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07: August 31, 2008

Internet Hero Lena Chen

Praise be to internet hero Susannah Breslin (aka The Reverse Cowgirl) for introducing us to our new, even greater internet hero Lena Chen. You can read the details here, but the gist of the kerfluffle that brought Ms. Chen, Harvard junior and online sex columnist, to our attention was her decision to post a photograph of her face taken seconds after a boyfriend had ejaculated on it.

That in itself is pretty heady stuff—pun, sorry to say, intended—even in this day and age. But shortly thereafter, one contributor to that confederacy of twits known as Gawker appropriated the picture under the heading “The Worst Overshare Anywhere Ever,” which greatly annoyed Ms. Breslin—or Ms. Cowgirl, if that’s what she prefers—and me.

I can’t claim to have absorbed very much of Ms. Chen’s oeuvre, which is of considerable size for a 20-year-old, but what I have seen of it, and of her, only makes me like her more and more. Now, it should go without saying that a young, pretty Asian woman whose favorite pastimes include talking dirty and getting ejaculated upon speaks to something deep inside me, but this time it’s not just my prostate. After all, it’s no longer that challenging to find young, pretty Asian women of that description, so spoiled are we middle-aged deviates in these modern times.

But unlike those run-of-the-mill ejaculated-upon, dirty-talking, young, pretty Asian woman that you may encounter on websites of ill repute, Ms. Chen engages all quadrants of the mind, and most especially that sector of the cortex where deep, abiding admiration takes root and flowers. In short, I’m smitten.

Look… I’ve produced two volumes of memoirs that detail the most appalling and embarrassing incidents of my life: petty acts of harassment (sexual and other), an unseemly affair with a college girl less than half my age, my vanity circumcision, etc. There's some pretty sordid stuff in those books, but there's nothing in their 400-odd pages that would enliven an episode of The 700 Club nearly as much as any of Ms. Chen's more ordinary posts. And even though I have released these personal writings under an assumed name, the act of releasing them to the public has exhausted my entire lifetime supply of courage.

Thus depleted of courage—a nonrenewable resource in my case--I have not spent a day in the three and a half years since my first memoir went on sale without at least once drawing my trembling fingers to my quivering lips in contemplation of all the horrible possible outcomes.

What if nobody likes my book?
What if people post mean comments about me?
What if my Mom finds out what I’ve been up to?
What if my Mom posts a mean comment about me???


I despise my cowardice—so much so that I’m dedicating my third book to that very topic. And then someone like Lena Chen comes along and, through no fault of her own, just deepens my self-loathing that much more.

For "Lena Chen" really is Lena Chen: she does not cower behind a pseudonym. And Lena Chen presumably has a Mom, too. And if her Mom hasn’t posted anything mean about her, plenty of others have taken up the slack. In any given month, it is safe to assume, Lena Chen is the target of a larger number of vicious, snide, condescending, ignorant, and deeply personal online attacks than Josh Muggins has been throughout his entire career.

Does Lena Chen cower in a cold, dark cellar, rocking slowly back and forth in the fetal position, wishing she could wake up in a world where she had never put her ideas or photos in the public arena? No, she does not. She just keeps on ticking—and writing, and posting. And sharing.

Sharing--not “oversharing,” as those at Gawker would have you believe.

Now about this word overshare... Living as I do outside the United States, it has sort of snuck up on me; but Google it and you could easily spend every waking minute from now to the end of the calendar year perusing the hundreds of pages of results. (Note: I’m not suggesting that anyone do this.)

The word’s roots are easy enough to trace. In my college days, “too much information” was the common phrase in such cases as when my friend Nielsen would burst from the bathroom overflowing with detailed intelligence about the size and consistency of his just concluded bowel movement. “Too much information” gave way to the sardonic “Thanks for sharing” in the Eighties, and one can imagine the rest. One day in the late Twentieth Century, an Ur-blogger sat in the glow of his cathode ray monitor somewhere and mused:

Hmm… When someone “shares” “too much information” with me, you know what? I could call that…oversharing! Ha! Yes!!

Then this unknown wordsmith rubbed his hands together and cackled ecstatically for about 37 seconds, thrilled yet again by the miracle of his own ingenuity. I know that this is how the scenario played out, because it’s exactly how I would have reacted had I come up with the word.

And might we not [the word-coiner continues] make it a noun as well? Might we not refer to an incidence of oversharing as…an overshare?

(Another 37 seconds of gleeful hand-rubbing and cackling.)

And you know, as an addition to the lexicon, it has its uses. Overshare is entirely apropos when, say, one is trapped on a transoceanic flight next to a stranger intent on telling you everything she ate, drank, saw, heard, or smelt during her week in Waikiki, or when an American literature lecture devolves into a tawdry account of the lecturer’s ongoing and ill-fated struggle with alcohol. In describing cases like these, the word overshare fills a void.

But these scenarios imply a captive audience that did not choose to be subjected to the oversharer’s oversharing. Contrast those cases with the case of an individual who willingly visits a sex columnist’s website only to be shocked—shocked!—at the overtly sexual nature of its content; or a reader who purchases what he knows in advance to be a confessional memoir only to be repulsed by the author’s confessions of unseemly behavior.

The problem is that the potentially useful word overshare has been hijacked by wienies of the blogosphere's teeming, non-creative underclass, who use it as a sort of lexical lead pipe to indiscriminately bludgeon writers who have legitimate, albeit highly personal, stories to tell.

On the web or in books or movies—or anywhere else that people tell their own true stories, it seems to me--there is by definition no “oversharing”; there is, if anything, the masochistic, deliberate over-consumption of content by people who sense that they are not enjoying said content—indeed, may be revolted by it—yet keep on consuming it anyway, like an eighth grader trying to fight his way through a six-pack. I believe we need a new coinage to express this sin of compulsive consumption by the non-creative.

In honor of the website that proved incapable of coping with the brash, refreshing exuberance of our Ms. Chen, may I suggest… overgawking? Ha!

Excuse me now while I rub my hands together and cackle ecstatically.

(More of Ms. Chen here.)