It may seem like teens are always over-sharing without a thought. But in a world where opting out of online culture is hardly an option, many take a far more sophisticated view of privacy than adults give them credit for.
Taylor is not one to share, and if she had her druthers, she wouldn’t tell her friends much about what’s happening in her life. She understands that her friends mean well, but the Boston-based white 15-year-old is a reserved person, and she doesn’t like it when people are “in [her] business.” To combat nagging questions from friends and classmates, she has started creating a “light version” of her life that she’ll regularly share on Facebook just so that her friends don’t pester her about what’s actually happening. Much to her frustration, she finds that sharing at least a little bit affords her more privacy than sharing nothing at all.
She’s not alone. Many public figures find that the appearance of unlimited sharing allows them to achieve privacy meaningfully. Heather Armstrong, a well-known blogger referred to by her nickname “Dooce,” once remarked: “People I meet tell me, ‘It’s so weird I know everything about you.’ No you don’t! Ninety-five percent of my life is not blogged about.” Through the act of sharing what appears to be everything, bloggers like Armstrong appear to be vulnerable and open while still carving off a portion of their lives to keep truly private.
In a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and performative, sharing often allows teens to control a social situation more than simply opting out. It also guarantees that others can’t define the social situation.
Sitting in an afterschool program in Los Angeles, I casually asked a teen participant why she shared so many embarrassing photos of herself on her profile. She laughed and told me that it was a lot safer if she shared her photos and put them in context by what she wrote than if she did not because she knew that her friends also had embarrassing photos. They’d be happy to embarrass her if she let them. But by taking preemptive action and mocking herself by writing dismissive messages on photos that could be interpreted problematically, she undermined her friends’ ability to define the situation differently. After explaining her logic, she continued on to explain how her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room for people to not focus in on the things that were deeply intimate in her life.