In Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” characters carry around smart devices called äppäräts, which are something like iPhones on meth. The book is set in the near future. Staten Island is the new Brooklyn, and all the characters use their äppäräts to chat and shop and beam their lives out to the world, nonstop. Äppäräts are also equipped with a program called RateMe Plus, which constantly calculates (and broadcasts, of course) a status ranking based on users’ jobs, financials and online popularity, which is gauged by the quantity and quality of what they share. Live-streaming the most intimate details of your life is the only way to get ahead — job promotions and romantic prospects depend on it.
Shteyngart’s extrapolations from first-generation social media are beginning to prove surprisingly prescient. The biggest companies are now slaving away to bring his vision ever closer to reality. It’s not a philosophical or ideological statement on their part; it’s just that their business model is predicated on sharing, and finding new ways to extricate more and more from us. This spring, Facebook introduced its 1.7 billion users to a new feature called Live, which allows anyone to broadcast his or her life in a real-time stream to friends and family. The company also said it would prioritize personal posts like Live over those from brands or news organizations — a sign that, like Shteyngart, it thinks people are far more invested in voyeurism than in anything else. (And in theory, it should know.) In August, Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, followed suit with a feature called Stories, allowing users to post photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours. The company described it as a way to “share all the moments of your day, not just the ones you want to keep.”
It all feels like harmless fun, but our online lifestyles have begun to make a real impact in our offline worlds, a trend that doesn’t seem to be reversing. In 2014, Facebook talked with lenders about the possibility of linking profiles to credit scores, and one recent survey showed that 40 percent of college-admission officers now say they peruse applicants’ social-media profiles in addition to evaluating G.P.A.s and essays.
Social media tends to reward those who share the most — which means we tend to see way more from certain people than we want to see. You probably already know what I mean, and have seen it in your own feeds, as friends, co-workers and complete strangers faithfully transcribe their inner monologues in a never-ending stream. Even those who make a living in the public eye aren’t immune to the perils of oversharing — on the contrary. Two recent examples come to mind: Jennifer Weiner, a very successful author by any measure (her 2002 book, “In Her Shoes,” was made into a movie starring Cameron Diaz), recently wrote an embarrassingly long diatribe on Facebook blasting Oprah for not selecting her latest novel for her book club; and the rapper the Game has posted obscene, near-nude selfies on Instagram that emphasize an enormous bulge in his underwear that may or may not be shopped.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either example — but they each clearly underline the ways that social media has stripped away our ability to tell what is O.K. to share and what is not. It’s not just that watching people vie for your attention can feel gross. It’s also that there’s a fine line between appearing savvy online and appearing desperate.
In high-definition contrast, let’s look at Beyoncé for a moment. Unless televised live performances count, she has never live-streamed a day in her life. She rarely gives interviews, so what we know is scraped from her social-media presence — which isn’t much. I can tell you what outfit and hairstyle Beyoncé posted on social media last week, but I couldn’t tell you where in the world she was, what the inside of her house looks like or even which continent her primary residence is on. Her images tend not to be location-tagged, or even look as if they were taken with a cellphone. I couldn’t tell you who took the photos of her, because, unlike most celebrities, Beyoncé rarely posts selfies. I have no idea who comes to her pool parties, if she has a pool or has ever been to a pool party. I couldn’t guess what she wears to bed. And yet, when I speak about her, it’s as if we’ve been attached at the hip since birth. I feel, very intimately, that I know her. Beyoncé’s feed is the rice cake of celebrity social-media feeds: low in caloric content but mystifyingly satisfying.
Most people treat social media like the stage for their own reality show, but Beyoncé treats her public persona more like a Barbie — she offers up images and little more, allowing people to project their own ideas, fantasies and narratives about her life onto it. Take, for example, her response after a video leaked of her sister, Solange, attacking Beyoncé’s husband, Jay Z, in a hotel elevator. Rather than posting rapid-fire tweets explaining the whole thing, Beyoncé simply posted a series of photographs of herself and her sister having fun, quelling any rumors of a rift.
This logic extends to her creative work too. Earlier this year, she spent an entire album, “Lemonade,” stoking rumors of marital strife with Jay Z. Lines like “You’re gonna lose your wife” seemed to confirm that her once-dreamy relationship was on the rocks. The release of that album felt cathartic, an answer to questions about her personal life that her fans had been obsessing over for months. But then, before the fervor over that album faded, news of another album leaked: this time, a duet album. With her husband. In a single calendar year, Beyoncé managed to reveal what seemed to be a lifetime’s worth of secrets and pain, without it being clear whether she had revealed anything at all. If anything, that only made people want more.