Sharing our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media, by David R. Brake

Helen Keegan on a compelling account of the potential harms from intended and unintended self-disclosure

November 13, 2014

In an increasingly networked world, it has become the norm to share at least some aspects of our lives online, the ubiquitous use of Facebook being the obvious example. Whether you embrace such practices, resist them or have an ambivalent view of connecting and sharing, the rapid growth and widespread use of social media has made online disclosure so ingrained in our lives that it’s easy to share without considering the consequences. The risks of social media use are well documented: familiar fears include mass surveillance, online sexual predators, cyberbullying, employment harm and identity theft. Worry over the perils of social media use has more than a whiff of moral panic about it, and is fodder for attention-grabbing headlines and clickbait. But subtle interpersonal risks have tended to receive less attention – until now.

In Sharing our Lives Online, journalism scholar David Brake explores many of the potential harms from self-disclosure on social media. Through a combination of his empirical research on personal bloggers and a theoretical framing of the micro and macro influences on our everyday use of social media platforms, he provides a compelling account of the risks of online communication conducted in an absence of interactional cues, alongside examining the ways in which technologies are constructed to lead us to disclose more than we may think.

Although Brake’s main focus is self-disclosure rather than self-presentation, he draws heavily on symbolic interactionism and the work of sociologist Erving Goffman, which provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding the more subtle ways that sharing via social media can lead to interpersonal harm. In his discussion of micro-interactional considerations, he builds on the work of scholars including Joshua Meyrowitz, John Thompson and Joseph Walther, before presenting the macro influences: legal, market, norms and code.

While the early chapters focus on outlining the risks and establishing the theoretical framework for the study, it’s in the subsequent discussion of Brake’s own fieldwork that things get really interesting. Extracts from his in-depth interviews with personal bloggers offer a fascinating glimpse into blogging practice over time, exploring perceptions of relationships to readers, changes in motivation and circumstance, and practices of self-censorship and archiving that range from editing and deleting posts through to abandoning blogs entirely. These extracts are delicately woven into a rich discussion of the economic, technical and social factors that encourage self-disclosure. Brake’s discussion of the temporal aspects of self-presentation through social media is fascinating, as he highlights how the persistence of online disclosure can result in harms when society’s attitudes change over time.

The online world is a complicated space, and users are encouraged to be both open and authentic while remaining vigilant to potential harms. There is a delicate balance to be struck, and Brake concludes with a call to embed digital literacy into education at all levels, and makes recommendations for designers of social media platforms that would alert users to potential risks. Unfortunately, companies have a commercial interest in encouraging self-disclosure and frictionless sharing. So Brake’s sensible suggestions for system design may fall on deaf ears, at least in the short term.

Although its overall structure and academic signposting points to Sharing our Lives Online being a development of a doctoral thesis, it is nevertheless an engaging and illuminating book that will be of interest to those involved in the study and/or design of social media, and more broadly as a digital literacy core text.

Sharing our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media

By David R. Brake
Palgrave Macmillan, 208pp, £65.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780230320291, 0369 and 97811373116 (e-book)
Published 30 September 2014

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