Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

The Overshare War

I loved the word “overshare” the first time I heard it. Now, six weeks later, I’ll be happy if I never hear it again.

Emily Gould popularized the word in a May 25 article in the New York Times Magazine. That column sparked a massive public debate, with a small army of bloggers trying to judge the value of intimate personal blogging. Call it “The Overshare War” — the battle between fans of artistic personal disclosure and the people who hate it.

The emergent champion of the overshare “movement” is a writer named Rex Sorgatz. There is no movement, of course, but I think this debate is important and I want to link it with big important words.

When a commenter named “boredwithit” complained about the oversharing on Rex’s blog, Rex responded with a passionate defense that had me standing on my chair.

Here’s the gist of it, edited to strip out some jargon and remove some profanity: “If that [blog] is oversharing, then so is writing a novel. The internet is here because we can share, not in spite of it. People who don’t recognize that are Web 2.Old.”

Then Rex lost his temper and wrote an even more brilliant follow-up, again cleaned up a bit for print: “I’m not trying to make some grand point about [blogs] being the future of literature, but I don’t like this reactionary voice on the internet that wishes to turn everything into bland, impersonal, ‘boredwithit’ blog junk. The internet was once a big experiment of people trying out new personal forms, but we’ve reached this new place in which the only allowed first person accounts are those that involve peoples’ babies, trips to cupcake shops, and OMG I HATE MY BOSS LET ME TELL YOU WHY. Really? REALLY? Please internet, I want something more. I really do want to feel it.”

(To see this exchange in all its profane, unedited glory, please follow the link on my blog.)

So where’s the line between sharing and oversharing? If I publish a detailed first-person account of a fight with my family in a novel, I can win awards and get touted in the New Yorker. If I do the same thing on a blog, I’ll be condemned as a narcissistic oversharing hack. What’s the difference?

The difference is editors (Hi, Shelly!); those poor, unappreciated souls who stand between the public and their art. Like it or not, editing increases the value of writing. Familiarity breeds contempt, and there is nothing more familiar than blogging. Some of us value raw emotion, but most people like to keep their art at arm’s length.

With a novel the sharing between you and the artist is filtered by editors, distance, and the conventions of the medium.

Fundamentally, art is oversharing. I would say there is no art without it. But the internet has made art cheap, and by the same token it has made emotion cheap.

The emotional connection that occurs between a reader and a novelist is perceived as precious because it’s just one way, but when you can touch the artist, when you can say “thank you” and get a “you’re welcome” back in your inbox — when you find a blog and are overwhelmed by those raw unedited blobs of emotion, the emotion starts to feel cheap and the godlike author who touched your heart becomes just another loser on Xanax.

I think the people who complain about oversharing are snobs. They want their art filtered, processed, sanitized and read-only. They don’t object to emotion per se, they just want it managed and packaged for them.

They like the art they grew up with and who can blame them? Our culture spends billions on the task of choosing, editing and delivering art to the masses. We spend money on movies, music and novels because the blessing of a publisher gives them credibility. We can’t review every book on the shelf so we trust in these brands — trusting that this product, this little bundle of emotion, will give us what we need with a minimum of fluff, glitches and misplaced words.

Bloggers operate without that stamp of approval, so they make easy targets. If your words were worth anything, some publisher would be paying you for them.

Artists are supposed to release their emotion in clean neatly-printed bursts, not in big sloppy blog posts. And what kind of artist accepts comments? Would Henry James participate in a flame war? Would Truman Capote defend himself in a blog?

I think the answer is yes. I think artists are fragile, fallible human beings, and no amount of critical approval or financial success can cure that.

I think the great artists of history were just as petty as we are; they just didn’t have the chance to blog about it. I think artists are human and I think, fundamentally, people hate that. In a real sense, we want artists to be better than us. It’s wonderful when a piece of writing touches us, but it’s also invasive — intimate, unsettling. Some readers are uncomfortable about having their emotions manipulated. They want to know an author is someone they can trust — someone they can respect and look up to.

Blogging destroys that respect, and when a blogger is young, they don’t just lose respect; they make it impossible to respect them in the first place.

I don’t agree with this viewpoint, but I understand it. Recognizing flaws in your heroes is an essential part of growing up and recognizing humanity in artists is the first step to becoming one.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 5, 2008 at 01:36

Posted in Columns, Culture, Gawker

9 Responses

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  1. i’m all for the oversharing, i just wish those who overshare would share something more interesting than the same old new york hipster cliches. how about some marine biologists oversharing, or some city planners, or some alaskan fishermen? why is it always the new york writer-types? oh and new moms.


    July 5, 2008 at 08:25

  2. And what kind of artist accepts comments? Would Henry James participate in a flame war? Would Truman Capote defend himself in a blog?

    Yes. Yes they would. Look at Warren Ellis, or Wil Wheaton, or William Gibson, or Dave Barry.

    All these people have blogs, and they definitely do use them to engage their audience.

    Welcome to the 21st century boyo.


    July 5, 2008 at 20:58

  3. Well done! Brilliant essay. Should be in a book someday maybe!

    People just like to find something to hate.

    Personally I think that oversharing is dangerous when your identity is known — I don’t want my family to find out about me via google. But the readers/consumers/critics need to get over themselves, and realize that if they don’t like what they see, they can look elsewhere. The internet can be used for constructing a circle of largely like-minded people. Let the gripers find their electronic soulmates!


    July 6, 2008 at 00:20

  4. […] at Geekcentric, blogger Michael Duff has about the most interesting take I’ve seen so far [via] on both Rex Sorgatz’s Microfame thing (which I wrote about here) and the idea of […]

  5. […] days, even blogs from “the overshare gang” read like magazine […]

  6. […] they link to my column about The Overshare War and to the Rex Sorgatz post that inspired […]

  7. […] it ‘The Overshare War’ — the battle between fans of artistic personal disclosure and the people who hate it,” says […]

  8. […] Geekcentric’s Michael Duff refers to the battle between fans of artistic personal disclosure and the people who hate it, as ‘the overshare war’. […]

  9. […] latched onto Rex last year as a kind of reluctant champion for oversharing. I stuck with him because I see his […]

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