Last year, 34-year-old hockey writer Adam Gretz told Tumblr and Twitter about his battle with depression before he told any of his friends. In fact, until that moment, only his wife knew what he was going through.
Still, that was one more level of transparency than I’m sometimes comfortable with. For instance, I’ve tweeted about things (sexual assault and disordered eating, for instance) that I haven’t even told my husband about.
The question, of course, is why — why did both Gretz and I feel more comfortable going to complete strangers on social media (more or less) than those closest to us (and in my case, even my spouse)?
For Gretz, the answer is partly wrapped up in the stigma of mental illness, which is notoriously isolating — in part because we’re conditioned not to talk about it. “That stigma is probably what had me keep everything wrapped up for so long before I finally wrote about it,” he explains. “I had a friend who I used to work with in a previous career who I was always close with. We’d get together every couple of months and that was it. But when she read that, she came to me and said that I pretty much described her, and how she could relate. Now we keep in touch a lot more. It just kind of built from, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through.’”
Sending out a tweet to a Tumblr post was also easier (and less emotionally taxing) than telling each of his friends and family members individually, something he clarified in a subsequent post: “If I worried any of my family or friends, or if you are confused as to why I could not just talk to you, that was not my intention. It can just be positively exhausting to keep rehashing the same feelings that are bringing me down over and over again, and sometimes that is what it becomes. Sometimes I just do not want to actually talk about it. Sometimes I do. At this particular time, I did not.
“It is sometimes just easier to jot them down for mass consumption. This is the outlet I was most comfortable with in that moment.”
With the safety of a screen and the assurance of a block button, it’s no surprise that social media and online communities are a godsend for the socially awkward and/or anxious — a cohort I count myself among. Online communication lets us interact on our own terms. “People who are introverted, shy or socially awkward can feel uncomfortable or even threatened by face-to-face interaction,” says Omri Gillath, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, where he studies close relationships and social networks. “So they find online interactions much more convenient and affordable in facilitating the ability to self-disclose.”
Self-disclosure is key to intimacy in both online and IRL relationships, says Natalie Bazarova, an associate professor of communications at Cornell University. But self-disclosure online yields more intense intimacy than it does in face-to-face interactions, according to a study she wrote in 2013. That’s why Twitter mutuals might quickly become trusted friends, even though we may never meet them in real life.
Also, when we communicate through text and without body language, we tend to over interpret the information we do have about that person’s traits and fill in what’s missing with stereotypes. This leads to what Bazarova describes as “intensified impressions of the sender’s personal qualities and their relationships.” Or more simply put: You really do feel like you know these people better than your real-life acquaintances.
That said, not everything we reveal online has to be negative or even serious to matter. Joseph Knight, 44, says he’s been extremely online since he was a teenager posting on BBS. Today, he has a robust social media life, particularly on Twitter and within special interest communities. “Talking online just feels natural, efficient and safe,” he explains.
Knight identifies as a straight man, but his online life lets him avoid the sometimes rigid expectations of that identity. Case in point: His interest in Love Nikki-Dress-UP Queen, a mobile role-playing game focused on acquiring new clothes for your female character. “I can promise you, I don’t talk about a fashion game app at my Indiana tech company,” he says. “It’s silly, fun and femme, and totally something I love — but it’s not welcome in my workplace.”
Obviously, using Twitter or social media as a confessional as opposed to your partner isn’t without offline consequences. “These online relationships sometimes not only replace but also interfere with our relational processes,” says Gillath. “If other people learn about your secrets and fantasies before your partner does, that makes the partner feel left out or not as important special.” (At my house, that means no more major revelations on Twitter before I’ve talked to my husband.)
Still, for Gretz at least, the trade-off and potential risk was worth it. “I woke up the next morning to hundreds of replies on Twitter, countless DMs, a ton of messages on Facebook from people just offering support and saying they know what it’s like and that they feel the same way,” he says. “I’ve even talked to some people I don’t know who have said reading that made it easier for them to share their struggles. Honestly, all of that blew me away. I never expected that sort of a response.”
Most of all, though: “It helped me get all of this stuff out in the open so I don’t feel like I’m dealing with it by myself.”
No matter if he didn’t actually know any of them.