We often talk about finding our "place in the world." The language we use here is immensely revealing; it suggests that we each somehow fit into the scheme of things. And of course this is true. As hackneyed as it may sound, no one is an island. We are all constantly engaged in the process of reaching out to others, of locating our place in a vast network of social and professional connections. There have always been ways of doing this, but we children of the digital age know that there is one, most effective tool: the Internet.
But like any tool, it can be mishandled. There are fewer and fewer differences these days between what we might call 'real' and 'virtual' interactions. I can like, comment on, or share my friends' thoughts (as I can, to some extent, in conversation) and thereby feel that I'm involved. But we must not forget that the online personas and relationships we cultivate ultimately lack the three-dimensionality of our real-life selves. That is, a 'like' or new friendship can furnish us with a sort of immediate satisfaction, a quickened heartbeat, a feeling of excitement or even possibility. But this feeling is transient.
If we treat these cyber interactions as genuine ones -- that is, if we try to overextend the use of this tool -- we will find ourselves disappointed. I could get 100 likes on a photo (no, I wish I could get that many), but that would not amount to 100 friends. I'm not saying that online validation isn't a legitimate way to seek comfort, nor am I saying that there aren't myriad functions of social media that we cannot perform in the actual world. I am simply saying that online communication doesn't translate in a one-to-one way into real-life friendship. In fact, treating online interactions as if they constitute true connection will ultimately lead to a feeling of disconnection -- it's like coming down from the social media drug.
We will continue to find new and, I'm sure, exhilarating ways to connect online. And while we do, we must not lose sight of the boundaries between real and virtual life. We must remember to define ourselves by how we act in the world, and not how we appear online. If we define ourselves by the latter, we are propagating a culture of seeming rather than one of truly being. And, personally, I would rather be happy than seem it.
This is a contemporary issue, of course, but the question of seeming versus being is as old as philosophical reflection on the human condition. In Book II of Plato's Republic, Glaucon asks Socrates whether he would rather be a just man or merely appear to be one. The answer to this question is a complicated one -- and I ask you to contemplate it yourselves -- but the question itself strikes at the heart of the dichotomy between seeming and being and at the relative values we ascribe to each.