As long as there are blogs, people will overshare. The term that came into popularity in the late aughts is a catchall to describe those who willingly offer up embarrassing details of their lives for the entertainment of others. It’s a word usually lobbed at female writers, particularly those whose personal essays are reduced by male critics (a nice way of saying “Internet commenters”) as self-indulgent, navel-gazing screeds that serve no purpose other than directing attention to the writer’s byline. And in an era with a multitude of ladyblogs, there are as many female writers who respond to these personal essays with derision, usually questioning the source material’s brand of feminism (or lack thereof). The mass response to anyone who is willing to share parts of her (or, sometimes, his) life online usually stems from the fact that the critics wouldn’t personally share the same type of material themselves. Because someone is doing something they wouldn’t do, that person must be doing something wrong.
The latest Internet punching-bag is xoJane deputy editor Mandy Stadtmiller, who made a career of making herself the spotlight of her stories long before she joined Jane Pratt’s confessional website. She started as a dating columnist at the New York Post, and quickly became a regular and easy target for the editors at Gawker. Like many who write online, she’s divisive. There are those who love her — her personable and confessional voice, like many of her memoir-writing predecessors, is successful because it’s relatable. And there are those who hate her and her ilk, those who pump up the pageviews solely by hate-reading the content on sites like xoJane and arguing with writers and fans in the comment sections. Which is exactly why writers like Mandy Stadtmiller continue to have jobs: they create a response, and that response is good for business.
It’s also why other journalistic venues profile these writers. Take, for example, yesterday’s New York Observer profile of Stadtmiller, which provides a presumably objective look at the blogger’s work. It’s not a flattering piece, although most would argue that Stadtmiller’s own work isn’t flattering, even if that’s the point. The subtext of the profile, which Stadtmiller described as a hit-piece in a response on xoJane, is that she is a narcissistic attention junkie. It’s a notion that Stadtmiller makes very clear in her own writing. (She is, after all, working on a book about her time at the Post titled News Whore.) But one could argue that almost anyone who has chosen to enter the journalism profession — whether they write about themselves or others — isn’t solely doing so for the noble purpose of sharing thoughts and ideas with others.
The achievement of a byline alone is a narcissistic reward; anyone going into a public profession such as journalism is doing so — at least in part — for an audience, and to single out one writer for her supposed need for attention is to ignore the narcissism of pieces like Henry Alford’s recent exploration of Williamsburg hipsters in The New York Times. The Times is a much more respectable publication, and Alford’s trend piece opens with a professional photograph of the author in hipster drag rather than an iPhone selfie. But it’s still a personal narrative with nothing new to say. As for the Observer’s sly dig at Stadtmiller’s confessional writing about Alcoholics Anonymous (“‘I get shit sometimes for breaking the tradition of AA where you don’t reveal you are in it,’ Ms. Stadtmiller writes. Anonymity isn’t really her thing.”), one can look to cultural hero Roger Ebert’s similarly candid writing about his involvement in AA.
The question is this: has the Internet changed the way we reveal ourselves, or has it just allowed us to be frank and honest to a larger audience? There are those who share TMI-worthy information with friends in private settings, and those who do so online, where friends and family and strangers have equal access. Is it a sensibility that’s at all new? Probably not. But as long as people will read confessional writing, either to laud or lampoon it, the business of oversharing will always be booming.