When news broke that Kiersten Rickenbach Cerveny had been found “lying in the vestibule of a strange apartment building, underwear stashed in her handbag, dying of a likely drug overdose,” the shocking part of the story wasn’t her cause of death, but the way she had lived.
According to her Facebook account, she was a Long Island dermatologist and mother of three who looked happy and healthy, and enjoyed glamorous vacations, extravagant parties, and a $1.2 million home with her husband. The contrast seems unbelievable, yet it’s not uncommon.
Pew Research recently reported men have caught up with women at using social media, meaning the likelihood of virtual reality colliding with the real world has increased. Internet fantasy and real-life expectations can coalesce beautifully, but not always. More of us on social media doesn’t mean we should talk online more or engage in real-life situations less.
Men and Women Use Social Media Differently
In November 2010, Pew reported the gender gap between men and women using social media was as large as 15 percent. Now, just five years later, men use social media as much as women, although the sexes’ preferred platforms are different. More women use Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, while men tend to prefer Twitter and online forums.
This does match gender stereotypes: Facebook fosters relationships, and Pinterest encourages window-shopping, while Twitter can be a veritable news and sports nirvana, depending on who you choose to follow. Essentially, women use Facebook to connect with others; men use Twitter to trawl their favorite hobbies. Neither is bad, just different.
Controversy enters, however, when it comes to using social media—from messenger or even plain ol’ text. Women communicate just to communicate, while men communicate to retrieve information. This simple difference can cause a myriad of problems for men and women.
As this Thought Catalog author put it in “10 Reasons Why Texting Is Awful For Society and Ruining It Too”: “[T]exting is communication for the sake of communication. And if a man doesn’t text a woman as similarly or enthusiastically as she texts him, she becomes insulted and thinks he has no interest in her. She sees his lack of fervent texting as him not wanting to bond, and this will forever be a dilemma between men and women when they text.”
Does this mean men and women shouldn’t text? Perhaps not (although that author makes a persuasive case). But it is one of many reasons we should look up from our phones and engage people in real life more, if only to avoid frustration.
Everyone Is Always Sexy Online
Social media is frustrating because of how it allows everything to seem amazing. Now that men are as engaged as women, they’ll get sucked into this facade as much as women have been. This is caused by both social media’s limited scope and the burgeoning view that virtual reality is as real as reality.
For example, I recently met in person a friend whom I had only communicated with via e-mail. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “You look so different from your picture!” I wasn’t sure how to react or what that meant. Did I look better? Worse?
I laughed and told her I’d recently dyed my hair, which is true, but it didn’t ease my anxiety. Was I less attractive in person? I’ll wonder to my grave. In my friend’s defense, the only photo she’d seen of me was a professional one, my hair and makeup perfectly done, for which no doubt the photographer had done some photoshopping so I looked like the best version of myself.
Online, people can appear appealing and sexy at every posted moment. This goes beyond physical, sexual appeal, but includes articulate texts, tweets, Facebook statuses, and photos on Instagram and the like. As a writer, I’m prone to admiring the tweets and statuses of articulate friends and journalists. What’s sexier than a lede you wish you’d written? Or a photo with a caption that makes you think or cry?
This Wall Street Journal article dissected Beyonce’s Instagram feed, dubbing it the ultimate marketing haute couture. In every single photo, she appears elusive, glamorous, and stunningly sexy. This article is a funny yet poignant take on how Instragram photos are a stylized slice of messy life: “Without context, such nicely framed images, pretty filters, witty captions and hashtags break no boundaries, but rather strengthen a pre-defined taxonomy of what’s trendy.”
Everyone knows a person can’t possibly be sexy 100 percent of the time in real life, either in word or deed. That isn’t the problem. The problem is that we saturate ourselves so much in social media we start to act as if people can and should be always perfect in real life, too.
Pew reports that 59 percent of adult Instagram users they studied visit it daily, and 72 percent of online adults are Facebook users, amounting to 62 percent of all American adults. So when we devour these sexy people in statues or photos online, then find in real life they don’t quite match their avatar, or don’t look one in the eyes during conversation, we’re either annoyed or delighted, depending on personality and perspective.
Hold That Thought, Let Me Edit First
Another inherent flaw of increased social media use is how perfectly phrased, packaged, and presented the world appears online due to our ability to constantly edit. People can revise until they sound like the best version of themselves. Who hasn’t written an e-mail and left it as a draft because it didn’t quite read the way they wanted?
Editing is an essential practice in many professions (as my editors will attest). But in real life, edits are impossible. In real life, people don’t sound as good as they do on social media, and they can even make some really stupid, hurtful mistakes. For some people, merging from virtual reality into real life might not bend a fender; for others, it means a head-on crash.
Still, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. Not to sound like Oprah, but if we all lived like we say we do online, with pitch-perfect phrases and edited statuses, we wouldn’t make any mistakes. And if we didn’t make any mistakes, we wouldn’t realize our need to apologize and ask for forgiveness, and none of us would vow to become better people. Mistakes, not perfectly edited statuses, produce growth.
Real, Messy People Are the Best People
This ability to achieve the picture-perfect version of yourself, can (even just subconsciously) tempt one to remain so via the plethora of social media platforms, especially for an introvert. Why venture to a work cocktail hour or a neighbor’s home for dinner if you can just see the best, most expressive version of someone’s personality, work, or cause online?
In her essay, “Stop Googling. Start Talking,” Sherry Turkle says a woman she interviewed estimated it takes seven minutes to see “how a conversation is going to unfold,” and many young people lack the patience to wait that long before checking their phones. The “app generation […] tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.”
Indeed, real-life people can be so different from their virtual personas. They might be awkward, annoying, unattractive, rude, boastful, or boring. People might decide, after meeting someone in real life with whom they’d only communicated or “seen” online before, to keep their relationship virtual. If you’re on the receiving end of that decision, it might feel jarring, even devastating.
However, in real life a person might boast bad traits—and everyone has some—but they might also reveal many other good ones. You might discover a deep, guttural laugh; intense, expressive eyes; wonderful, endearing manners; or an easygoing demeanor. In person, and because they aren’t editing any more, someone might wind up telling you a remarkable truth, a secret she wishes to unveil, a doubt with which she’s wrestling, or a person she deeply appreciates.
Now that men and women use social media with equal frequency, will they choose to occasionally close their apps and tune in to the sights and sounds of real people and places they can touch and smell and hug?
Despite being a millennial and an avid user of social media, I still think I would rather look into the cobalt-blue eyes of a friend and enjoy his quirks and mannerisms, whether endearing or unusual. I’d still rather laugh with a friend over lunch than solely read her articulate, witty e-mails, than choose to hold myself hostage to a world of messages and photos that are staged and edited to look pristine.
Sure, real life is messy, because people are messy. But who remembers the greatest day they spent reading Twitter? Wouldn’t you rather remember the breakfast with a friend that you wish had lasted until dinner? Social media would have us look, behave, and speak perfectly, but it’s through our flaws we find our beauty, long for atonement, and strive to become better people.