The things you don’t read about on the internet.

The things you don’t read about on the internet.

There are many things I would dearly love to write about on this blog, for the sake of the writing process, the feedback, the crowdsourcing potential for knotty problems. I can think of a half dozen subjects I could pour my heart and soul into: they’d make for good reading and good conversation.

But those subjects won’t appear on this blog, and probably won’t appear anywhere in print, at least not anytime in the next ten years.

You’ve probably heard bloggers say this before: they have topics they’d like to write about, but they can’t. Or they won’t. As to why not, the usual explanation goes something like this: it’s not my story to tell. (What usually follows is a rousing discussion of Anne Lamott’s quip: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”)

I disagree with Lamott on this one. Some stories aren’t mine to tell: they belong to someone else. (More and more, that “someone” is one of my kids. I ask permission to blog about them these days.)

But I’m realizing that when I decide what to write—and not write—about, it’s not just about whose story it is to tell. That question has an equally important corollary: whose story is it to hear?

four levels of relationship

When my therapist explained the four levels of relationship to me last year, it changed the way I thought about my interactions with others. (I’d encourage you to go read that post before reading on.)

The four levels of relationship in a nutshell

There are four possible levels of relationship, ranging from shallow (our acquaintances) to deep (our intimates). Every relationship we have can be plotted on that sliding scale. The status itself is emotionally neutral. We run into trouble when our behavior and our relationship status don’t align.

This happens all the time.

It explains why it feels horrible to find out about your best friend’s engagement on facebook, and why it feels horribly awkward when a new acquaintance overshares and bares her soul to you. The behavior should match the relationship status: we expect our best friend to treat us like an intimate; our new acquaintance shouldn’t treat us as a confidant.

The things you don't read about on the internet

The four levels of relationship on the internet

When my therapist and I talked about the four levels, we were talking about in-person, three-dimensional relationships: the people you see at work, or yoga class, or Thanksgiving dinner. She wasn’t talking about blogging or social media.

But lately I’ve been thinking about the four levels and the online world, and it’s been eye-opening: the internet is a place where our behavior and our relationship status diverge all the time.

One example: I often find myself cringing when someone airs their dirty laundry publicly—whether it’s a facebook friend or a celebrity on E! Online. But not just because of the lurid details: it’s because, lurid or not, I have no business hearing them. I am not intimate friends with the teller. It is not my story to hear.

On the other hand, when a close friend tells me a sordid personal story, it’s likely I’ll cringe at that—not necessarily because she shouldn’t have told me, but because it was just that kind of story. (She’s probably cringing right along with me.) An intimate relationship can handle the heavy stuff. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s important.

Once I recognized the significance of this, I started seeing it everywhere. (Vaguebooking is annoying, but Facebook oversharing is downright uncomfortable, and this is why.)

This isn’t to say one shouldn’t talk about personal stuff online, not at all. Many bloggers treat their blogs like online journals, and I love memoir as a genre. Those formats work (when they work) because they are highly edited. The writers are careful about what they share, and especially about how they share it. (The best ones do this so delicately you don’t even notice how careful they’re being.) If they weren’t, reading them would feel horribly awkward.
The things you don't read about on the internet.

Moving forward

My family is starting to work through a murky problem-of-sorts right now. (We’ll be fine, nothing major, and whatever you’re thinking it might be, it’s definitely not that.) I would dearly love to hit you with it here on the blog: I want to know who else has experienced something similar, directly or peripherally. I want to crowdsource your ideas. I want to be able to talk about it, here.

But I’ve thought about the four levels, and I’m convinced that—at least for now—this isn’t the right place. (Even though I’m thankful to get to call many of you friends, some of you close ones.) Instead, I’ve been reaching out to friends over coffee, to far-flung friends by phone and email, looking for advice, support, and a sounding board.

It’s not the same as writing about it here; it’s not the same as sharing it with you. But it’s good.

I welcome your thoughts and observations in comments. I’m very curious to hear what your personal experiences surrounding this topic have been like. 

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59 comments

  1. Raquel Costa says:

    This was a great post, about a topic I haven’t seem much online, curiously.
    I’m a introvert by nature, and I tend to share as little as I can in general. But I do think using some platforms to share important topics is something very significant and needed. I do think, though, there is a way to do it without overexposing.
    I’m a psychologist and I’ve learned to do that in time, trying to find a middle ground. I find that If you talk about how you feel in a situation – but not about the especifics of the situation itself – it tends to have the same result without the awkward feeling.
    But you are right, it is a lot of work, and I apreciate how honest and careful you are with us – your readers – and with your own kids, and your own feelings. I have an oversharing mother who loves to overshare and does so by choice. And it does bother me when it consernes topics that are my own. Most of the time she does it inadvertently, and says “this is such a minor issue, I honestly didn’t think it would bother you!” And that is the hardest thing, isn’t it? We all have this discrepancies exacly because we are such different human beings, with millions of different perspectives.
    Uau, for a natural introvert I shared a lot, didn’t I?

    • Anne says:

      “But I do think using some platforms to share important topics is something very significant and needed. I do think, though, there is a way to do it without overexposing.”

