It’s taken awhile for me to realize my online life and my offline life aren’t mutually exclusive.

I’M A LONG DISTANCE friend hoarder. I started pen-palling at the age of six, and by high school, was receiving up to three letters a day. I thrived on this sort of contact; I practically craved it. I bought pink pretty stationery and I started collecting friends like postage stamps.

Then I was introduced to the world of Livejournal, and then Facebook, and then Twitter and my god—now there’s Google+! What will I do with all these friends?! I have nearly 1000 Facebook friends. Who the hell are you people? Where did you come from?

I don't either, with grammar like that. Photo by tomislavmedak

My personal mantra has always been “people are worth knowing,” but these past few months I have begun to feel a certain detachment with my social media involvement. I read terribly impersonal press releases and my heart plummets. I actually received an advertising request last week addressed to another friend’s website, obviously copied-and-pasted.

It’s hard to merge the online and offline worlds, but it’s possible. I had to take a step back recently to more critically analyze social media’s influence on my relationships, both personal and professional. Here’s what I figured out.

Social media should not determine your dating life

Facebook is like a magical window into the lives of your romantic interests. I can’t help but sometimes use it like a job application: I study the guy I’m into, his interests, the things being shared on his wall. And then when I get heartbroken, I wonder about the chick posting inside jokes. What does SHE mean to HIM?

First of all, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter make it easy to judge someone. The photos I have of myself drinking vodka from a mason jar may seem to be tasteless, but my friends rarely take photos unless we’re dressed up for a special occasion. Similarly, the girl posting on his Facebook wall is probably his sister.

Photo by Undertow851

This is the classic example for “unfriending” someone to get them out of your news feed. If you say “but it’s okay to remain Facebook friends, I’m over it!” then you’re not over it. A wise friend once told me the opposite of “love” is “indifference.” This may not be entirely true for some, but it’s worthwhile to examine your own feelings about why you feel the need to keep someone around who has left you in a pitiful heap.

Then there’s the “relationship status” option. Mine has remained single for over four years. My mother asks about the girls in my pictures, questioning whether or not I’m a lesbian. Last year, my friend Chris and I changed our Facebook relationship status to “in a relationship,” as a joke, and the Internet exploded. I’m not even kidding. We received DOZENS of inquiries, some people expressing disbelief, others apparently expressing dismay over me no longer being able to hang out all the time. Someone questioned whether or not it was a joke. I was a little offended.

Remove the option entirely. Who cares if people know you’re single or not? The act of solidifying a relationship through Facebook is absurd. When it’s time to remove that “in a relationship” status, it’s painful.

Social media can make us unhappy

Online geekdom.

I thought I was a total weirdo for sometimes clicking through photos of myself, wondering what other creepers are thinking of me, but apparently I’m not alone. This confession probably still makes me a weirdo, but whatever.

Social media has the ability to make us profoundly unhappy. Sometimes I see other people posting pictures of their babies, their families, their weddings, their new career accomplishments…and sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes when I’m sitting alone in bed on a Friday night wiping my Doritos-smudged hands on my bedspread looking at wedding pictures from my ex’s special day, it gets depressing.

Understand half of these people are lying about their perfect lives. Understand everyone likes to bullshit every now and then. It’s likely that the same person you’ve been comparing yourself to is clicking through your photos sobbing about how he or she doesn’t have your awesome group of friends.

You actually can have too many “friends”

You can’t please everyone, and you certainly can’t meet everyone you talk with. When I was in Vancouver for TBEX 2011, I was overwhelmed by the effort of trying to network with a million different people all attending the conference. Eventually I threw in the towel and thought, you know what? I’m gonna make a few good friends rather than a million acquaintances.

Social Media Examiner cites a sociologist named Pierre Bourdieu who studied how people in top leadership positions have gained “social capital” by using large networks that were “loosely organized and not particularly intimate.” Great for business, I’m sure. If using social media for networking then yeah, a broad network is amazing…but those contacts aren’t available for emotional support. And while I’m always completely eager to meet new people, sometimes I have to remind myself to pay attention to the old.

Photo by author.

BUT…you can build a solid reputation

My followers–given the respect and acknowledgement they each deserve–will loyally back my endeavours and offer a referral whenever possible. The amount of freelance work and travel opportunities I’ve gained through my Twitter and Facebook accounts is phenomenal. It’s how I scored my free backpacking trip through the Rockies with Moose Network.

People know me as someone who cranks out Newfoundland content. I’m attending a writers festival in Newfoundland’s Woody Point next month because the tourism board recognized my blog. Sometimes I’m surprised by the contacts I make: last week I posted the receipt from the bottle depot showcasing the 570 empty beer bottles and 78 empty wine bottles I just cashed in, because the whole thing was so amusing.

Honesty works, too.

Developing NEW, long-lasting relationships

In an article by Social Implications, Jennifer Mattern describes how “social media tools have the ability to serve as a stepping stone to deeper and more personal relationships with those we want to build them with.”

This is where the real value in social media lies.

Some of the relationships I have formed through Facebook, Twitter and blogging have lead the way towards lifelong friendships and people I truly, madly, deeply care about. Yeah, it’s enough to quote Savage Garden. I met Cailin O’Neil last May after we had been twittering back and forth with each other. She had never been to Newfoundland, so I invited her for a visit. By the time we hiked Signal Hill after her arrival one sunny afternoon, we became great friends. Since then I’ve spent several weeks at her home in Halifax, driven around Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and we both embarked on a Cross-Canada road trip just last month…a trip we entirely planned through social media. Tourism reps in Winnipeg, Manitoba found us using our #CCCC Twitter hashtag and then took us out for brunch at the Tallest Poppy, and we met a gaggle of Banff reps in Alberta for beers at the Banff Ave Brewing Co.

Cailin and I in northern Ontario.

We were able to connect through a common interest—travel and life without strings attached—and we beat the status quo. While I absolutely adore my friends at home, they’ve been known to refer to my wanderings as “spiritual self-discovery hippie trips.”

I haven’t even met some of the folks I consider good friends, like the entire Matador Life crew. Sometimes our social media relationships are superficial. Sometimes that person you’ve been talking to for MONTHS ends up being a total wanker–like the time I arranged to meet up with a fairly prestigious travel blogger THREE times, and he gave me the ditch–but sometimes weeding through the masses is worth it.

Find balance

It’s like anything else in my life: I had to find balance. I balance work and play, family and friends, online and offline. I’ve had to close the RSS feed, shut down my social media feeds, and go for a walk. Hang out with friends, have some coffee.

The real rewarding part of forming these relationships online is when you move them offline. In some cases, when your friend lives halfway around the world, this is impossible. But when I’m off to an organized local Tweet-Up, and my friends tell me they think it’s bizarre to hang out with strangers, I point out we were all strangers at one point before we spent time together. And not even witty Facebook banter replaces talking with a friend, face-to-face.

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