Why Social Media Isn't Social

The rise of Internet-based innovations promised to connect us together, to unite us in an egalitarian community of billions of individuals, sharing our lives through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, and more. But social media's effects are anything but social, they're a crutch -- a crutch on which we lean instead of learning how to interact and communicate with others effectively.

I believe that social media does two unfortunate things: It allows individuals to put on masks and hold up shields.

The Social Media Mask

Have you ever noticed that the lives' of your ostensibly boring friends always seem way more interesting on social media sites? That's because these sites and apps allow us to choose an impressive filter for our lives, making boring exceptional and mediocre exciting.

And thus, we spend our lives keeping up with the Virtual Benjamin's; creating an online persona that rarely looks anything like us -- a cybernetic facelift, if you will. We create an image of a certain type of person: someone who is smart, funny, witty, has good taste, fun friends, an interesting life, someone who doesn't just live life, but lives a grand life. We experience the world, and we do it while looking fabulous.

We accomplish this in a million micro ways. Everything from tweeting about the fun people we're (and you're not) with, to posting pictures of our delicious (and expensive) dinner. Or maybe an update about our wonderful significant other who treats us way better than your crappy ex treated you. And we're not crafting this 'image' for a stranger on eHarmony; we're doing it to our friends and our family. It's a cross between straight up bragging and straight up lying. Social media allow us to put on these masks to become someone we're not.

But what's really wrong with that? On one hand, we're free to be whomever we'd like. But it does something else to us, too. We check, tweet, update, post, and 'like' things constantly. And now we're living in a world where hours spent on Facebook in the U.S. went up 700 percent between 2008 and 2009. Where 30 percent of people in the U.S. used social media in 2008, and 72 percent do today. Where 50 percent of worldwide Internet users are plugged in to social media, and an expected 71 percent will be by next year. We're living behind this mask more and more.

We soon may live in a world with completely unreal expectations about ourselves and about each other. Your date isn't quite as pithy at dinner as he was over Facebook chat? That's because he and his friends took five minutes to craft each zinger online.

Focusing on cultivating our online persona is a crutch and the expense is our real-life persona. It's the willful commodification of who we are. By crafting our image like a celebrity, we become unattainable and unrelatable. And that's a darn shame, because we're good people with a lot to offer, even if that real world truth can't be conveyed in 140 characters.

The Social Media Shield

In a lot of ways, the Internet has become a shield. Take two minutes and look at the comment section of nearly any article on sites like the Huffington Post, or -- worse yet -- YouTube. You'll find the most vitriolic, hurtful, and malicious comments imaginable. They'll be racist, homophobic, misogynistic, and down right mean-spirited.

But does it really matter? I'm not sure; it's certainly been talked about a lot as of late. But maybe these anonymous posts and thoughts are just filler in an online world from which we can shield ourselves from any repercussion or consequence.

Of greater interest to me is that this shield is used on our friends and family, too, even if we don't do it on purpose. The shield makes difficult conversations far more palatable than face-to-face communication. Like keeping up with the Virtual Benjamin's, avoiding personal interaction didn't start with the advent of social media and technology, but it has become easier and more accepted when we hide behind our online shield.

Whether you're ignoring a text, scrolling through Facebook on your iPhone at a party, or tweeting passive aggressively, it's skirting real-life interaction for an easier alternative. And that is a breakdown in communication, a crutch on which we lean when things get tough.

The Real Problem

Social media are great in a lot of ways. The let us share memories with family across the country and world. They let us keep in contact with old friends and get connected with new ones. Social media can, arguably, contribute to positive social and political change. But we have to be careful, too. Our phones and computers give us a shield to hide behind when we want to say or do mean things and a mask to don in order to change who we are, which means not that we have to forego social media, but that we have to be vigilant about how and for what we use it.

Feeding ducks bread can be detrimental to their health. Bread has little nutritional value; it can lead to overcrowding, disease can spread, and most often, if fed from an early age, ducklings do not learn how to forage for food. And so, when the bread is taken away, the duck can die because it doesn't have the skills to find food on its own.

Granted, we're not ducks, and the metaphorical relationship is tenuous at best, but a precedent is being set, right now, within the world of social media. The precedent is that it's okay to be mean, to take the easy way out, to brag ceaselessly about ourselves, and to lie -- as long as we do it online. But that's a poor excuse.

Now that we have these virtual worlds at our fingertips, our voracious appetite is clear. The crutch of social media that removes us from the real world is detrimental to our relationships. Friends, family, lovers -- these individuals need and deserve real communication and we're giving them short shrift if we keep falling back behind our masks and shields. It's a breakdown of social interaction, ironically, since social media peddles itself as the height of social interaction.

What can we do?

We can start by forcing ourselves not to fall prey to the ease with which we can communicate over social media instead of in person. We can be conscious of the fact that virtual-life isn't the same as real-life. In fact, it is a sad substitute.

This is what I fear: that when stripped of our social media crutch, like the ducklings losing their bread, we will forget -- or never learn if we start young enough -- how to communicate, to interact, to make friends, to fall in love, and carry on a conversation, unless we force ourselves to beat back this notion that social media can be a replacement for real-life, person-to-person interaction.

It isn't. And the longer we use it like that, complete with our misleading masks and sturdy shields, the more we'll lose one of our greatest gifts: the ability to argue, to disagree, to make mistakes, to be honest, to say what we think, and to take other people's feelings into consideration. In other words, to talk.

And if we lose that, then the duck metaphor rings true on a whole new level.