      Definitely, and I appreciate your psychologist’s perspective on this. Thank you!

  2. Heather Anna says:

    I’m FB friends with a new, young writer and she is *always* posting about people she doesn’t like and how they’re going to have the honor of being written in as her next unsavory character (and – I have a suspicion that I’m up next because of my latest pregnancy announcement and ever-growing family….yikes!). This has always really bugged me, and I think that putting it as “not her story to tell” is only half of it. It’s also “not ours to hear.” We don’t need to hear about every time someone looks at you funny, and in fact it really lowers her in my eyes. She’s also always bickering with her husband online, although you have to have a good passive-aggressiveness radar to pick up on it. But the funny thing is that we have the same personality, which isn’t really an over-sharing type! I think that she just has a poor concept of different levels of relationship and thinks of her online activities as a sort of semi-open journal that her closest friends are allowed to see. But the whole world can see it!

    This second half of the comment probably belongs in the 4 possible relationships post, but I’ll put it here where the conversation is still going. 🙂 Anyone else feel like they go through life with a giant sign stuck on their forehead that says “Please, tell me all your problems!” I think people sense that I’m a good listener, and I truly don’t mind being an ear to hear and a shoulder to cry on for my friends. I’m good at it and am often told I should have been a counseler. But people (sometimes including near-strangers! but also including good friends) forget that I have my own problems to be getting on with, and I’m often tired and overwhelmed with baby care, not to mention my own past and present woes that need to be dealt with. I also grew up in a no-boundaries house, so I’m learning how to sensitively but firmly set up boundaries. Not too rigid, not too loose. Maybe less fake than “gee, I think the baby needs to be fed now, sorry to interrupt your story, see ya!”. If anyone has tips, I would so appreciate it!

    • Anne says:

      “Anyone else feel like they go through life with a giant sign stuck on their forehead that says “Please, tell me all your problems!””

      It’s not just you. 🙂

  3. Jamie says:

    I have overstepped this boundary in person and online so many times. Still do. (One reason is because I love connecting with others & small talk can annoy me. Another is because I have that sign someone mentioned on my forehead that says, “Tell me everything about you.” So I share back.)

    The instances I really regret are when issues were happening in real time and I vented. Reactive responses are rarely helpful – online or in person. Also when the venting put people in a negative light – whether it be those I don’t personally know well or at all, but I deeply respect, or those I know well and dearly love (like the ones under my roof).

    But you know? I definitely have one and a half feet in the camp of being honest about the messy. Making sure our lives don’t look, as someone said above, Pinterest-perfect. So others know they are not alone. And others’ honest-but-appropriate sharing has been a lifeline to me so many times. But I think those things are best shared *not* in the moment. When a little time and processing with in-person, intimate friends can temper the reaction. I am quite sure I will continue to cross this line, but I have learned much.

    It’s interesting that even the appropriate things can create a false sense of intimacy. I have occasionally read acquaintances’ blogs who write about fun milestones or special events. When I see them in person, I want to run up and hug and congratulate them. But I can’t, because we don’t actually have that level of relationship in real life.

  4. One of the things I’m pondering A LOT lately is what stories I can share about my own kids. I write in order to help other people and part of that is to be real, and share the honest truth about my parenting journey. BUT, now that my kids are older I am very sensitive to what I can say about them. It’s tough because I want to be open and honest but respect my children’s lives. It’s tricky as a blogger and writer I think.

  5. Bets says:

    Thank you for NOT sharing! Your insight on this is PERFECT and you have described precisely why I am not on FB. How refreshing!

  6. Marvia says:

    Anne

    Yes to this! I have been really considering how much time I spend online and how much a I share. Totally need to revamp that and practice better boundaries. I miss the days of phone calls and more in person meetings with friends and family so that’s what I want to do more of. Your post is timely and insightful. Thank you for sharing these words.

  7. Amy Patton says:

    Anne, thank you for another wonderful and thought provoking post. This is something I have been thinking about and pondering on many levels lately. I plan to think about this some more and then continue the conversation over on my blog. Telling our deepest and most sacred stories, in my opinion, never begins in a public forum. Yet, telling our stories is important. Finding the balance between generations past that kept everything secret and where many seem to be today- telling all to everyone- is something we need to figure out.

  8. Liza says:

    My problem with online oversharing is the people who consistently overshare. The ones who share every time their toddler went potty (with photos!). Sorry, I didn’t need to see that. The friend who recently got divorced and now everything on his Facebook feed is pictures of his new girlfriend and how much he loves her. I’m happy for him, yes, but I don’t need to know every time they see each other.

    The more time I spend on social media, the less I share. I write a lot and then delete without posting because it wasn’t really necessary. I used to post in my blog 4-5 times a week but I haven’t posted in over 2 years. I still write some but I haven’t posted anything because it seemed pointless. I started a second anonymous blog, even though I write anonymously. I did that because family knows my online name but sometimes when I need to vent, I need to vent about family. And I have certain family members that like to analyze everything I write. Even though the second blog address is searchable, I haven’t told anyone what it is. That extra anonymity helps me get things off my mind without having to worry about the analyzers coming after me.

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