Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Are we sharing too much online?

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
August 16, 2013 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: Social media evolved from sharing trivial matters to more personal ones
  • Hannah Anderson answered personal questions about her abduction
  • NPR host Scott Simon tweeted from his dying mother's hospital room
  • Obeidallah: Sharing more is a good thing, if it helps bring comfort to those who suffer

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the co-director of the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" which will be released in September. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- Remember when social media websites were just about sharing fun things? I'm talking about the time when Facebook was essentially a place to post photos of you having a great time and the most serious event shared was when a person changed his or her status from "in a relationship" to "single."

But those days are gone. Social media has now become a place to share deeply personal and often horribly painful events in our lives. It has, in essence, become an online group therapy session where people reveal the details of dreadful events from their lives in the hopes it helps them cope and will attract support from others.

We saw it on display this week with 16-year-old Hannah Anderson, who was taken hostage by James DiMaggio for a week after he allegedly killed Hannah's mother and younger brother. Within days of being freed, Hannah went online to the website ask.fm and answered questions from the public about her ordeal. And she didn't just respond to a few questions, she fielded a long list of probing questions from "Why didn't you run?" to "Are you glad (DiMaggio is) dead?"

I noticed this evolution in the way people had begun to use social media last year, and at the time, I didn't like it. My concern was: Why would anyone share the intimate details of tragic events from their lives with people online, many of whom are strangers?

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

It really hit home this year when a friend posted on Facebook that he had been diagnosed with cancer. I was shocked, first by the news but second by the fact he announced his diagnosis on Facebook. Typically, this would be the type of news you would share only with family and close friends, and probably in a face-to-face conversation.

But reading the comments responding to his original posting -- and the comments to his subsequent posts about his treatment -- caused me to change my view on what was appropriate to share on social media. The amount of support he received on his Facebook page was astounding. He was touched by it, noting that the outpouring brought him comfort and inspired him to fight the disease even harder.

Rescuing Hannah Anderson

Many others are sharing the most heartwrenching events in their lives. In just the past few weeks, friends on Facebook or Twitter have posted information about the deaths of a parent or a grandparent.

And this week, I saw an even more candid sharing of information when a friend posted on Facebook that his brother in Egypt had been shot by the police there during the recent protests. He followed that up a few hours later with updates about surgery to save his brother's life. Finally, he posted a photo of his deceased brother from the morgue where they identified his body.

A few weeks ago, NPR host Scott Simon tweeted live updates from his dying mother's hospital room to his more than 1 million Twitter followers. Some said Simon was invading his mother's privacy while others labeled him as self-centered, focused more on himself than his dying mother. But like many others, I found it to be a moving tribute to his mother.

What sparked this trend to divulge information that had once been revealed only to family and close friends? There are a few reasons. First, it's clearly therapeutic for many. By sharing their painful experiences, it helps the person heal, and the show of support by others bolsters them.

Second, those who have been using social media for years on a daily basis have grown accustomed to sharing events and experiences from everyday life. We are now extending the scope of what we will share from our lives.

Finally, I believe there's a connection between a willingness to share private aspects of our lives and the reality TV show world in which we have been immersed for over a decade. On a nightly basis, we see people share their triumphs and tragedies, be it on shows like "Big Brother" or "The Real World" or more contrived ones like "Honey Boo Boo" or "Keeping up with the Kardashians." They have made it easier and more acceptable for us to do the same.

To me, the best thing about this new trend is that you get to control it. It's your choice whether to disclose deeply personal information. Those who find it unnerving or inappropriate can keep that information secret. But for the rest, social media may end up being a less expensive but helpful form of therapy.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1411 GMT (2211 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT