In Pursuit of Brand Me

We are a social animal. That doesn't exactly demand a psych degree to figure out. Yet we're also a private one; there's a little of the Gollum about us, clutching close our "precious" secrets and inside-knowledge. It's no surprise that one of the recurring entries on the periodic "top ten ways to annoy people on social networks" lists is the "mysterious update." You know the sort: "Big changes afoot..." or "Oh ffs, not again!" leaving readers curious and goggle-eyed (you hope) or simply frustrated (more likely) over what exactly it is in your interesting, exciting life that you're teasing about today.

Over the past few weeks I've been testing some of the new breed of "Facebook phones"; or, more accurately, what handset manufacturers believe comprises a Facebook phone when the social network itself is still yet to put out any own-brand hardware. Some, like Sony Ericsson's XPERIA Neo, bake Facebook through all of the key apps, letting you share what music you're listening to or what video you're watching right there and then. Two of the most recent, the HTC ChaCha and Salsa, have dedicated Facebook buttons, meaning you're only a tap away from sharing your innermost thoughts or latest internet discovery.

With time, though, it felt like the purpose of the button was not so much to bypass a few extra keypresses, but the self-censor inside of me. The more I thought about it, the harder it was to hit the glowing blue "F" logo and punch out a quick update: did my Facebook friends really need to know that I was eating a sandwich, or indeed see a photo of it? I'm in a park, but does checking into Facebook Places make that any more legitimate, enjoyable or valuable an experience? For every status update I shared, four or five went unposted as my internal critic questioned their merit.

Talking to a friend last week, a self-confessed over-sharer currently in partial remission, we compared notes about Twitter and Facebook usage and how the desire to communicate quickly intermeshes with the unspoken rules of self-promotion. Twitter is often dismissed as a place where the mundane is fired off into the ether at anyone willing to read it – "Really looking forward to my first cup of coffee"; "These trousers make me look like a clown"; "Auto-save failure ate my homework #FML" – with thoughts that could well have done better left inside your head find an audience outside of it.

However, it's also a space with its own rules around displaying weakness, especially if your personal account shares digital space with your work. For bloggers and other online workers, commonly now operating in physical solitude at home, Twitter has in many ways become the back-channel, the "digital water-cooler" around which people gather to let off steam and dilute the pace of the day. Hard, though, to admit that you may be having qualms about your current project, or doubts over whether you can hack the pace.

Even the recent push to bring mental health issues into the open, and reduce the stigma and shame around them by revealing "Yes, I wash my hands 2,000 times a day" or "I suffer from depression and anxiety" was done in a confrontational, aggressively defensive way. "I am human and have issues" the tweeters proclaimed, "say something negative if you dare." Treating something potentially adverse as an intrinsic element of our core selves diffuses its impact; makes it less likely that, like the diseased animal, you'll be avoided by the rest of the herd.

My over-sharer friend accused me of presenting a very different persona on Twitter than I do in real life. He's probably right: in reality I'm far more of a windbag than would comfortably fit into 140 characters. If we're not going to talk about the real feelings we're having, the sometimes-unsavory thoughts we only share with close friends and loved ones (if at all), then we're back at "#FML" irony and bon mots. For every authentic insight – Philip Berne revealing his separation, say – there are a thousand self-serving or just plain vapid factlets thrown out into the ether. A Facebook shortcut button doesn't make what you're saying any more important, it just accelerates the process of you saying it.

The world is full of over-sharers – it only takes a quick glance at Lamebook (potentially NSFW) where, among the misspelled tattoos, TMI moments quickly leave you wishing you could take a mild bleach solution to your eyes – but let's not fool ourselves that this is some vast conjoining of humanity at its most honest. This is the convenience food of sharing; a midnight kebab on a drunken stomach, as far away from true engagement as shavings of chilli-sauce-drenched mystery meat are from wagyu steak. Does that make it wrong? Not at all, as long as you bear in mind it's simply another route for Brand Me self-promotion. A little junk food isn't bad for you, but it takes more than a Facebook button to have a balanced social diet.