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

The existential crisis of the smartphone generation.

That so many of us who use social media—and that’s a whopping 92 percent of those between ages 18 and 29, and 73 percent of people in their 30s and 40s, according to the Pew Internet Project—choose to devote our time and energy to cultivating our online personae is no big surprise when you think about it. Not only is the power to control your image, and thereby people’s impression of you, pretty much irresistible, but also? It actually works.

Take Scott Schroeder. A few years back, the 37-year-old chef at South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar was having trouble selling one menu item in particular: headcheese. (Read: A meat jelly made from a pig’s head.) But then one day, on a whim, Schroeder snapped a picture of the dish with his iPhone and Instagrammed it. Staring at his phone, he realized that a twee little picture of the pig gruel looking delicious on a slider bun beneath a pickle was more charming and way more appetizing than words on a menu. His customers realized the same thing. “Now people come in specifically to get it,” he says.

Meantime, while Scott was learning the power of Instagram in pushing his food, he was also learning how Twitter could be a great advertisement for … Scott Schroeder. His Twitter feed (@foodsyoucaneat), a unique mix of not-so-subtle drug references, food pictures and jokes, seems to fit his real-life looks: He’s a big guy, tattooed and bright-eyed, who seems like he could be trouble if you’re on his bad side but a blast to be around if you’re not. (Sample posts: “My spirit animal is @SarahPalinUSA”; “I betcha that
@justinbieber’s gonna end up WAY more fucked up than Michael Jackson ever was #betcha.”)

“The comedy is more for me than anyone else, I think,” he says with a laugh. “But I just figured, food writers are following every chef in the city—how am I going to stand out?”

He does manage to stand out to his 2,000-plus ­fol­lowers—some of whom have never even eaten in his restaurants, including a Manhattan Zagat writer and a group of graffiti artists in Brooklyn.

“As much fun as it can be, it can get sort of annoying, too,” he says of cultivating his fan base with his online antics. “Sometimes I’m out to dinner with my girlfriend and someone comes up to me or yells something. The problem is, people think I’m this funny, wacky drunk all the time, and I’m not … mostly.”

Evan Urbania is the CEO of Philly social media company ChatterBlast, which has helped lots of clients do what Schroeder has managed to do—minus the dirty jokes. ChatterBlast has worked with some seriously big-name local clients—Councilman Jim Kenney and the Philadelphia Parking Authority, among others—to build their online presences.

“Social media gives everyone the opportunity to have their own TV channel,” Urbania says. “And sure, that makes us editors, curators of our lives. We broadcast what we want others to think of us and consider how we want to be viewed.”

As Schroeder points out, “I might get made fun of for tweeting by my buddies, but having a public persona? That’s the game now.” Play the social media game right, and here’s what you get: a soapbox to stand on, a spotlight, a cheap way to make a name for yourself—or maybe even a whole new life.

Twenty-eight-year-old Mikey Ilagan—or @Mikeyil to his 2,500 followers—shot to Philly fame with a Tumblr account he started in 2011 called ThisIsNotACheesesteak, on which he mocked imitations he found in Toronto, Boston, wherever. He’s grown his following over the years by offering commentary on Twitter about the Philly food scene and tech news and by just being funny. He’s gotten invited to parties and restaurant openings, and is treated like a VIP at events he never would have been asked to attend pre-Tumblr. All of this seems to come naturally to him, but that doesn’t mean some thought doesn’t go into posting as @Mikeyil.

“Some people still use Twitter for minutiae, like they’re mowing their lawn or their baby puked on them,” says Ilagan. “I try to keep it interesting and be personal without getting too personal. I like to entertain. I like telling stupid jokes, and people really dig it when I make fun of recent local happenings. But private things, I keep private. I don’t air my dirty laundry or talk crap about people, ever.”

Perhaps the ultimate testament to Ilagan’s online skills is his fiancée, Allie Harcharek, whom he met on Twitter. “I thought she was a cool blogger and that she was interesting,” says Ilagan. “Then we met in person at a mutual Twitter friend’s birthday party.” They’ll marry in 2014.

Annie Heckenberger is another Twitter success story: The 38-year-old PR exec at Philly’s Red Tettemer + Partners worked in social media long before it was called social media, making MySpace pages for CoverGirl and Clairol. She got on Twitter originally because it was so good for business, but now she calls it her “biggest social outlet.”

“I don’t tweet about any one thing,” says Heckenberger, whose Twitter handle is @Anniemal. “I do a lot of tweeting about news and entertainment and a lot of commentary on TV shows I watch. My approach to Twitter is what I call the Keyser Söze approach. I will talk about anything. I will talk in a circle. But most often, I’ve told you nothing.”

The formula seems to have worked: @Anniemal has 7,000-plus followers. She’s gotten tweets from movie stars. She gets recognized in public.

“At first it was a little bit weird for me, because I’m not a celebrity and it’s not my intent to be a public figure, but by nature of this medium I have become one,” she says. “I’ve had people drive by and yell ‘Anniemal!’ out of their car.” Strangers have sent her flowers when she was sick; one woman in California baked her cookies. All thanks to Twitter, her social media outlet of choice.

“I’ve heard Facebook described as ‘Bragbook,’” she says: “Typically, there are people making their lives look perfect—look at my dinner, or look at how perfect my children are, look at how great my lawn looks. But no one is going to post a picture of their face puffy and crying after a breakup. My feeling is that Twitter is a little more honest.”

Heckenberg may be an overtweeter—checking Twitter last thing before bed, first thing in the morning, and even sometimes, she admits, in the middle of the night—but, like Ilagan, she tries not to be an oversharer. “I haven’t told you online about my personal life, who I’m dating,” she explains. “And I tend not to air grievances.”

Even for @Anniemal, online honesty has its limits.