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Are we sharing too much online?

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Fri August 16, 2013
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.

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