The Shadow Side of the Sharing Instinct

Friday, August 21, 2015 - 12:34pm

The Shadow Side of the Sharing Instinct

As family and friends try to squeeze the last drops out of this season, my various social media feeds fill with pictures of blended cocktails, garden hose-wielding and ice cream-covered toddlers, and rooftop dance parties. It’s summer. It’s so definitively fleeting. And yet we try to do everything to capture it.

Our instincts to document beautiful moments have been supercharged in the age of smart phones and social media. In some ways, this is a life-giving shift. The connective tissue between us is strengthened by all those shots, especially when it comes to long-distance relationships. I can’t feel my nephew’s leggy weight in my lap while I read him a book more than a few times a year, so I devour every single picture my brother posts of him on Instagram.

Scrolling through my feed also broadens the circle of people that I can witness and be inspired by; a newer friend that I don’t see more than a few times a year recently posted a photo of herself at the summit of a mountain and I felt elevated. I would have never known she’d reveled in such view had we not been Facebook friends.

I also feel like Instagram, in particular, has made me more aware of what a gift so many of my friends — non-professional photographers — have for capturing beauty. It enriches my life in all kinds of ways and spurs me to be more creative on a more regular basis, too.

(Shelley R Gilliss / Flickr.)

Of course, there is a shadow side to all of this sharing. I was recently sitting around at a lake with my in-laws, feet submerged in the cooling water, watching the dog roll around in the sand and my daughter’s gaggle of sweet cousins show her the frogs they’d caught, when I felt myself pulled from being present. Should I go grab my iPhone from the house and snap a few photos? It’s not that it was a bad thought. In fact, I decided to keep my butt in the chair and just enjoy. The existence of the thought itself changed my experience of that moment, as it does so many these days.

On one level, I simply live my life, but on another, I dip in and out of observing myself living my life with a curatorial eye.

Another example: these days, my daughter spots our neighbors’ sweet yellow house and starts yelling, “Bunnies! Bunnies! Bunnies!” The neighbors are kind enough to let us visit the fluffy little creatures, along with the chickens and the fish, almost daily. As she wanders through her routine — looking for a ripe blueberry to pick, greeting the pen of bunnies, asking to be picked up so she can peer into the fish tank and greet the fish, opening the little door in the chicken coop to see if they’ve laid any eggs — I often snap an iPhone photo or ten. Partly it’s a parental instinct; my daughter is growing so fast these days and I don’t want to forget what she looked and sounded like at this marvelous age.

But part of it can’t be attributed to such pure instincts. I like the fact that, though we live in an undeniably urban setting, we also have access to such a cool little plot of land full of photogenic creatures. If I’m being really honest, the sharing of those photos says something about me that I want to be said. It’s subtle, to be sure. It’s not like I’m posting pictures of a newly procured designer purse, but it’s a status symbol of sorts nonetheless. It’s a version of my life. After all, I don’t post pictures of the bits of dinner strewn across our kitchen floor after that same very cute daughter throws everything off of her high chair in melodramatic protest.

So the capturing is part of the shadow side of the incessant documenting — this instinct to make permanent what is inherently fleeting. It pulls you out of the moment, makes you less present to the people you are actually surrounded by and spending precious time with. Another part of the shadow is the calculated, even if subconsciously, curation of the you that exists in public. The you that drinks certain kinds of fruity drinks. The you whose kid is playful, adorable, sun-dappled but never sunburned. The you that is always having the time of your life at those rooftop parties. The fictional you, at worse, the incomplete you, at best.

It’s not that technology is to blame for our performative selves. Sociologists like Erving Goffman have been arguing since 1956 that we shape shift for different audiences. The smart phone and the popularity of social media takes this performance to a whole new frequency. It gives us access to the delusion of permanence at all times. After all, we could always be capturing the moment as long as we’ve got our iPhones with us (and we almost always do, it seems). It seduces us into spending even more time selecting the parts of our days, of our lives, of our very selves that tell the story we want to tell to the world.

This can be a creative act, a celebratory act, an act of connection across distance and time. It can also be an act that pulls us out of the moment and out of the rare bliss that is unselfconscious and fully absorbed existence. Taken to the extreme, there aren’t enough “likes” in the universe for that kind of loss.

