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

The existential crisis of the smartphone generation.

Attempting to hide behind lace curtains weeks ago, I whipped out my iPhone and secretly zoomed in to capture my neighbor, Dave, out doing lawnwork in a kilt. It wasn’t just any kilt, either—it was a utility kilt, one of those crazy-looking cargo pant/skirt hybrids made for getting stuff done.

Facebook, I thought, is going to love this.

I just moved to this house in our New Jersey suburb. I barely know Dave, but he seems very nice. And here I am, new in town and risking my whole real-life future relationship with my neighbors for one stupid Facebook post. Why? The answer comes minutes later, when the Utilikilt scores high, setting my phone abuzz with friends “liking” and commenting on the photo. A hit.

The online personae of Heckenberger and Ilagan and Schroeder clearly resonate with strangers in a way mine doesn’t. I can honestly say that the sole rewards I get from tweeting something that gets retweeted or posting a picture that gets nice comments—pro­bably the sole ones most of us get—are of the ego-boosting variety. We bait our dog with bacon to get him to look cute on Instagram. We almost rear-end the car in front of us (um, for instance) to get a picture of a license plate that reads VROOM. I’d say that if all these efforts are good for anything, it’s those virtual high-fives and pats on the back.

It seems to be enough to keep us posting. One friend reports to me that her husband—a prolific participant on both Facebook and Instagram—“giggles and gets giddy” when he gets a lot of likes and comments: “It’s like he’s opening presents on Christmas morning.” Another friend admits spending up to 10 minutes debating the phrasing of her Facebook posts, reading and re-reading posts before actually publishing lest she come off as anything but clever, or insightful, or funny. When we manage to share a sentiment or picture or idea or anything that resonates with our audience, we feel like a star, if only for a moment.

“The core of it is that it validates you,” Urbania says. “It fires synapses in your brain to create a pleasurable experience. With likes and comments and retweets, it’s like when people nod heads, smile, congratulate you or clap. It’s the same feelings you get exactly, translated one-to-one.”

One Harvard study concluded that writing about ourselves on social media stimulates the same part of the brain we use when we eat food, are given money … or have sex. Is it any wonder the world spends 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook?

But it’s not all warm fuzzies and instant gratification. “Are Your Facebook Friends Stressing You Out? (Yes)” was an Atlantic headline last fall, with the magazine’s Megan Garber reporting that striving for more and more online friends leads most of us to make a constant “preemptive” effort to keep them all happy … or at least not unhappy. As our audience widens, our worlds and our various selves collide in ways that can affect what we allow ourselves to show. Garber writes, “All the careful tailoring we do to ourselves (and to our selves)—to be, say, professional in one context and whimsical in the other—d­issolves in the simmering singularity of the Facebook timeline.”

This last bit, 20-somethings like me are actually pretty bitter about: These platforms were originally created for the co­llege crew. And we were all having a hell of a lot more fun before our moms and bosses joined in. Now, most of us edit ourselves, at least to some degree. We’ll untag ourselves from unflattering pictures friends put up; we’ll think twice about many of our posts, lest our politics, language, bad spelling or w­hatever should anger one of the 600 pe­ople who will read them. You know, to be safe. To not sound stupid to people outside our immediate friend group, to not embarrass ourselves in some way. And, also, to not have arm fat.