Testing Waters, Sending Clues: Indirect Disclosures of Socially Stigmatized Experiences on Social Media

This blog post summarizes a paper about indirect disclosures of socially stigmatized experiences on social media to be presented at the 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

Note: This post includes content about pregnancy loss.

Photo by Nazanin Andalibi

Did a friend post a link to an article about living with depression because of a personal struggle?

Did a friend re-share someone else’s #MeToo social media post as a way of signaling their personal experience of sexual abuse and harassment?

Was a meme about cancer posted as a way of disclosing a diagnosis?

Was a poem about losing a pregnancy tied to the poster’s own experience?

Sharing about difficult human experiences with emotional dimensions, especially those associated with stigma, can be difficult and even frightening. Particularly on social media, letting people know about difficult experiences such as job loss, abuse, mental illness, or pregnancy loss can be daunting.

Intentionally indirect disclosures which often require one’s audience to draw inferences, are a common way to share stigmatizing or sensitive information in in-person settings. For example, “I just found out that I got a promotion” is more of a direct disclosure than “It’s nice to finally have something good happen at work.” As another example, “I have HIV” is more direct than “I have been sick.” Indirectness of disclosure can take the form of social coding (as these examples suggest), or by indirectly delivering a message through a proxy such as a third person.

How and why do people engage in such indirect disclosures on social media? What strategies do they use? What are the implications of this unique communication behavior for designing social technologies? To answer these questions, this paper draws on interviews with women in the US who had recently experienced pregnancy loss and use social media. Pregnancy loss is an experience that is often hard to disclose, socially stigmatized, traumatizing, isolating, and associated with negative wellbeing effects. In the US, it occurs in approximately 20% of recognized pregnancies; however, 55% of Americans believe it is rare. Lack of support tends to increase stigma and may increase the risk of depression after a pregnancy loss; however, communicating about the loss is also necessary for receiving support and gradually destigmatizing talking about it. So, pregnancy loss provides an important and rich context for investigating indirect disclosures of difficult or socially stigmatized experiences on social media. This research sheds light on the ways in which social media mediate sensitive indirect self-disclosures, what considerations contribute to indirect self-disclosure decisions, and how social technology designs can support the needs that individuals may have in face of adversity, distress, and stigma.

What are this study’s main findings?

Strategies. People’s indirect disclosure strategies vary by (1) the obviousness of the content, (2) who originally created the content, and (3) by whom the content was shared on social media. People often decided to share content that was non-obvious with respect to pregnancy loss, lacked ties to their own experience with pregnancy loss, or was symbolic. For example, they shared meaningful content (e.g., dinner photo at the night of the loss) without referencing pregnancy loss, or created symbolic representations of their experience (e.g., painting) and shared those on social media without any explicit and obvious explanation. Some also invoked others (e.g., spouse) to share content on social media. These proxy disclosures were sometimes explicitly and obviously about the loss (e.g., spouse announcing the loss on social media) and sometimes ambiguous (e.g., spouse sharing symbolic art). People also shared content that others had created about pregnancy loss (e.g., sharing a blog post that someone else wrote about pregnancy loss). They did so without commentary on their reasons for sharing or any tie to their own pregnancy loss experience — thus rendering it indirect.

Reasons. A variety of factors inform these decisions and they are related to:

(1) self, such as keeping a personal record, eliciting support and finding similar others, self-expression and catharsis, solidifying and conveying identity, and protecting oneself emotionally while sharing the news,

(2) audience, such as avoiding judgments by the audience or feeling out the audience and testing the waters,

(3) platform’s features such as those affording anonymity and lack of overlap with everyday networks, and

(4) temporality or the amount of time since the event.

The paper includes details about these motivations, but I provide some examples here.

On feeling out the audience and testing the waters, one participant said:

I think that when we really want to share but don’t feel comfortable sharing, we flirt with that idea by sharing other things and seeing what happens. Seeing what responses we get. Then we still have the opportunity to say ‘Oh, just kidding. No. It was just a quote. I just like this quote.’ And not have that stigma of being cheated on or being raped or having miscarriages.”

And on wanting to keep a personal record, another participant shared that:

A lot of my posts are during that worst time. I’m posting a picture of something and to me it means a lot more than what the picture is… There’s a picture of us having dinner, I know I’m having a miscarriage, and that it’s a horrible day and I almost passed out at the restaurant, but for everyone else it’s a picture of us eating dinner. I wish I could be more honest about it instead of just put a picture of us smiling. That just feels easier, but I printed the whole feed because to me it’s a story that I want a record of, but the real stuff’s not even written down with it.”

Indirect disclosures helped people meet psychological (e.g., keeping a personal record) and social needs (e.g., feeling out the audience) associated with loss, and helped them deliberately balance needs for support, validation and expression with those for obscurity.

So what? Yes, these are interesting findings and add to our knowledge about social media, self-disclosure, and stigma. But what do they mean for future technology design? Proxy disclosures, usually through spouses who shared the news on social media, were a helpful strategy for some who wanted to announce the loss but were not ready to do it themselves or didn’t want to be the point of contact (e.g., due to emotional distress). But not everyone who experiences pregnancy loss has someone to provide this voice and role for them (e.g., supportive partners). We share ideas on how social media sites can design to support disclosures through proxy.

In the paper, we also discuss this work’s implications for algorithmic detection of distress and supportive interventions. In particular, we explore the possibility of detecting more subtle signals in addition to obvious and direct disclosures in these algorithms and raise important questions about what this may mean for future social computing systems and interventions. For example, we wonder what would be lost if algorithms teased out the distress embedded in indirect disclosures, even if it is with the aim of providing help. We raise caveats about needs for anonymity, privacy, and control that may be at odds with such signal detection.

For questions or comments about this study please email the lead author Nazanin Andalibi at andalibi [at] umich [dot] edu.


Nazanin Andalibi, Margaret E. Morris, Andrea Forte. 2018. Testing Waters, Sending Clues: Indirect Disclosures of Socially Stigmatized Experiences on Social Media. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact., Vol. 2, No. CSCW, Article 19 (November 2018), 24 pages. htps://doi.org/10.1145/3274288


Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported…


Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing

Nazanin Andalibi, Ph.D.

Written by

at University of Michigan School of Information | social computing | HCI | social media, stigma, disclosure, social support | http://nazaninandalibi.net


Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing

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