Sarah Wilson has busted me. In her blog post about the meaning of authenticity in an age of over-disclosure, she asks:

Blurting stuff out, warts and all, can certainly look and smell and feel real. But it’s often a seductive guise for the truth. We can carefully select what we wish to over-share, and then broadcast it on Twitter and our blogs, thus painting a picture of ourselves as wonderfully transparent. But are we just being shouty? Are we authent-a-bragging?

Or is it a bit like doing that thing that women (sorry, it’s true) do so often, where we point out our faults before anyone else can? (We’ll say things like, “I know, I know,  I’m fat today”, or “Thanks for the compliment about my lipstick, but my hair is having a frizz attack… sorry!”). When we do this we fend off perceived, impending criticism.

Sarah’s second question — about defending ourselves from criticism by beating our critics to the punch — is easier to address than the first. I can’t argue that women especially have the tendency to undercut ourselves with self-criticism, mainly because we point out our faults in an apologetic way. But Thomas Leonard, who more or less invented the idea of personal coaching, has a great take on the value of acknowledging our faults: when we “endorse our weaknesses“, we actually make it easier for others to accept and work with us.

When you post a tweet about how your poor spelling is proof that you’re an idiot, it’s not amusingly self-deprecating; it’s uncomfortably self-critical. When  you write a blog post about how you’ve concluded that your terrible spelling means you’ll never get a job in editing, but has liberated you to write blog posts that put the focus on your ideas rather than your writing, you’re actually helping your reader know what to focus on and appreciate. I know that many of my favorite blog posts have done just that: helped me relax about my own flaws, or stop focusing on a flaw that bugs me in other people, because someone’s confessional “over-disclosure” has helped me see that flaw in a new light.

Sarah’s point about self-serving self-disclosure poses a tougher challenge. What she calls “authent-a-bragging” (a term that deserves a ™, BTW) takes both blatant and subtle forms. I’ll spare the world another rant about all the tweets to the effect of “Just got off the phone with an incredibly high-profile client who is going to pay me tons of money based on my brilliant work”, but suffice it to say that I had to coin the #hotshit hashtag to deal with them.

But I’m not above the occasional authent-a-bragging myself. Just the other day I posted a gloating tweet, arguably making it extra obnoxious by framing it with a “I usually avoid the ‘yay, me’ tweets, but…”, thereby implying that self-restraint is the only thing keeping me from hourly reports on my own brilliance. (I hope you all appreciate how I’m using this to illustrate Sarah’s point about online self-criticism.)

There’s nothing wrong with sharing both pride and regrets when they help you create an authentic presence online. We all have moments of great joy and accomplishment, and we all have moments of self-doubt. Sharing those moments online give other people a chance to learn from both your weaknesses and your strengths, a way to put their own deeds and misdeeds in context, and a chance to offer you congratulations or support.

But as Sarah points out, there are few among us who are equally comfortable crowing and crumbling. Even if it means violating the rules of netiquette, we cultivate a persona of eternal confidence, or develop an online schtick about our endlessly amusing foibles. While either approach offers the benefit of building a consistent personal brand, that brand bears little resemblance to an actual human being.

Sarah suggests the solution is to “be alive to the issue. And practice NOT saying the shouty, over-sharey stuff, unless it serves a purpose beyond simply putting up a wall.” But most people need some tools or structures to help them identify when they are being “over-sharey” or simply transparent and authentic; to help them identify when they have a purpose or when they are “putting up a wall”. Here are some online practices that can help you tune into the distinction, on- and offline:

  1. Consciously cultivate balance. If you typically tweet humorous (or not-so-humourous) self-deprecating remarks, stretch yourself by tweeting an equal number of reflections on your latest insights or accomplishments.
  2. Interrogate your confessions. Review each blog post you write or video you create, and ask yourself what revelations (if any) would shock your mom, your kindergarten teacher, your preacher or your boss. Then ask what each of these revelations accomplishes. It’s ok if they have purely aesthetic value (“I love the way my naked butt looks against that red background!”) or expressive value (“I’m going to feel so much better once everyone knows I’m the one who stole our elementary school mascot.”) But know, explicitly, why you’re revealing what you’re revealing.
  3. Be your best friend. When you are about to post something self-critical, imagine what your best friend would say to make you feel better about it. An authentic self-portrait may include the admission that you can’t remember names; your best friend would have you tweet that “Even if I never remember anyone’s name, I always remember at least one thing they told me about themselves.”
  4. Be your bitchiest relative. Everybody has at least one relative who sees ego deflation as a sacred responsibility. The next time you’re about to post a self-congratulatory update, imagine that bitchy relative’s reaction, and incorporate it into your narrative: “Thrilled our pitch went over well. Amazing what you can do by blowing three months’ worth of grocery money on a single logo!”
  5. Time travel. Take a look at your blog posts, videos or tweets from a year ago. What’s your gut reaction? Do you like the person you see? If you read that level of disclosure from a stranger, would you find the content inspirational or uncomfortable? If you don’t feel good about the online you from a year ago, it’s time to re-evaluate the online persona you are creating.

As a chronic over-discloser, I’m reluctant to see concerns about over-sharing disrupt the medium that has finally given me a community of fellow over-disclosers. We are the people who strip naked, online and off, literally and metaphorically.

And yet we’re no different from the people who keep it all under wraps. Over-disclosure, like secretiveness, is ultimately a mechanism for managing the anxiety that arises from living in a community. We know that other people may judge us, so we either rush to put it all out there, or struggle to keep it all hidden.

Social media means that over-disclosers now have a permanent record of our coping process. Let’s make that record as authentic as possible.