Do people overshare on social media, and does this cause harm? A look at the writings of a sociologist and a Jewish ethicist illustrate very different approaches to this subject. Sociologist Danah Boyd addresses the question of oversharing and other questions troubling worried parents of teens in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a Jewish ethicist, addresses the subject in an online column, “Jewish Values Online” as well as in his chapter on Internet privacy in Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics.
At first glance, Dorff counsels restraint in exposing oneself or peering into the activities of others. “In the Torah (Numbers 24:5), Balaam [the non-Israelite prophet] comments, ‘How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.’ The medieval commentator Rashi, citing Talmud Bava Batra, explains that the tents of the Jewish people are goodly because they are carefully arranged so that no one can see into his neighbor’s dwelling.”
Dorff cites Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, a 19th-century rabbinic commentator (known as the Chofetz Chaim), whose classic work on Jewish speech ethics outlines strict prohibitions against speaking about others. Following this framework, our conversation about other people should be constrained to checking references for a business deal or a marital match for others, and then only if the speaker has no self-interest and the information cannot be uncovered in any other way.
Though Boyd recognizes the harm caused by Internet sharing and gossip among teens, she uncovers a more nuanced and complicated picture when she looks more closely at the subject, through extensive interviews and observations. Citing sources in anthropology and sociology, Boyd observes, “…not all gossip is hurtful.”
“In fact,” she writes, “as the anthropologist Robin Dunbar has shown, gossip plays a central role in helping humans build connections. People reveal aspects of themselves to others as a bonding ritual, building trust through reciprocity. They dissect their lives and the lives of others. They maintain connections by keeping each other up-to-date about social happenings and relationships.”
For Boyd, questions about how much to share and what constitutes privacy are contextual. She also notes that social media can dissolve boundaries — what is shared with some may become visible to others.
Boyd casts the experience of “teen drama” — social conflicts triggered by finding and spreading personal information online — as a form of social development for some as they try to make sense of the world around them. Teens want to understand and utilize available technologies, and they use online social learning as a journey toward ethical behavior. Rather than jumping to conclusions about online teen behavior, parents and adults should try to understand how teens experience their social — and online — world. Then, adults can take advantage of their increased knowledge of their teens’ world. And, Boyd writes, “We can certainly make a concerted effort to empower youth, to strengthen their resilience, and to help recognize when they are hurting.” Boyd recommends programs to help teens develop resilience and empathy, although her book does not explore how to do this.
By contrast, Dorff’s work explicitly outlines the principles, examples, and guidelines about how to think and act ethically, online and offline. Dorff cites the talmudic maxim: “It is better for someone to throw himself into a fiery furnace than to publicly embarrass another person.” This clearly suggests that we consider how other people may feel and refrain from actions that may embarrass them. Similarly, Dorff writes, “If there is no practical need to reveal negative facts about a person, disclosing them is itself a sin.” Confidentiality is a moral imperative.
The perspectives of the social scientist and the rabbi complement each other. The sociologist’s interviews capture nuanced observations about what people actually do. The ethicist’s approach provides tools for thinking about how to behave respectfully toward others. And the Internet is but one place to apply these ethical rules.
Ironically, increased interpersonal visibility on the Internet is bringing us back to a world more like the premodern village or shtetl, where everyone had easier access into other people’s business. Boyd and Dorff express similar perspectives — though drawing from different traditions — on how to approach this new visibility. Boyd calls for what sociologist Erving Goffman terms “civil inattention” — an act of ignoring that enables people to coexist in mutually visible space. Dorff, as noted above, cites the ancient story about how the Israelites arranged their tents for privacy. On social media, this may mean choosing not to pay attention or not to respond to personal disclosures that are primarily intended for others.
Neither Boyd nor Dorff interprets the Internet and social media as “new technology” — tools that, by their very nature, erode privacy. Rather, they both see the Internet largely as a tool for interpersonal communication, where etiquette, social norms, and ethical imperatives come into play. The same rules and practices apply offline.email print