Reflections on Online Self-Disclosure

This post had been sitting as draft on my blog for months, I’ve just published it now as companion to a shorter and cleaner version of some similar ideas.

I wrote the first part of this post when flying to Chile to present at a conference. I later didn’t publish it as I got caught up on “normal life”. The presentation went quite well and there were a couple of people that got very interested in my topic. Here’s that first part and the ideas I’ve been chewing since.

So I’m sitting here on a plane crossing the western hemisphere from north to south. On a quick trip to visit my hometown that is giving me lots of things to think about. Having collected the results of my survey little over a month ago and working on the draft since.  I was just reading a really nice article on online self-disclosure that I finally had time to sit and read calmly word by word. And yesterday I spoke about my project to a class of 19 year old undergrads, which was really interesting - BTW, none of them used Twitter. Anyway, being alone in the middle - or tail - of a crowded plane awoke the old blogger in me. That guy who liked to pour his head and heart into the keyboard to send them online, even if nobody commented. So now it’s odd to meet that part of me again, now that I’m dedicated to the scholarly analysis of this same phenomenon, and well aligned to writing a dissertation about the topic with piles of research articles and dozen theories attempting to explain this slippery problem. None of these seems complete to me at the moment. So now I’m trying to examine my own motivations given all this background knowledge… I was just reading a paper that recently fell on my lap for reviewing which, although discussing a different problem, points at Uses and Gratifications theory. And I’ve been trying to understand how one of my favorite UNC professors says that such theory is so full of flaws. I’ve recently been looking back at the Media Equation and it just hit me, Uses and Gratifications looks at people as rational beings, weighting all our acts in a careful manner. But I’m convinced that there’s a lot of unconscious processes leading to online self-disclosure. I think that a strong component is the healing power of self-disclosure: How the plain act of writing about what we think and feel, or about our problems, can make us feel better - even improving our health. I’ve also been going back to looking at studies that put anonymity as an important factor in self-disclosure. Only a few weeks ago I would challenge these theories based on the evidence we can find on social media, where people are making intriguing disclosures while using their names and many times their faces. But now I’m starting to see the shades of gray in the concept of anonymity. Anonymity is not only about a situation where others have no idea of who you are, but it ranges from there to more subtle cases that may include IM conversations where you are communicating with someone who knows you quite well, but your computer is offering a shield of protection and the only part of you that they can see are your written text. I can’t recall where I heard an anecdote that in one of those old IM/chat tools that used to be actually real-time, where you could see the conversation character by character; As some guy was chatting with his recent girlfriend, at some point he typed “I love you” and he immediately started deleting and editing to “I like you”, in this real time context, and he was never forgiven.

Anyhow, I hope this trip will continue to be as fruitful as this head start has been, seeing my family and old friends will be an interesting experience, and I’m sure it will give me a new perspective on at least a few things, maybe it will enlighten me for my research. Catch you later.

That was about a month ago. In the meantime, I’ve continued to read about the topic and have written about my dissertation plans. I’m coming up with this sort of model that describes three dimensions from where self-disclosure behavior emerges:

Personal: This includes psychological motivations and rational analysis as framed by reward/cost analysis of Social Penetration Theory. Some of the factors I’m considering in this area include the personal relief in disclosure, relationship development, social support that disclosure can yield, self-presentation, and the “need to share”. There’s a recent article by Krasnova that does a great job at analyzing online self-disclosure from this approach.

Social: Here, I’m thinking of the social norms that develop in the conversational spaces that define what is acceptable. Self-disclosure is reciprocal, so when we see our friends and contacts sharing their thoughts online we’ll feel compelled to act similarly.

Technological: Ever since the second wave of CMC research there’s been a series of indications that we have a tendency to disclose strongly when we communicate via the internet. Rheingold suggested there were inherent qualities in the medium that led to this. Walther comes up with the Hyperpersonal theory. Joinson has found that people disclose more on computer vs paper-based surveys, and in CMC over face to face conversations. My survey’s data suggests a strong relationship between frequency of use and online self-disclosure for all five measured tools. What does this all mean? I believe there’s a harder-to-grasp dimension that plays out in this mix, it may be related to what Reeves and Nass Media Equation points at: We are not yet biologically adapted to deal with media and technology, so the only option we have is to treat these as social agents.

Naturally this is still in early stages of development and I’m actually taking a leap of faith by sharing this in here, but I’m hoping it will trigger some interesting conversations on the topic and maybe I’ll get suggestions for exploring related authors and theories.

One Response to “Reflections on Online Self-Disclosure”

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