We're beyond over-sharing—we're perma-sharing. Between texts, Twitter, and Facebook, we have more vessels for venting than we have thoughts worth sharing. So you might assume, with all these ways to communicate, that a friend in trouble will make it obvious to everyone. Don't. Don't assume anything.
If you had any pals or family anywhere near Hurricane Sandy, you might've wondered, even briefly, about their safety. And a lot of them probably assuaged that worry with a status update—"I'm fine!" Or, if it wasn't that clear a statement, then there was at least some kind of electronic transmission that confirmed they still had a heartbeat. A mild complaint about the storm on Facebook, you might think, is proof that the storm hadn't ruined their lives completely.
Maybe you were proactive—you checked in yourself, with an "Are you alright??" wall post, or a "Hope everyone in NJ is safe" tweet. Maybe you even got some positive replies.
None of that is enough.
It's never been easier to pretend than it is today. Social media give us civilization's strongest tool for denying reality. Are you broke as hell? That doesn't matter—share a picture of your speakers. Is your social life in the musty gutter? Nothing a picture of you with your arm around some stranger can't remedy. Even if your existence is horrible, pathetic, and devoid of any meaning, just write "Feeling great today." You're feeling great? I'll take your word for it. Because when everyone has hundreds (if not thousands) of friends, it's just not possible to put everything they say under real scrutiny.
The web is great for volume, but for the deep touch, you still need to act like an actual human being. You need to actually hear someone's voice—or at least pull a long, private email out of them. We're all insecure, finite monkeys who don't want to admit weakness and fragility in a place where thousands of people can read it. That's normal. It's not normal to expect someone to put forth their panic, storm anxiety, fear, and general angst on Facebook. We put the people we want to be on Facebook, not the people we are. And sometimes those people are generally terrified of a storm—or something else—and not doing fine. You'll never know unless you truly ask.
Call someone if you're worried about them. Write a note. Go visit them if they're nearby. And please, please—just because your mom is on Facebook and in unrelenting, often irritating virtual contact with you doesn't mean you can stop calling her.
It's more important than ever to be a real friend, and not just a Facebook friend. Maybe the next Timeline update will solve this—but for now, there's no substitute.
User Manual is Gizmodo's guide to etiquette. It appears as if by magic every Friday.
Photo still from "Kidnapped" (1971).