Revisiting the Online/Offline Binary: Conceptualizing Factors Influencing Self-disclosure

by Nazanin Andalibi and Oliver L. Haimson

At the CHI 2015 workshop “Between the Lines: Reevaluating the Online/Offline Binary,” we discussed the notion that the types of self-disclosures that happen in a particular setting do not depend primarily on whether that setting is “online” or “offline;” instead, a setting’s possibilities for disclosure depend on particular factors. As such, instead of classifying settings as online or offline, we suggest conceptualizing them on a series of spectrums characterized by seven factors and how they affect disclosure processes. These factors are described below:

While this list includes many of the important factors influencing disclosure, we note that it is not intended to be comprehensive and that there are other factors that also influence self-disclosure processes.

Using depression-related self-disclosure as a context for thinking about issues of self-disclosure and the limits of the online/offline binary, we present several examples of different settings where a person may disclose that she is struggling with depression, and characterize each along the seven spectrums included in our proposed framework.

  1. Struggling with depression, post on a depression support group on Facebook:

The first setting involves a person posting content about their struggle with depression on a depression support group on Facebook. While we hesitate to place settings on one end of the spectrum or the other, a Facebook group is largely technologically-mediated and non-collocated. Posts are persistent and have large potential audiences, and people have a large amount of control over whom sees their content. Anonymity in this setting is a bit more complex: while many members of the Facebook group may be using “real” names and accounts, others may be using pseudonyms. In terms of synchronicity, some people may be logged onto Facebook and view the post right away (synchronous), while others may log on later and view the post at a later time (asynchronous).

2. Struggling with depression, post on YikYak:

The next setting we discuss is a similar post disclosing one’s depression-related experiences, but this time on YikYak, an anonymous, location-based mobile application. Similar to Facebook, this setting is highly technologically-mediated, has a large potential audience size, the poster has a large amount of control over whom sees their disclosure, and communication may be both synchronous and asynchronous. Unlike the Facebook example, posts are almost completely anonymous (except for a post-specific avatar that distinguishes whom has posted more than once in each particular post). Also unlike Facebook, the location-based nature of YikYak gives posters a potential higher chance of collocation with certain audience members. And finally, YikYak posts are more ephemeral than Facebook posts. Thus, we see that even though Facebook and YikYak are both online settings, they differ substantially on many factors that influence self-disclosure decisions.

3. Struggling with depression, in-person conversation with friends:

Thirdly, we discuss disclosing struggles with depression with friends in face-to-face settings, a non-technology-mediated context. Here, the interaction is not anonymous [1], is highly synchronous, and the discloser and the audience are co-collocated. Also, the potential audience size is rather small and the discloser has a relatively high control over whom has access to their disclosure. Finally, the persistence of the disclosure content is relatively low (assuming that the interaction is not recorded).

4. Struggling with depression, showing depression-related Instagram photos to a friend in person

In face-to-face settings, a person may share her depression-related experiences with a friend by talking around media objects such as Instagram photos she has posted online. To provide a little bit of context here, searching for #depression on Instagram yields images that are often times of highly sensitive and intimate nature. In this context, in contrast to the previous case, technology-mediation falls in the middle of the spectrum. The setting is not anonymous, the potential audience size is low, the discloser and the audience are co-located, and the control over audience is also high. The interaction is more synchronous than not; the audience receives the spoken message instantaneously, but the Instagram photo is an artifact from the past being shared in this new context now. This setting falls in the middle of the persistence spectrum, because the audience could potentially look up the Instagram photo at a later time; as such, persistence is higher in this case compared to the third scenario. By characterizing these two different offline disclosure scenarios along our seven spectrums, we see that offline settings may differ substantially on many factors that influence self-disclosure decisions.

By introducing seven factors that influence self-disclosure decisions and characterizing two online settings and two offline settings along spectra for each, we identify ways that the labels “online” and “offline” do not account for the complexities of different settings. Online media platforms are designed in ways that encourage and support particular kinds of self-disclosure, just as different face-to-face social contexts facilitate certain types of interactions. However, merely because two settings are both considered “online,” or “offline,” they are not necessarily similar in terms of factors that impact self-disclosure decision-making processes and identity presentations. Thus, when studying self-disclosure, identity, and other research topics that may appear to be easily classified into “online” or “offline” behaviors, researchers must also consider important factors such as mediation, anonymity, synchronicity, collocation, audience, and persistence.

[1] We would like to point out that there might be situations where people perceive non-technology-mediated settings to be anonymous as well. Rubin (1975) studied self-disclosure between strangers at places such as train stations, and proposed the “passing stranger effect” suggesting that people are more likely to share more intimate and personal information with strangers, thinking that they will never see those strangers again.

Rubin, Zick. “Disclosing oneself to a stranger: Reciprocity and its limits.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 11.3 (1975): 233–260.