I Am Being Followed By Helicopters

After calling a secret phone number, my wife and I were given the name of the city and the hotel where we would be staying, but that was it. We didn’t know any details about the schedule or even where the wedding would be held. We arrived at the hotel, unpacked and quickly dressed for an event that could either be indoors or outdoors. Along with several other people on this mysterious journey, we stood in front of the hotel and waited for the unmarked shuttles that would take us to our destination.

We were followed into our assigned vehicle by a woman with a bluetooth headset who asked for our attention and explained that the wedding would be delayed for a few hours. There were three helicopters already hovering above the original site, so the wedding planners had to quickly move to plan B.

That’s just how it is when you attend a celebrity wedding. It’s all about maintaining some sense of privacy for an event that is supposed to be limited to friends and family. Of course, nothing about my celebrity wedding experience should come as much of a surprise. While they get the benefits of sharing their work with the masses and the perks associated with being well known, we constantly hear celebrities complaining about invasions of their privacy.

But on some level, we must not believe these complaints. Because on Facebook and other social sites, we willingly volunteer the same private information celebrities go to such great lengths to protect. And our sharing goes well beyond the simple details of a wedding.

One of the key questions of this era is: Why do we share what we share?

In his recent article, In Praise of Oversharing, Steven Johnson wrote about colleagues who shared sometimes graphic details about life-threatening health challenges.

[Jeff] Jarvis is a friend of mine, but it may tell you something about the strange mediated state of 21st-century friendships that I first found out about his cancer diagnosis in a Twitter update that he sent out linking to his original blog post. This is how we live now: we get news that we’re facing a life-threatening disease, and the instinctive response is, I’d better tweet this up right away … The writer Howard Rheingold started a blog — called Howard’s Butt — to chronicle his battle with colon cancer. The 64-year-old British technology journalist Guy Kewney blogged through the final months of his life after a year-long battle with colorectal cancer.

It doesn’t really surprise me that professional bloggers would share details of their deeply personal trials with thousands of complete strangers. I understand the mindset of the lifelong oversharer. I am one of them. I could be neck deep in quicksand but if I could free up an arm, I’d be blogging about it and trying to rattle off one last pithy title like, That Sinking Feeling.

We expect lifelong oversharers to view the realtime, social web as a more efficient way to overshare. But this phenomenon is hardly restricted to people in a desperate quest for pageviews. Millions and millions of people, across generations, are waving to the sky to make sure the hovering helicopters follow them on the journey through their daily experiences.

Back in 1999, Douglas Adams wrote an interesting piece on the then very new consumer internet. He argued that the technology merely enables us to express our natural leanings:

We are natural villagers. For most of mankind’s history we have lived in very small communities in which we knew everybody and everybody knew us. But gradually there grew to be far too many of us, and our communities became too large and disparate for us to be able to feel a part of them, and our technologies were unequal to the task of drawing us together. But that is changing.

That is a compelling explanation of what would become the explosion of sharing on the web. But does it fully explain more surprising examples of oversharing — beyond anything most people do in a terrestrial village? I know infinitely more about friends of friends of friends on the net than I do about the families who live next door. Does our need to reconnect with small communities explain why the occasional conversation on the old front stoop has evolved into us living our whole lives – from medical challenges to location check-ins to deeply personal relationships – on the new virtual front stoop? The community we’ve created online is clearly different than the lost village it replaced.

Recently, my wife came across the status update of a friend of a friend via her Facebook feed. The update gave intimate details about the actions of an abusive boyfriend and the ensuing home visits by the police. By the time I looked over her shoulder to see the post, several other people had responded to the story with similar stories of their own and promises of steadfast support.

The status update seemed shocking at first. But maybe the responses to the update were exactly what the person needed at that moment. Or maybe those who responded are similarly consumed by the temptation to publish every experience and reaction.

Is Facebook and the broader social web really a legitimate place to seek community and rebuild our lost villages? Did the emergence of the realtime, social web offer a cure for a generation suffering from pent up longing and loneliness? Or has it simply provided an addictive information thoroughfare that has evolved faster than our ability to show restraint? Are these immediate, public, reflex-driven responses really our new version of community?

I’m not sure. It’s probably too early to tell. In the meantime, as I sit in front of this screen, I feel a lot like I did when I stood in front of that hotel waiting for a shuttle to take me to an unknown location. I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m getting on board with the rest of you. It might make sense to pull over every now and then so we can get our bearings and figure out which direction we’re headed.

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