I recently took a step back from social media because I found things getting to be quite intense and wanted to reflect on the role it’s played in both my personal and professional life. No, there weren’t any heated arguments or steamy love affairs. Instead, I found myself falling into a trap that many people fall into when it comes to social media — getting too immersed.

As I’ve shared with many of the “friends” I’ve connected with via social media, I first joined sites like Twitter, Facebook and other social networking services to promote this blog. But a funny thing happened on the way to blog stardom — I started really connecting with people and just about professional topics like public speaking but about goals, dreams and even challenges. It’s been wonderful to establish real connections with friends from not just all over the US but from all over the world as well — in fact, I will be posting links to a few of the websites of some of the amazing people I’ve met through social media.

So while I have a big family that I try to keep up with as well as a couple dozen close friends, I slowly added a few hundred other “friends” to the mix over the past year or so. I love being around people and making new friends (and yes business connections — my initial intention of making social media contacts) so it’s been thrilling for me to hope on the computer each day and see an encouraging note from someone halfway across the world or someone that lives only a couple towns away from me.

The funny thing about it is that these people seemed more real to me than some people I know in real life. They aren’t afraid to hide their problems, their flaws or their failures. In fact, so many of them share these personal stories with the hopes of preventing others from experiencing the same pain. So many of these people have become such fun to interact with that I sometimes feel like I’m addicted to my computer — I’ve caught myself running over to my PC to check on things while I’ve had pasta boiling on the stove (fortunately, it’s never boiled over).

Of course, real people have real problems and that’s what’s become the big eye opener for me. I’m not talking about quirks or oddities either. I’m talking about serious challenges such as terminal illnesses, sick children, physical handicaps and abuse in their past. Of course, there are those with their share of relationship troubles, financial hardships and career problems as well. I’ve read about people with these types of problems my whole life — just pick up your local newspaper and you’ll see people with all of these problems.

But what changes it is that the people with problems aren’t just a paragraph in an article or a photo anymore. The game changer is that these people are out there interacting with others and you can see it. And if you interact with them, you might find that they are truly inspirational in the way they deal with things. They are no longer a story, they are a friend with a story and that story hits home. It’s never easy to see someone you care about suffer and it’s even tougher when you see some of these amazing people hit their breaking point. I feel so helpless at times as I want to say something, but I’m not quite sure what to say. I want to be encouraging and let them know that things will be okay. I pray for them (I even light candles for them at my church) and offer to listen to them. Sometimes, all I can do is let them know I’m thinking about them — and I’m not sure if that helps or not.

All of the friends I’ve made through social media have been a gift in some way or another. Whether we’ve had some spirited debates about politics, shared advice or stories or just paid each other a complement, so many of the photos I see in my streams just instantly bring a smile to my face. But the biggest gift I’ve received is the lesson I’ve walked away with — there are real people out there with real stories and you better be ready for that. My friends that don’t get social media talk about the “Social Media Trap” — they think of things like Farmville or mafia wars or chatting it up with strangers that only are able to connect with people online. While there is a trap to social media (and admittedly, I selfishly need to give myself a break from it from time to time) that trap is actually a gift in disguise.

The Social Media Trap
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