When Did Our Lives on Social Media Become More Time-Consuming Than Our Social Lives?

The existential crisis of the smartphone generation.

Six years ago, I spent my 22nd birthday alone in a teeny one-bedroom apartment at 11th and Pine. I had just left college at Villanova, a place full of friends and fun, and moved to Philly for my first job. Outside of my co-workers, I knew no one.

A cabdriver had yelled at me on my walk home. It was raining. I sat on my futon and watched Jeopardy and ate a Hot Pocket. It should have been depressing for every reason, but I managed to keep my chin up: I’m here because I landed a job in publishing straight out of college, and moved here, all alone. Like, nobody has managed to do that. I’m fine! Ahead of the game. I kept it together … until I went on Facebook and saw all the cool things everyone else was doing. My friend Jen’s page was the last straw. She was having the time of her life at a summer rental in Belmar. There were boys and booze and bikinis. Everything flip-flopped: Oh my God, I’ve just taken a job right out of college and moved here, all alone. Like, nobody does that. I looked down at the Hot Pocket, and suddenly it was too much to bear.

That’s the dark underbelly of those rose-colored photos: Comparison is all but inevitable. And not just for me.

“Is Social Media Destroying Your Self-Esteem?” Forbes.com asked its readers last summer. At about the same time, Newsweek referenced a 1998 study from Carnegie Mellon that found that Web use over a two-year period was linked to sadness, loneliness, and even the loss of real-world friends. (The magazine quoted wisecracking critics: “But the subjects all lived in Pittsburgh.”) The story went on to point to multiple studies showing that “the more a person hangs out in the global village, the worse they are likely to feel.”

Of course, for every academic study linking lousy self-esteem to social media, there’s one to refute it. But I don’t need a study to remind me of the feeling of seeing all my friends’ lives looking so glamorous on the screen in my lonely room. Neither does my friend Kristin, who reveals to me while I’m reporting this story that she actually cried looking at my Facebook page after she moved to Florida for grad school.

“I left my boyfriend in Philly, hadn’t yet made any friends, and it was still summer, so people were posting pictures from the beach, bars, vacations,” she says. “Here I was sitting at home, doing homework with no prospects of going out, and there you are, out having fun. I just started to cry.”

I don’t even remember that time in my life being as fun as Facebook evidently made it appear. I was out all the time because I was single and desperate to meet someone, I tell her. I peruse my page to see the pictures she’s talking about, and the flip side of the whole thing hits me: When I look back on my Facebook page, I have a renewed sense of satisfaction about my life. It’s like the highlight reel—I’m funny! I’ve done interesting things! I went cool places with my friends! I look adorable! It might be a revisionist history of a sort, but it’s my history all the same.

“It is true that virtually everybody seeks to post the most glamorous parts of their lives on social network sites,” Temple sociology professor Shanyang Zhao, who researches social media, writes to me. “But isn’t this also true in face-to-face contact? … The truth is that we all try to make ourselves look better to others than what we think we are, regardless of whether we are on or off the Internet. In other words, we seek to present ourselves not because of, but in spite of, the Internet.”

Meaning we’re still basically out there keeping up with the Joneses—only now it’s at every single moment of our lives, every tweetable, Instagrammable, postable moment, not just when we buy a car or get into a fancy college.

Evan Urbania doesn’t think that’s a bad thing. “Sharing the personal stuff is what keeps people up on your life,” he says. “And we all have a need for connection.” But if the end goal of social media is connecting with other people, how much are we really connecting if what we put out there is simply a chosen sliver of our life, with a flattering filter applied? Zhao is ready for this question:

“Heavily edited online self-images may not tell us who the presenters really are, but they can tell us a lot about what the presenters want to be. So by looking at the masked faces of the known and unknown presenters on the Internet, we are reading the books of personal aspirations, social stereotypes and cultural preferences, which inevitably makes us reflect on our own values and ideals.”

So in reality, who we show ourselves to be online is who we want ourselves to be. That’s not phony—if anything, it’s weirdly revealing. And if we all know that we’re getting a curated version of our “friends”—and maybe simply seeing the things people choose to share, and the way they want to share them—maybe that provides connection enough. Mikey Ilagan says he met a big chunk of his current friends through Twitter. Which makes me wonder, actually, whether, had Twitter had been born a few years earlier, I would have spent my 22nd birthday alone. Maybe Twitter would have helped me, like Ilagan, make friends, so that I’d have found my niche sooner. ­Maybe I’d have searched #youngphillywriters or #newtophilly or #phillyLOSTfans and found someone to have a birthday drink with me at Dirty Frank’s. Maybe there’d never have even been a Hot Pocket. Maybe Twitter would have changed things for the better for me.

That’s not to say that social media hasn’t changed things for me since then: There’s a certain handful of Facebook friends whom I’ve come to like much more in digital form than I ever did in real life. Our friendships have gotten stronger, in a strange way. ­Maybe sometimes all we want is the edited version of people. Maybe some of us are better in 140 characters or less.

Whatever; this is the way things are now. And yes, to constantly feel the need to think of something to say, to reply to other people, to try to keep up, check in, update, to attend morning, noon and night, share, tag, un-tag, polish, filter, engage, make people laugh, spellcheck, curb the swears, retake that picture, remember the red-eye correction, get the quote right, post and repost, to check for likes, and all the other things a person might do throughout the day to stay in the conversation, to be a part of a brave new digital world … yeah, maybe that’s stressful; maybe it’s exhausting.

But then, connecting with other people always is.

