The Insidiousness Of 'Sharing' (And Why We 'Share' Online)

If you like this article, you'll share it.

Not "post" it, or "spread" it or "send" it. But share it, in that warm and fuzzy, playground-meets-Facebook sort of way.

"Sharing" describes what we do when we socialize online. We send emails, we make calls and we share on social networks. Facebook bills itself as a service that "helps you connect and share with the people in your life." Instagram markets its app as "a fun and quirky way to share your life with friends." YouTube is a place to "share originally-created videos." New media scholar Dr. Nicholas A. John set out understand what's so special about "share." Analyzing how the terminology used by the web's 44 most popular and significant social networking sites has evolved since the early 2000s, he argued in an article for the journal New Media Society that web firms are exploiting the embedded morality of the word "sharing" to encourage users to reveal more about themselves and also to better conceal the commercial relationships that keep these data barons in business.

Sharing refers both to how users interact with their friends and how social networks interact with their friends -- aka advertisers -- making the transfer of individuals' personal data to companies seem downright friendly.

According to John, "share" gained traction between 2005 and 2007, and from there became not only more widespread, but also more vague and all inclusive. Sites stopped exhorting audiences to share specific details, such as photos or links, and instead people were told to share "your life," "your world" or the "real you" -- in short, everything.

Three forces haven given "sharing" its staying power, John wrote: The web community was already comfortable with the concept and lingo, thanks to practices such as "file-sharing"; the broadness of the term allows "sharing" to be applied equally to communicating information ("I'm sad my boyfriend dumped me") and distributing information ("OMG check out this YouTube video"); and finally, sharing is associated with "positive social relations." Sharing connotes transparency, sociability and fairness, and it's rarely ever bad.

That's right: The world's most important social networks have borrowed their strategy from kindergarten teachers' lesson plans. And perhaps no company more than Facebook is working to drive home the schoolmarm message that "sharing is caring." In his letter to investors ahead of Facebook's initial public offering, Mark Zuckerberg wrote, "People sharing more -- even if just with their close friends or families -- creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others." Elsewhere he posits that helping people share can "bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time."

'Not only will the world be better off if everyone shares, but you'll feel better too,' goes the pitch. The language of social media subtly hints that if we post party pictures and share links to slideshows, we won't feel alone -- nor should we ever be. "The rhetoric of sharing your world, and particularly that of sharing your life, also implies that you should not be alone: sharing your life is the opposite of living your life in isolation," wrote John. Conversely, not sharing is a selfish, loner thing to do.

But "sharing" is also used as a way to sugarcoat "selling." John points out that Google's privacy policy states the company will "share personal information with companies, organizations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so," while the social network Path explains it "may share aggregated information and non-identifiable information with third parties for industry analysis, demographic profiling and other similar purposes." (To its credit, Facebook, in one part of its privacy policy, owns up to the fact that it will "provide data" -- not "share data" -- to its advertising partners or customers.)

These "references to the transfer of data about users to advertisers as 'sharing information' with third parties serve to mystify relationships that are in fact purely commercial," argued John, noting that companies seek to use the "friendly" and "non-threatening" term to make business relationships appear exactly that.

That lingo has become so engrained that even when companies violate user privacy by exposing details meant to stay hidden, it's called "sharing." In the Federal Trade Commission's privacy settlements with Facebook and Google, regulators characterized the way the companies had deceived customers as information "sharing."

John's analysis of "sharing," which is the subject of his forthcoming book, suggests it's worth taking a closer look at all the other buzzwords shaping interactions online.

Facebook has been particularly good at organizing its site using elementary, almost infantile language that has positive connotations and is instantly recognizable. The most popular activities on the site read like flash cards for pre-schoolers: "friend," "poke," "share," "like." It's a savvy move that instantly ensures users feel at home with the tech tools and can quickly understand how to interact with the site. Like something? Then like it. Friends with someone? Then friend them. It's far easier to grasp what a "friend" is than a "follower."

By contrast, Twitter seems downright academic with its multisyllabic words and invented phrases, such as "direct message," "followers" and the instruction that appears on homepages to "compose a tweet."

Facebook just asks, "What's on your mind?"