Morning in the Redwoods

(Courtney E. Martin)

Share Post

Shortened URL


Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



Courtney, your writing always moves me. Thank you for the gift of your heart and words. I think about this all of the time. As a mother of three children -- I want to capture the moments. Our memories. Our lives. And yet, my capturing of moments and writing about them is also a source of contention in our family. Beginning to blog and write to a larger audience has truly been life-changing for me. I share my stories about surviving child abuse and how this does not have to be my only story. It's a part of me -- not all of me -- and so I capture our lives as well. With that I encourage others to see themselves as whole-people too. Negotiating and navigating life with our scars. My writing has been, dare I even say, life-saving. It has opened me. It is helping me on my life-journey and in turn it's helping my family. It also takes time away and my family and I have long conversations where they ask me to stop -- stop photographing, stop writing and recording. They ask me to be fully present instead of observing and capturing our living. I get that. I do. And while I don't have it figured out, I'm learning that it's about balance. Like all things in life. We continue to strive for balance. I think that's the best we can do. Thank you.

A very cute and moving picture of this is in the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, with Sean Penn and Ben Stiller on the mountaintop.

so true. holding the paradox. thank you Courtney. me too.

As I sit in my friend's backyard surrounded by a pond and live oak trees, mocking birds scattering up and rat-a-tatting on the trunks, I don't think of my iPhone in my pocket. What could be more beautiful than this one precious moment. At 70 I am sure the earth spins twice as fast, because I experience everything speeding up. Drinking in this moment of sight, sound and smells IS my permanence. Moments ago I was reading this beautiful piece, giving thanks for my iPad that delivered it to me this morning! Balance.....

On the curating instinct. I used to feel that such an instinct was inherently false and that I was above all that. But in the long years of my dad's illness and in dealing with the aftermath of his death, I discovered that a little curating can be helpful, and that mindful curating can be healing for both the curator and possible audiences - like family. My dad for YEARS told me and my siblings about family members he grew up with but that we either never or rarely met. They remained strangers in my dad's stories. He repeated these stories endlessly. We tried and failed to remember. My dad was overwhelming - resisting him was one way we asserted our own personalities. When he felt his memory going, he started to label and sort photographs as much as possible for such a creatively disorganized man. After he died, in conversations with my own children (from whom I've kept a certain distance so that they can have their own personalities with a bit less struggle), I saw how little my children know about me. I already know the futility of telling them my stories over and over again. What is saw was that I need to start curating my life. Whether I put things in a web page, a scrap book or a journal, I need to document parts of my life for my descendants, who I may never meet, or my children, who will need to know things when they need them, not when I'm ready to tell them. I'd like to say I'm moving along at quite a clip on this project, but it is slow, slow work. To do this I need to build up habits of sharing, of snapping photos, of writing notes, of creating frameworks, of confronting myself and of keeping that in balance with, as you say, the lived moment. We all, like Midas, need to learn to control our wealth. Hoping we - and I - do.

Very good article Courtney.

I was considered somewhat excessive when taking pictures of my 2 young sons. I did that with a film camera for the most part all through the 80's and early 90's. The boys, now men, are 34 and 35 and I still to this day wish I had taken many more pictures. I expect if had had a digital phone I would have, but there were hefty costs involved in my picture taking and of course it was never just one set being developed,at least three sets were needed to share with other family.

Now, whenever the opportunity arrives to share these older style photos in person with my sons it's always very heart-warming and the cause for many great conversations, tears and laughter. That said, many of our past shared moments and some of the events of our life were not captured on film, yet they still manage to come into these conversations in full colour. In fact, sometimes the the boys paint such a lucid picture of these non-photographed moments or events through word, it's hard to believe these are not in the mix of the real pictures in the albums.
My skinny on this is this. I don't think you can ever take enough photos of your own children but what does get missed in a photo op, if it matters, will continue to exposed over and over.

Dear Courtney, Thank you for expressing so beautifully the shadow side of taking photos. I have a serious aversion to cameras, perhaps to a fault. I don't own one or a smart phone, but am ever grateful to the many talented photographers who offer free images, and to my daughter, when to her chagrin I beg her to get her camera out and take a picture to use in my blog.