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  • Corry

    Wow, Whitlock. Tell us how you really feel

  • http://www.facebook.com/mjacobs45 Matt Jacobs

    Whitlock is spot on…..we’ve known that for the better part of a decade since he told us Pinkston and Thrash were good enough…..

  • Wilbert M.

    I’m on the same page with Whitlock as far as the play calling. It was ridiculous.

    • http://twitter.com/jaymattt Jay Matt

      Same here. When you have someone like McCoy, freaking use him!

  • BG

    I’d be willing to bet that if you went back to week 13 of last season and compiled what these has-beens or never-weres had to say about the Giants I’m sure it would echo the waste of space that has been propagated on this site. Fact is, last week’s game was a win (PERIOD) It has been proven over and over again, most recently by the 2011 (9-7) Champion Giants, that all you need to do is accumulate enough wins to get in and everyone has a shot. The rest is just hot air and mindless commentary.

    • ICDogg

      good point.

    • Septhinox

      I highly doubt you will find a stretch where Manning played as badly as Vick has been the last year and a half.

      They aren’t condemning the team as a whole, they are condemning Vick. And rightfully so.

  • jabostick

    I hate to give Reid too much credit but they obviously had a game plan (re: the “things they saw in the passing game” or whatever Reid said) and they put up a ton of yards. I understand the thought that if Vick is having a terrible day that you should move away and adjust but if you’re calling plays that are getting guys open and Vick is throwing late or telegraphing or making the wrong read, how is that on Andy?

    Again, I get the not adjusting earlier part of it, but it’s not as if Reid/Marty called a “force it into 3 guys” pass play. The execution was shitty, not necessarily the play calling.

  • TPZ

    Jason Whitlock is dead on with this topic. MV was horrible – I think we all get that, but he’s a worker merely following instructions (plays), and he’s not the type of QB that you’d want to overload with responsibility. Why is it that AR cannot or will not adjust his game plan on game day when it’s obviously needed. Is he and/or his staff that inept, or is he really that stubborn to maintain his scripted plan when the climate of the game is ever changing? Again, why? Over 60 passing attempts against a lower tiered team that notably has a proficient passing defense and poor against the run (and we have one of the best backs in the league)? Both MV & AR/offensive staff appeared to be cognitively challenged (PC for stupid) on Sunday, and what’s particularly troubling is that this isn’t the first time (or quarterback) that AR has displayed this thinking and action (or lack thereof)….Again, begs the question – can this guy win a superbowl?

  • Paul

    If the Eagles are so bad then somebody please explain to me why are they 21/2 points favorites against the Ravens this week?

    • ICDogg

      I still don’t have a grip on that myself.

  • Xoverscribbler

    Teddy Bruschi touches a nerve. There is SOMETHING about Michael Vick’s playing style and approach that is causing him to get hit and turn the ball over. We have seen the backups execute plays effectively without so much as a scratch; what gives, magic Mike? Let’s wipe the slate clean and play lights out!

    • ICDogg

      Slow decision making comes to mind.

      • http://twitter.com/MykeLane Michael Lane

        Going for the huge play every play unlike how the rookie or Edwards played sounds accurate. I think hero ball was something Teddy heard about from Bilechek. I’m sure he’ll be better game manger this week

  • dave h

    but what about “eagles lead[ing] the laegue in cap space ??” ..cant we celebrate that ??

    • jabostick

      “Joe Nickels Banner!” – philly.com reader

      • ICDogg

        Actually I’ve seen it more often rendered as Joe “Nickles” Banner. The spelling highlights the intelligence of the author.

  • Charlie foxtrot

    “Concerning ” is not a word, at least the way you’re trying to use it. You might say “of concern” perhaps.

  • http://twitter.com/The_Jruth Cory Widmann

    If only we had a Pro Bowl running back, I mean for real. Putting a lot on Vick to drop back 56 times. However it is a passing league and you need to throw the ball well, and he didn’t after the first Q.

  • xlGmanlx

    I can’t stand Brushi, what a jack ass. He and Harrison are the BIGGEST Pats homers in the media and it isn’t even close. How many SB’s have the pats won since being busted for cheating? Brady has been out Brady’d and their defense has been their achilles heal in both losses and that is supposedly BB strength. The NFL is such a fickle sport, if they win 3 in a row they will be crowned kings and if they lose two straight written off as a fluke. Nothing matters until the post season, we just enjoy the ride because there are only 16 games in the regular season. If they could sustain 40 game seasons, no one would care about the first 2.5 months.

  • Phillybrasil

    To me Jason Witlock is a morno because he really didn’t pay close attention to the game. The Eagles did run shady but every time he got a good run the Eagles got a penalty. So the run was nullified and then the Eagles has to past because was down and long. Secondly the eagles dominated in offensive plays by 20 more then the browns, so they had the ball a lot more. Shady carried the ball a lot more then the stats indicated because of do over runs through penalties. He is not a 30 carry back. I will admit Andy is sometimes too pass happy but he is also a consistant winner as coach. I am just sick of wanna be football fans or columnist who watched a stat line an think they can coach. Eagles and Andy Reid will be alright by Dec but Whitlock will be a moron long after

  • hopOFF

    they need to find something better to talk about than vicks first game of the season, which happened to be bad. wanting to and trying harder to win more than anyone else in the league is his only flaw. it does lead to him getting hurt at times but whether or not he plays all season he is going to do anything he can to help us win. even if he doesnt play we have a great system to slip foles in to. everything is leading to an eagles superbowl. hop off