoid anything that could be seen as too personal or a deliberate attempt to show off.5

4. Show who you are… but do it by being positive.

Disclosing information about yourself in a way that gives people a full impression of the kind of person you are can make a better impression, as long as you keep the tone positive. In research that I conducted, along with my student, Ellie Herman, we found that those who felt they were able to express who they really are online were more well-liked by outside observers who read their 10 most recent status updates. In that study, we also asked these Facebook users to list 5 traits that they felt they expressed online (their “online self”). We then had 5 students read each user’s status updates and rate the extent to which they felt each of those 5 traits described the person whose updates they read. We found that the more able these users were to accurately present their “online self” via their updates, the more well-liked they were. But we also found that this effect was largely due to the greater level of positive emotion that was expressed in their status updates.6

5. Don’t be completely self-centered.

In another study, surveying undergraduate students, I found that those who felt more able to express their authentic self online tended to use Facebook more and were more emotionally disclosing. These same individuals also tended to be more likely to report using Facebook as a way to seek acceptance and attention from others, but they were no more likely than the non-disclosing to use Facebook as way to connect with and show caring for others. In a second study, I found that despite posting on their friends’ Facebook pages with higher frequency, these individuals did not receive more posts from others. Perhaps their more self-oriented motives for frequent Facebook use were apparent to their friends, making these friends less responsive to their posts.7

This echoes other research on those with low self-esteem, who recognize Facebook as a way to disclose information and seek support from others in a less intrusive manner, but who ultimately end up getting less positive feedback from their friends.3

Although the results do not speak directly to this, they do suggest that too much self-focused Facebook activity can create a bad impression. In his famous 1936 self-help book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie advised those who wish to be liked to “Become genuinely interested in other people”.8 This advice applies just as much in the digital age as it did in 1936. When your goal on social media is to genuinely connect with and care for others, they’ll want to connect with you too.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

References

1 Collins, N. L., & Miller, L. C., (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116(3), 457-475.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.3.457

2 Rains, S. A., Brunner, S. R., & Oman, K. (2014). Self-disclosure and new communication technologies: The implications of receiving superficial self-disclosures from friends. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1–20. doi: 10.1177/0265407514562561

3 Forest, A. L., & Wood, J. V. (2012). When social networking is not working: Individuals with low self-esteem recognize but do not reap the benefits of self-disclosure on Facebook. Psychological Science, 23, 295-302.

4 Kramer, A. D. I., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(24), 8788–8790. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1320040111

5 Emery, L. F., Muise, A., Alpert, E., & Le, B. (2014). Do we look happy? Perceptions of romantic relationship quality on Facebook. Personal Relationships. Published online before print. doi: 10.1111/pere.12059

6 Herman, E., & Seidman, G. (May, 2015). Accuracy in Facebook Self-Presentation: The Role of the “True Self”. Poster to be presented at the Association for Psychological Science Annual Conference, New York, NY.

7 Seidman, G. (2014). Expressing the ‘true self’ on Facebook. Computers in Human Behavior, 31, 367-372.

8 Carnegie, D. (1936). How to win friends and influence people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.