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.