As a teenager I spent hours, whole days really, just cruising around with my friends. In hindsight we never really went that far, certainly nowhere that lived up to the places we imagined, but that didn’t matter. For adults, a car is just a way to get to work, but for a kid, a car is a four seat mobile living room — a place to weave the stories that he’ll remember for a lifetime. It seems silly now, the hours driving up and down the El Camino, windows rolled down in the middle of winter in the absurd hope that we would meet girls. But I would never trade the wealth of those memories for any amount of Tweets or text messages.

Today we carry our social lives in our pocket. On the surface it may seem like a wonderful thing. Who could’ve imagined such a fantastic world in which we would always have our friends with us. But it’s a cruel illusion. They’re not actually there. The 4-inch screen in your hands can’t hug you, it can’t share a meal with you, or jump off a cliff  with you. Perhaps most painfully, it can’t even share a laugh with you. It can only show you the letters “LOL.”

All The World’s A Stage

Social Web utopians argue that the Internet has returned us to an interactive world, but for most people the social Web has taken us further and further away from real life. Worse, where TV shifted the center of our lives from the town square to our living rooms, the social Web has isolated us even more by shifting the center of our lives to a tiny screen inhabited by avatars of acquaintances — a screen we can access at anytime and anyplace to escape the burden of actual conversation.

Compared to television, which was a unidirectional broadcast medium, the Internet promised engagement. Instead of passive viewing, we would now be part of the action. But it succeeded too well. It didn’t just connect us, it made us part of the show.

What we thought would be a platform for conversing ending up being a platform for performing. We became semi-fictional characters competing for attention on virtual stages (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare) where everyone believed they deserved their 15 minutes of fame. Andy Warhol was mostly right, but instead of 15 minutes it would be 140 characters.

BlackBerry executives once described their device as something to make dead time more productive. Standing in line, stuck at the airport, or waiting for a bus could now be time used for email. Today that time is often filled with the social Web. We refer to the people we know there as “friends,” but they are really nothing more than amusement, a tiny show of characters there to fill the dead time. And just like television, we can turn them off or change the channel without the slightest hint of guilt or obligation.

The Lowest Form of Interaction

Last week someone commented about what a “rich online life” they lead, because they’re active on every platform. This strikes me as a bit sad, like someone saying they have a rich dating life because they have a profile on Match.com.

The online world is a fictional place, more akin to watching a reality show than living in the real world. Its usefulness as a tool is unquestioned, and I’ve used it to make first contact with many people who would later become friends. But those friendships were ultimately built on shared experiences, not on Facebook statuses or Tweets. Online updates represent the lowest form of interaction, sometimes useful and mildly entertaining, but far from being “rich.”

I often hear my friends joke about texting or chatting from room to room within their own homes, sometimes even while sitting in the same room as their husbands or girlfriends. I admit I’ve done this myself. But consider it as an indicator of just how disconnected we’ve become from one another that we choose to communicate through a medium of screens rather than a real conversation with all of the non-verbal cues that can’t be expressed by typing. What’s lost in translation is too great to measure. The Internet promised us interaction and conversation, but instead delivered a world of unavailing distraction.

Perhaps we’re drawn to the social Web because we can control it. We can present ourselves how we want with little fear of being exposed. It can be turned off and its demands are few. For these reasons, the digital world often seems to be a much better place than the uncertain real world. But it’s all a seductive illusion, and those who believe it an acceptable tradeoff for real relationships are sorely mistaken.

[For this who missed it, here's "The (dis)Connected World, Pt. 1".]

[Illustration be Hallie Bateman]