Wake up. Check your Facebook. That meme you reposted sparked some conversation. Feel good about it. Change your profile picture. It gets a couple near-instant likes. Feel even better. Check your Tumblr. Scroll through your Instagram. Tweet tweet.
I’m not the first to say it — we exist online a lot more than we used to. We spend hours crafting our online personalities to most accurately represent how we feel at each moment. We gather information about ourselves by uploading photos and videos and seeing how others respond. But how much is this supplanting the effort to improve ourselves and our relationships in real life?
A few years ago, we’d talk about girls with “the angles,” MySpace queens with names like ForBiddeN and Tina Tiara™ who had thousands of “friends” and even more picture comments.
But today, in this age of “Catfish” and what the hip digital magazine Thought Catalog keeps referring to as the “New Disconnectedness,” nearly everyone finds gratification from connecting through social networks.
Today we meet people at parties, add them on Facebook and then creep incessantly on their interests and photos. Instead of asking to meet them for coffee, we send picture messages of what we made for dinner. Instead of taking them to shows, we send YouTube links. And of course, at 1 a.m., when that post-$2 single-wells loneliness sets in, we shoot our crush a Facebook IM. Because showing up at his or her door would be so desperate.
I’ve noticed myself falling into this trap in the last two years. I used to call friends or boyfriends out of the blue, ask what their plans were for the evening and then try to meet up. But now, I find myself charting their activity on Facebook and Twitter. If they’ve posted some vague status about fun, I immediately feel bad that I’m not having fun yet, and I won’t contact them. Even worse, I have occasionally posted a “Who wants to go to such-and-such with me?” status. And we all know those only end badly, when that one strange boy who comments on all your pictures says he would love to, and what time should he pick you up.
Of course, there are benefits to having a mostly online identity. We emphasize certain aspects of our lives so we can offer up an image of our best selves. I sure as hell don’t upload pictures of myself on days when I look anything less than impossibly fresh and radiant. And I don’t post videos or links to topics that I don’t want people to know I’m interested in.
But the disadvantages outweigh the benefits. Existing online breeds passivity to communication IRL. When I stand outside of a show and people tell jokes, I get an urge to “like” what they say instead of engaging. This passivity hinders us in our abilities to meet people whilst out and about, to gauge interest and to fall in love. It used to be that people got to know each other slowly — through asking questions and sharing experiences. People grew closer and shed their layers like two little onions. Now, a quick scroll through someone’s Tumblr is all it takes to peg his or her personality.
But the Internet is not going to disappear, so a solution is necessary. I propose a balance of two mostly congruent personalities, online and in-person, that take turns holding center stage in our quest for self-betterment. We don’t need to delete our Facebooks, but we need to know when to close our laptops. We need to use online networks to become closer to people we’re close with IRL. We don’t need to use the Internet as the only means of connecting with other humans. I’ve started writing letters with my long-distance friends — it’s a refreshing change to read a narrative without any ads or hashtags. Plus, it feels great to open a mailbox and pull out that envelope with your name on it. Trust me, there’s no app for that.