Amidst the millions of social media users is a sizable chunk well-acquainted with what I’ll call “post-post anxiety.” It’s a dreadful malady, really; with symptoms that come on after you’ve fired off a tweet or pic that is, on second-thought, offensive or unflattering. Once this anxiety has taken hold, even your most haphazardly created content can feel like a stand-alone representation of you. Others may see it that way, too, for social media does not favor nuance, forgiveness, or any sort of holistic picture of its users.
Peak post-post anxiety occurs in the first moments after the post goes public: It can be paralyzing or, for some, downright nauseating. What if someone interprets your tweet about Elizabeth Warren as misogynistic? Or worse, what if that tweet is misogynistic? Do you let the post stay up and hope that you’re overthinking it? If post-post anxiety were infrequent, maybe we wouldn't need to talk about it. We could just write it off as another unlikely and unfortunate hazard of the internet. But the condition extends far beyond pedestrian gaffes or bad photos. It’s your entire Tumblr revealing mid-twenties angst, it’s the hot-blooded political blog you started in college during a particularly (ugh, cheesy) political awakening.
Post-post anxiety comes on when we regret our oversharing, and the internet is wising up.
In December of 2018, Instagram introduced “Close Friends,” a feature that allows users to choose who gets to view their content. Close Friends gives you the chance to post more truthful content—a meme that captures your broken heart, let’s say, or a shout-out to your 2020 presidential hopeful. When you’re looking for something more permanent than the quick-and-dirty ephemera that “Close Friends” provides, the social media protective gear you seek is a finsta, a separate, fake Instagram account that is entirely private.
Tavi Gevenson, the first person I ever knew with a finsta, told me that she used hers to “work stuff out.” She’s had three finstas since high school. She said that, at first, "they were places I could vent" but that eventually she realized finstas “weren’t exactly private” and that “working stuff out” was contingent upon “being validated by many friends.”
The “shared album,” a longtime feature of Apple’s photo app, is used by a lot of my peers. The albums are a way of sharing the quotidian without worrying about their privacy. “I don’t like random people to think they know what’s going on in my life,” my friend Marissa put it simply.
I once ran my mouth on Twitter, with opinions on the news of the day; now I find solace in group chats and Direct Messages. According to everyone’s favorite guy, Mark Zuckerberg, I’m not alone in my retreat from public sharing. Last year the media mogul released a statement calling for a new “privacy focused vision” for Instagram and Facebook. “Today we already see that private messaging, ephemeral stories, and small groups are by far the fastest growing areas of online communication,” he wrote.
Why is this happening? According to Zuckerberg, it’s because many people “prefer the intimacy” of smaller-scale communication and because they’re “more cautious of having a permanent record of what they've shared.” That may be true, but I think there’s something more: Oversharing just doesn’t look like it did before. Like most things on the internet, it too has become commodified.
Where we once divulged, without much thought or artifice, the hardships in our marriages or the frustration of a bad-hair day, now this seems a little cheap and amateurish. Professional influencers make a living from their oversharing. Ours doesn’t look as neat, as well thought-out, as supported. Even our connection to oversharing is controlled, manipulated, and artificial.
Fear of unabating retribution is another detractor for sharing too much, too fast. Writer Sarah Hagi recently tweeted, “I feel so bad for inexperienced or new-ish writers trying to break into the industry with pop-culture or think pieces. There’s no real room to make mistakes or growth. I regret so many of my total shit takes.” Just last week writer Emily Gould wrote about the shame she still experiences from her early career. It is not a coincidence that the rise of "canceling" happened in concert with the fall of the personal essay. Like many other writers who first worked on the internet and wanted to stand out, I relied heavily on saccharin sentences, clunky ideas, and my overwrought feelings. At the time I thought processing those feelings for money was genius but, in retrospect, diaries are personal for very good reason. Quippy and confessional essays can be sophomoric: That burning desire we felt for this or that person fades; opinions I used to have on appropriation now feel too stringent and reactionary.
In other words, while the impulse to share may not have gone away, it has been tempered by consequences. Those have brought about a market for the protective measures now on offer from the social media companies. It has also spawned a branch of wellness culture. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop outlines how to do a “digital detox” on its website. “Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping,” wrote New York Times tech reporter Kevin Roose in an essay describing how he ditched his phone and "unbroke" his brain. Even the architects of social media have joined the movement to abandon it for the sake of self-improvement: In 2018 one of Instagram’s original 13 employees, Bailey Richardson, famously quit the app altogether, citing her need to separate from “a drug that doesn’t get us high anymore.”
In the meantime, Tavi treats her newest finsta differently. Now, it’s a “nice place to see what’s up with my friends and look at art” but not an improvement to her life and relationships. She stresses that, for some, a finsta is a “valuable way of having a support system,” even if it doesn’t amount to that for her anymore.
It’s certainly possible, even now, that you’ll make a public fool of yourself with an impulsive post—maybe after an exceptionally riled-up dinner discussion about politics or a drunken breakup. But the buffer provided by finstas, DMs, group texts, digital detoxing, and muting (if you don’t see your ex’s new lover, you won’t feel the urge to subtweet her!) gives us more time to say the wrong thing in our own circles of trust and less time to say the wrong thing on the world’s social-media stage.
A few weekends ago, while on vacation in Florida, I took a photo of my husband holding my toddler son, whose dimpled butt cheeks were the pic’s centerpiece. In moments I was on Instagram, framing the photo to share with the world. Right then I realized most of my followers won’t care to see a random baby’s bottom. And what of my son’s rights? When he’s 15 will he want to find his baby ass in the annals of Instagram? No. I posted to my Close Friends list instead and barely escaped the horror of post-post anxiety. All my “close friends,” of course, want to see my baby’s butt. I’m sure of it. I’m sure.
Ugh, it strikes again.
Updated 3/3/2020 4:00 pm EST: This story has been updated to clarify a hypothetical involving tweets about Elizabeth Warren, not tweets from Elizabeth Warren, as previously stated.