Study: People Who Overshare on Facebook Just Want to Belong

Some people find it easier to be their "true selves" online, but posting too much on Facebook doesn't get users the attention they seek.
Mike Segar/Reuters

Every time you cringe, roll your eyes, and mute an annoying friend on Facebook for oversharing, you could be invalidating someone who just wants to belong.

A study, conducted by Gwendolyn Seidman of Albright College and published in Computers in Human Behavior, examines how people use Facebook to express their “true selves.” The true self is a concept first named in 2002—the idea that we possess qualities we’d like to be recognized for, but that we normally find ourselves unable to express in day-to-day life. For instance, someone with a pathological inability to express simple human kindnesses to others might still want to be thought of as a nice guy. Just an example.

Perhaps he finds it easier to be nice to people online, though. Previous research shows that some people feel more comfortable expressing their true selves online, and that those people tend to be the ones who make close Internet friends.

On many corners of the Internet—comment sections, forums, even Tumblr and Twitter to some degree—interactions take place mostly with strangers. Facebook, on the other hand, is primarily for people you already know. An earlier study, on which Seidman was also a co-author, found that when people express their true selves to their “real life” friends online, in email or instant messaging, it can strengthen the relationship. But that study didn’t look at social networks, which are less personal, more public, and so have different dynamics.

The new study found that people who felt that they were more truly themselves online were more likely to communicate with others on Facebook, disclose things about themselves, and post emotional updates about frustrations or “drama.” (Everyone’s favorite thing to see in their news feeds.) But, “this expression of the true self…appears to operate at the unconscious level,” the study notes. So that guy from high school who always posts sappy song lyrics may not even realize he’s trying to broadcast how sensitive he is.

Unfortunately, the catharsis of posting those sad quotes may only make people lonelier in the end. The oversharing doesn’t seem to elicit the warm, comforting Internet embrace that posters seek. People use Facebook to present themselves the way they want to be seen, and to get a sense of belonging, so says a 2012 study. Seidman’s study also measured participants’ motivations behind their posts, and found that they were mostly self-oriented. Posters sought attention and a feeling of inclusion, but were seemingly less interested in expressing caring for others. They treated Facebook like a drive-thru window, seeking a quick and easy dollar-menu pick-me-up.

And it seems their friends could tell—“those who express the true self do not receive more wall posts from others in response to their greater expressiveness,” the study reads. “Their self-oriented motives may be apparent to their Facebook friends, causing them to not respond in kind.”

The study also acknowledges another, sadder possibility: “Alternatively, there could be a disconnect between the levels of self-disclosure with which these users and their friends are comfortable.” Oversharers might just be reaching out for a human connection, and we slap their hands away because we’re uncomfortable with their need. 

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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