The Internet as online confessional
As the number of sites inviting anonymous confessions grow, what do all
these revelations achieve?
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"All of these behaviors are nondirected self-disclosure. So instead of me calling you to tell you something, now I'm using technology and broadcasting it to a mass audience," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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But if postings are anonymous, what do users gain from revealing so much of their inner lives to strangers? Some, like Michelle, a 44-year-old mother who lives outside San Francisco and did not want her last name used, says it allowed her to read feedback from other users who were experiencing marriage difficulties like hers when she first signed onto Experience Project two years ago.
"Let's face it, it's cheaper than a psychologist," she says with a laugh. "The only thing you don't get [online] that you can face to face is, you can't get a hug. That's irreplaceable."
Michelle says the community she found online was largely nonjudgmental, and she feared being judged if she divulged the same details to her closest friends. "Unless you are in the same situation, how can you give the same kind of perspective on an issue you don't really understand?" she asks.
Haley Overland, from Toronto, says she posts to TruuConfessions.com, a site targeting women, whenever she needs "to unleash a feeling." Although she already publishes a blog that is read by her friends and family, she directs her more impulsive thoughts on motherhood to the confessional site where she knows that whatever she says won't hurt the parties involved.
"If you're exhausted or frustrated ... it really helps to write it down and get feedback," says Ms. Overland. "You would think the way the media is today, exploiting the bad mother, this site would be kind of unhealthy. But it's ... really good for mothers."
Romi Lassally, the TruuConfessions founder, says such rigorous online exposure creates "a really candid, uncensored conversation," which is often lacking in real life. "So even in our culture that encourages this honest conversation, this pulls the curtain back further," says Ms. Lassally, who is based in Los Angeles. "Anonymity is the key piece here."
Because women like mothers and military wives tend to be so isolated, Lassally says there are risks from self-exploitation that may outweigh the benefits of anonymous feedback. "I think there are tremendous benefits from purging yourself from some of these thoughts. It's a fine line we're walking," she says, between confession and unlimited exposure.
When that line is crossed, there is the potential that all that content may be bogus, especially for sites that cloak identities and allow users to solicit commentary on their posting.
To Gabriel Jeffrey, the founder of GroupHug.us, the danger of so much public exhibitionism is that it's turning the Internet into "a big talent show." "It's a big glass house, except it's also all fake," he says.
Because GroupHug does not allow users to post feedback, he says his site guards against obvious attention-seekers. "The only sense of accomplishment is to confess something you did and that you own that now," he says.
On sites that allow interaction among members, sites from Facebook to Experience Project, however, "you kind of get gold stars no matter what you do," Mr. Jeffrey says. "I can say 'I'm in Miami now' and I can get 50 comments saying how awesome it is I'm in Miami, even though I'm not there. There's a loop there that encourages being cool."
USC's Williams says that in his research with online gamers, he learned that abundant Internet exposure "can be a negative" when the user fails to explore the possible depths of relationships they already have.
"It's a quality issue," Williams says. "A lot of people have formed social relationships online that are relatively shallow," he says. "So if you're going to those networks in lieu of more substantive local support, what you really have is a displacement effect; if you add to one thing, you're taking away from another. And it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing."