What Social Media Has Taught Me About Distance and Human Behavior

This is going to make me sound old. I know this, because even thinking it makes me feel old. But when I was a kid, the Internet did not exist. Well, maybe it did, but it was a luxury nobody I knew in suburban New Jersey had access to. In fourth grade, I remember being introduced to a computer for the first time, and being forced to create a Father's Day card in Microsoft Word. The printer was this magical, omnificent mechanism. A titanic leap forward from the typewriter I fiddled with at home. I had no way of knowing the technological revolution that was about to explode around me.

But it wasn't moving quite swiftly enough to save my friendship with my classmate Justin. Because a couple of years later, while we were in junior high school, his family was moving to Indiana, and even I was smart enough to figure out that that was too far away to get bussed to my school. I remember walking up to him at his locker on his final day before the move, reaching out my hand to shake his. As an 11-year-old, I had no idea how to express sorrow to another 11-year-old. But I was unequivocally sad. Astonishing to think that, only a few short years later, Justin would've been a mere keystroke away.

As I tip-toed into adolescence, I was completely overwhelmed by a suite of products that would later morph into this thing called social media. Be it AOL Instant Messaging, chat rooms, or the almighty email, nobody ever felt far away, no matter their zip code. It was a monstrous communication shift for not only my group of friends, but the over-arching society. In the years since, I've become aware (sometimes painfully) of the effects that this shift has had on all of us.

With that said... some of them rage-inducing, some heartwarming, others somewhere in the middle... here are the things I've learned from my many years living the social media lifestyle...

It's never, ever okay to call someone fat or ugly. Unless, of course, you disagree with their politics or favorite sports team.

This is the lowest of low-hanging fruit, to hurl insults at someone's most obvious physical flaw. And it's completely void of creativity, decency... and most of all, effort. Say what you will about Governor Chris Christie. Call him out on his educational policies. But tell a fat joke to make your point, and your argument means as much as mine when I was 11.

People would rather go to the lengths of purchasing an item called a selfie stick than ask the stranger next to them to take a photo.

It's ironic that some folks use a platform known as "social media" to post photos of themselves sitting alone at a dinner table, with a plate of chicken marsala.

A LOT of sports fans still view calling someone "gay" as a terrible insult.

This was the norm when I was a fourth grader, before any of us knew better. Calling someone "gay" or "fag" was the harshest insult we could think to shout at someone for merely bumping into us in the hallway. Its connotation being that you were beneath others. As a man, I know better than that. Some don't.

I am a massive football fan. So, I often find myself reading NFL articles, perusing the array of memes scattered throughout the comment thread. And I cringe when I see things like "Romo is a homo!" If that's the best you can do, I fear for your offspring.

There are a ton of creative, talented people within your social circle.

Not everyone knows exactly how to harness it, but whether it be a video they created, a witty Photoshopping, or a clever play on words, I can't read a single comment thread on Facebook without coming across something I wish I'd come up with myself.

If a cause is worth their time, people will rally behind it.

The social network is a mighty, mighty thing. From something as critical as raising funds for a child with cancer to the sharing of a powerful blog post, if people feel strongly about something, they will pass on the word. As much as I've been disgusted by the hate that is spattered across social media, I am also heartened to see it being used for exactly the purpose it should be: to bring people together to share, help, and enlighten.

Plenty of people still think I care which song from The Eagles they are.

Seriously, not a single soul cares which character from Spongebob that Buzzfeed thinks you are. Totally cool if you take this test to find out on your own, but sharing daily results with your entire network is obscenely unnecessary and excessive. By the way, care to guess which of the Chipmunks I am? Simon, of course. I guess it's the glasses and general i-dotting.

We, as a collective society need the distraction that social media provides.

Okay, maybe we don't need it. But as a parent, I certainly appreciate the ability to escape to my Twitter feed during a bottle feeding when I can't watch the football game, or to scan the comments friends made on a photo I posted to Facebook earlier in the day. Don't get me wrong; it should come with a warning label. Some of us let social media take over our lives, creating silent dinner tables and this absurd mission for every social gathering to only be as strong as the Instagram photo it yielded. But at its essence, the technology that hovers an arm's length away is a monstrously powerful tool to be used to connect, laugh, and learn.

Last year, I was signed onto Facebook if for no other reason than to occupy my brain during a random lunch hour alone. The list of "People You May Know" populated, which at that point was something I zipped past like I would a street vendor holding a fluorescent flyer. But that day, I decided to engage in the time-suck. Three people in, I saw my old classmate Justin. He wasn't 11 anymore. He had a family. Reconnecting with someone I only knew as a child was surreal. As if we had been living on two separate islands and finally, a bridge was built between the two. We became "friends," exchanged emails. It was a cool moment, and for me, a prime example of the most crucial component of social media: to make the distance between us irrelevant. And this is important -- no matter which Eagles song you are.

Feel free to email me at jdeprospero@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.