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Are Social Media Making Us Antisocial?

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I woke up this morning refreshed and ready to face the news of the day on television, perhaps stories about the floods and fires devastating parts of our country, political skirmishes about the debt ceiling, or the most recent death tolls in the Middle East.

But stories about Representative Anthony Weiner's social media scandal continued to dominate the airwaves.

I turned on my computer and meandered over to Facebook, where I became pleasantly distracted by the postings of a few friends, and a lot of people I barely know, people I don't know and people I have never met. Everyone I bumped into was fully clothed, articulate and amusing.

I flew over to Twitter, where my stream was full of news that kept me busy clicking on links, laughing, reading and engaged.

Finally I decided to check my email. But when I found a message from a friend that I had somehow missed the week before, I felt guilty. How could I have missed this important message from someone I really cared about? A real, live friend. Who was I hanging around with these days, anyway? I wasn't in as much trouble as Anthony Weiner was, but I did often seem to know more about people that I didn't know than about the people I've known and loved for years.

Somehow social media had made me strangely antisocial. Keeping up with the world of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and that pack of people whose profile pictures seem to follow me everywhere I go online was keeping me from engaging with some of the people I'd known for decades.

I've tried my best to be my authentic self on social media (without sending intimate photos). I have on occasion sent heartfelt messages to people I've never met in real life. Some of those messages have led to friendships, and some have gone unanswered. I've received extraordinary emails from readers of a book I co-authored. But I know that I've probably not answered every single message I've ever received, and I'm not proud of that fact. I know that people are slipping through the cracks of my life, and I'm not sure that I can blame technology.

As I was pondering my life online, I suddenly heard a tweet.

A real, live one.

Outside my bedroom window, a persistent bird seemed to be trying to get my attention.

So I listened.

I turned off my computer, and made a conscious decision: I would try my best to catch up with my friends and my life in the real world.

I proceeded to take a walk around my neighborhood, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by birds chirping loudly. How had I never heard them following me around before now?

In a park by my house, I saw a grandfather playing hide and seek behind a tree with his grandson. A hipster in a groovy T-shirt strolled by me, listening to his iPod. Women jogged together, chatting. A golden retriever trotted by me with his owner, stopping to greet a mutt. On a quiet street, I saw an American flag rippling in the wind, and a man mowing his lawn.

I was present.

I stopped at the house of a friend I haven't visited in months. A real live friend. I rang her doorbell and we sat down for a chat.

We both ignored our buzzing BlackBerrys and her ringing telephone. She sliced up three juicy oranges and served them to me with a cold glass of water.

We talked about our children, our siblings and our lives. She pulled out her computer, but only to show me her favorite YouTube video, of a talking dog. We joined the 37 million other people who have watched this video and laughed.

On my walk home I stopped to admire some small white flowers blooming on a huge bush. Their scent was intoxicating. Birds continued to chirp all around me. The one in my backyard greeted me happily when I arrived home.

I've spent the last couple of years developing a meditation practice and have been thrilled with the results I've seen: my mind is clearer, my focus sharpened. Often the challenge for me now is where to place that focus, how to make life a walking, real-time meditation. I will return to social media sites and mingle with the wonderful people I've met online, but I will also try to be more present in my daily life, as well.

And no matter what distractions pop up in my life, there's a bird in my backyard whose tweets I will most definitely follow.

Priscilla Warner is the co-author of "The Faith Club." Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by the Free Press in 2011. Follow her progress on her blog, and meet her mother at www.rivaleviten.com.

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