I’ve been reading and experiencing things lately that have really gotten me thinking about blogging, social media, and why people share so much of themselves online. If you’re looking for deep insights into this or some sort of logical argument, step away from the blog. My own thoughts are rather a jumble.

I often ask myself how all this happened. In 2003, I had no online presence. If you’d Googled me you’d find nothing. I was on the Web a lot, but as a consumer of content. Adam tried to get me to start a blog that year, but it didn’t take. I was just about to start library school at the time and I really didn’t have any burning desire to communicate with others on any specific topic. I didn’t even read blogs.

Flash forward five years. I’ve been blogging for 3 1/2 years. I have presences on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Ning, Slideshare, del.icio.us and a whole bunch of places I can’t even remember. But what’s weirder to me is how much of myself I share on this blog. When I first started this blog, I tended to write newsy posts with the occasional post thrown in about my job hunt. Somehow, over time, my blog posts became more personal, more “me.” And something about that must have connected with people, because my readership grew quickly.

I’ve never been the type to engage in gratuitous self-disclosure. I rarely talk to people at work (other than one colleague whom I consider a good friend) about my life outside of work. When I was a therapist, we were always cautioned to be careful about self-disclosure. Careful self-disclosure can actually be good for the therapeutic relationship, but too much of it isn’t and usually indicates that we’re focusing more on ourselves than on the client (a hazard since a lot of us go into the mental health field because we’re a little off-kilter ourselves). I knew certain therapists who did self-disclose an awful lot and their therapy sessions felt more like two friends gabbing than like therapy (which isn’t a good thing). I self-disclosed rarely and only in an effort to break through resistance.

I read an article yesterday from the New York Times about a blogger who used to write for Gawker who discussed her experiences with gratuitous self-disclosure online. Reading this, it felt to me like her ego was the size of Manhattan and I noted how ironic it was that she was disclosing so much (about herself and others) in attempting to write about her regrets regarding her past disclosures. That she’d write about boyfriends against their wishes just to get her “fix” from her readers/commenters made it feel like an addiction… as if the blog about her life became more important than her life. It definitely got me thinking — not that my self-disclosures are anywhere near her level and I certainly put the people I love over blogging. But there were little things that felt familiar there. I’ve had moments where I regretted sharing too much, where I felt panic-attacky and nauseous with regret over it. And it made me wonder if I share for the ego trip. I don’t know. I’m sure some of it has to do with ego. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching my readership grow, especially in that first year when it was so unexpected. Then again, I can’t remember the last time I looked at my webstats or how many subscribers I have. And this blog certainly isn’t “my everything.” I’d take a day outside with Adam over writing a blog post any day.

I notice that my blog started to get more personal as I started to connect more with real people online. I had a few regular readers and commenters whom I got to know and like, and I wanted to share things with them, both good and bad. Personal and professional, online and real world all seemed to blur together.

I’ve always been nervous about calling the people I primarily interact with online “friends”. The main reason is for fear that they wouldn’t consider me the same. But whatever. You are my friends. I may see you several times a year or we may never have met in person, but it doesn’t matter. When you have a baby, I’m happy for you and I ooh and ahh over your photos and I wonder how you’re coping with this huge change. When you get a new job, I’m excited for you. When something bad happens, I think about you frequently and hope things are getting better. I have three online friends who’ve been going through really tough times lately, and have all written about it on their blogs. Do I see that as gratuitous? No! I’m grateful that they keep us up with how they’re doing and I hope that supportive comments from me and their other friends provide some measure of comfort. I don’t know what I’d do if Michelle and her husband weren’t writing daily updates about their son. I was crying at my desk when I first saw the posts from Ries about the baby being sick. I check their blog several times every day and it makes me feel so much better to know that their little guy is getting better. I don’t know what to call this thing if not friendship.

Jenny Levine wrote in a recent (excellent) post “for most of my professional career, the line between work and personal has been blurred, making it difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends.” Me too. I don’t see the point of trying to separate these different pieces of my life since each is so intricately connected to and impacted by the other. That doesn’t mean I disclose every intimate detail of my life. I never mentioned on this blog that Adam was seriously ill this winter and how absolutely terrified I was. But I pretty much avoided talking to anyone about it because I kept bursting into tears. I can only write about it now because he’s doing so much better. Even when librarians write about their personal lives, I don’t feel like they’re taking part in gratuitous self-disclosure. Sometimes they’re trying to keep their friends up with what’s happening in their life. Sometimes they’re just using their blog to process their own thoughts and feelings. All good things.

Laura Crossett has been thinking about the same thing:

I’ve been pondering a good deal lately about the nature of online communication and whether, when we post something either good or bad, we are doing so in order to be informative or in order to garner accolades or condolences. I haven’t come up with an answer, but I have realized that, for me, the online world and the regular world have bled into each other so much that I can’t always separate out what happens in my real life into distinct parcels that fit neatly into pre-printed grids. I was always fairly good at coloring inside the lines when I was a kid, and I used to hate it when I made mistakes. Some years later, it seems to me as though mistakes are pretty much the currency we trade in, if we’re honest.

Well put, Laura. The lines have become so blurry I can hardly see them anymore. While this is an individual blog, I feel like it’s part of a much larger community. And I feel close to a lot of the people in that community, even if I stay away from Twitter for long periods of time and suck at staying in touch (it’s not so different from how I am with friends in real life). Reading each other’s blogs, IMing once in a while… it doesn’t sound like much, but we’ve somehow built friendships out of these online communications. I know more about some of my online friends than I do about the people I work with every day. In bad times, it feels good to have the support of my friends in the blogopshere, to know they’re thinking of me. And it’s nice to be able to support them. I can tell you that finding a gazillion kind birthday wishes in Facebook this morning made me feel like a million bucks. It doesn’t take much to write the “happy birthday” Wall post, but it means a lot to the person who gets it.

And all this is more than just about making new friends. Social media has enabled us to reconnect with old friends so much more easily. I had a really amazing experience with social media recently. A year and a half ago, when my grandfather was dying, I was going through old photo albums at my parents’ house and scanning photos from my childhood, which I then put on Flickr. One was of me, my brother and my best friend from kindergarten, Jennifer, with whom I haven’t been in contact since I was 11 or 12. Last week, I saw that I had a friend request on Facebook and it was from none other than Jennifer, who is now married and is a lawyer in New York City. She had been looking for her sister-in-law’s (also named Jennifer) Flickr account and instead came upon a photo of herself from 26 years ago. I mean, how crazy is that?!? We caught each other up on where we are in our lives, and it was so nice to know that she’s done so well for herself. She didn’t know my married name and probably never would have found me if not for that little bit of serendipity caused by my putting that photo online.

It feels good to reconnect with the people who were critically important to us in the formative years of our lives. While we lose touch with so many of them, we share these common memories of those years, and those will always connect us. It’s so nice that Facebook brings us together, and in such an easy low-commitment way. I have no idea if Jennifer would have emailed me; that might have been more of a commitment or more effort than she wanted. But with Facebook, you can just “friend” someone and keep up with them without sending emails or doing much of anything other than visiting their profile. It’s this easy sort of connecting that has brought me back in touch with so many old high school friends. I love it!

So if I’d hidden in the shadows, if I hadn’t put myself out on the web, would I have made all these connections with wonderful people around the world? Would I have reconnected with all these wonderful friends from many years ago? Not a chance. So, no, I don’t think I blog to have my ego stroked. I do it because in doing it, I connect to this wonderful community of people whom I’ve come to care deeply about. It’s not all about me (as in the case of that girl from the New York Times); it’s all about us.