To overshare: the long and gendered history of TMI

Queen oversharer. Paul Buck/EPA

It might be how often your friend has sex, the positions they use, or how much they love their boyfriend. It might be the lint in their belly button, how much they sweat, or how little they shave.

Whatever your trigger, oversharing, the act of sharing “too much information”, is a buzzword in contemporary culture. In 2015 you’re likely to hear more about your friends, acquaintances, and Facebook frenemies than ever before – and researchers think the internet is to blame.

Yet, oversharing is as much an accusation as it is a phenomenon. Lena Dunham, the American actress, author, and creator of HBO’s Girls, is the figurehead for a group of young writers (mostly female) who are often accused of sharing “too much” with their audience. And her sharing is about to reach a whole new level. She and co-producer Jenni Konner have just launched Lenny, an email newsletter for young women. The venture was announced through a series of social media posts in which Dunham and Konner promised to provide an email service “where there’s no such thing as too much information”.

Emily Gould, a writer and former Gawker employee, is often credited with popularising the use of oversharing as a term. In 2008, Gould wrote an essay called “Exposed” for the New York Times, celebrating the pleasures of personal blogging and the technology that she claims “enables us to overshare on a different scale”. Still, the comments (of which there were hundreds within hours) alternately chastised and ridiculed Gould, calling her everything from a “stupid little girl” to a “Yokel” and a “polluter” of writing.

Critics of Dunham have similarly slated Lenny. The Telegraph called it “fodder” for the author’s ego, whilst The Independent considered the idea of Dunham oversharing, direct to your inbox, to be “a bit scary”. Although oversharing has a relatively short history, it has quickly been defined as a negative social practice and linked with a peculiarly female mode of confession. What’s more, writers like Dunham and Gould are often named as practitioners and facilitators of a new kind of online information sharing that risks breaking down ideas of propriety altogether.

To overshare

Despite its ubiquity in contemporary culture, oversharing is rarely defined as a term. In 2008, Webster’s New World Dictionary made oversharing their “New Word of the Year”; Chambers Dictionary did the same in 2014. Both dictionaries describe oversharing as the act of divulging inappropriate amounts of personal information.

According to Webster’s:

Overshare is a new word for an old habit made astonishingly easy by modern technology. It is yet another product of digital advances that allow people to record and transmit their lives — in words, videos, and graphics — to anyone with internet access, friend or foe.

As this definition indicates, the rise of the term in its 21st century context reflects the affordances of Web 2.0, user-generated content, and, latterly, social media.

But what is most interesting about oversharing as a critical term is how often it is used to describe a negative social practice that is uniquely female. To overshare seems, for instance, to be a gauge of quantity when it often implies quality. Those who overshare are rarely sharing too much information, but they are sharing a particular kind of information that is deemed to be inappropriate by the listener.

This, of course, has a longer history. The sharing and discussion of emotion has always been heavily gendered and women who “overshare” details of their private lives have historically been maligned. Indeed, women writers have often been forced to defend themselves against accusations of impropriety.

Norman Mailer’s 1959 collection, Advertisements for Myself, famously dismissed “women’s ink” as “dykily psychotic” “crippled”, “creepish”, “frigid”, and “stillborn”. In 2011, V S Naipaul spoke similarly of his female contemporaries, arguing that women’s “sentimentality” led to a “narrow view of the world”.

Sharing and oversharing

Today, as the sharing of personal information appears to increase, the word “overshare” is used to indicate when the proper limit is crossed. Popular use of the word – in publications such as The New York Times, The Observer, NPR, The Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Mail – highlight an attempt to normalise information sharing practices, whilst categorising the excessive sharing of personal details, particularly those conducted online and by women, as falling somewhere outside the norm. To label an expression an overshare, or a person an oversharer, is an effort both to refocus the blurred lines between reality and virtuality and to chastise the offending sharer.

And instead of fighting the term’s usage, writers like Dunham and Gould embrace it. As Dunham notes:

The term ‘oversharing’ is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of — people are like, ‘TMI’.

Dunham’s newsletter therefore extends the confessional persona that she embodies in Girls and her bestselling nonfiction, promising to both tell and hear “everything” with her subscribers and fellow oversharers.

Yet her position is fraught with contradictions and compromises. As much as Dunham dictates how details of her personal life are shared, she also reinforces the gender stereotypes that oversharing holds and, tellingly, fails to ask deeper questions about the white privilege that allows her a platform from which to share too much with her audience.