The World Online: Real or Not?

My hand typing on my keyboard alongside the other things on my desk

Why is what I put online less real than this?

Is your online life “real”?

It’s an important question.  For many people, the “life” they experience online is detached somehow from the life they have in the “real” world.  Some people eschew the use of social media because they believe that it prevents them from connecting with people in the “real” world.

I hate that phrase: “the real world.”

When we interact with others online–whether in the context of social media, online gaming, email, voice-chat, or IRC–we are interacting with real people.  We are using our real bodies to interact.  What we do online is as real as anything else we do in our lives.

Yes, it is possible to construct an online persona that is different in some quantifiable or qualitative way from the persona that you project to people you meet away from your computer screen.  I think we are all guilty of using personae to protect ourselves both in our online interactions and offline.  We do that to protect ourselves.  Being completely honest about who you are is a very vulnerable place to be.  And, really, how many of us ever know who we truly are?  I think most of us spend our lifetimes constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing our identities.  Our online interactions are just one part of that.  Although aspects of the personality you present online might be different than the personality you use offline, I believe that, except in the case of deliberate dishonesty, we are experimenting with identity in both cases.

Some people will suggest that too much screen time leads to disengaging from social interaction in the “real world.”  For some people, like myself, interacting with people online provides more social interaction than we are likely to get offline.  If I was to cut myself off from the internet, would it drive me to socialize more with people offline?  Maybe, but it might also drive me deeper into social isolation and make me a lonelier and more depressed person.

Are friendships made with people we may never meet offline less real than those we make offline?  I don’t think so.  I am often more honest, open, and vulnerable with people online than offline.  Offline, I am constrained by social rules and shyness, which inhibits me from sharing openly or seeking out interaction with others.  Online, I share more freely, uninhibited by my attempts to read other people’s facial expressions or to provoke certain positive responses from them in conversation.  Offline, my fear of conflict and rejection can prevent me from being all of who I am.

Interaction online still requires the use of my physical body.  No one has yet invented a port that connects our minds directly with the internet, and even if they had, we would still need our physical brains to form the thoughts that are in our minds. (At least until they figure out if it is possible to “upload” our minds, and even then, we would simply be trading a body of flesh for a body of electrical…*ahem* I read a lot of sci-fi.)

So, I believe that our online life is just as real as our offline life.  In fact, I think if we integrate them both, it will help us to find a fuller understanding of “who we are” and, instead of being a barrier to relationship and communication, it can be a path to greater and deeper connection.

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8 thoughts on “The World Online: Real or Not?

    • 🙂 I’m not sure what you mean, but I agree that avatars bring a new layer to online identity. Is the avatar a real picture of me? Even if it is, how accurately does it represent who I am? In many places, I use avatars that are not true representations of my physical body, but might express an idealized version of me–or an alternate expression of my personality. They can be a great way to explore our personalities by expressing ourselves in ways our physical bodies aren’t capable of expressing.

  1. exreligiouschristian says:

    I completely with everything you’re saying here, when I was going through a time of deep depression and isolation from “real” people the internet and blogging was something that kept me going, I needed to hear the encouraging words of people I wasn’t having face time with and it allowed me to share things I might not have with my other friends.

    • I’m glad that you were able to find a community online during a time when you might have otherwise been isolated. During those dark times, it can be hard–seemingly impossible, even–to reach out to people offline. But it might be easier to turn on the computer and check the blog or the forum or Facebook. That’s still real human connection and can be a lifeline.

  2. Deborah says:

    This commentary is encouraging to me, Sarah, as someone whose online life has become almost her only life during illness. I feel like I’m constantly told that those friends are not real (and yes, there is no full substitute for IRL), and this makes me feel more isolated than I truly am. In reality, I have online connections who are willing to sometimes tread deep waters with me. They tend to be a bit on the fleeting side (when a blog shuts down or IRL gets busy), but they mean a lot to me ;).

    • Don’t let anyone tell you that folks like me aren’t real! 🙂 It’s true that offline social interaction is also really important. Studies show that getting hugs makes a real difference in people’s moods, for instance. But when an offline hug isn’t available, or when it’s too painful to find someone to share that with (due to physical or emotional pain), then online relationships can really step into the breach.

  3. alirthome says:

    I love that you mention thoughts like this because i hear few Christians speak this way. Then again i come from a small community and only hear the nutjobs on Youtube, but still, its a breath of fresh air.
    My husband and i have this argument constantly. Hearing the importance of physical interaction without giving much legitimate merit to online relationships. The best example we use is gaming. On one hand you have a gamer who spends 5 hours a day interacting with the game and some of the time speaking with other online gamers with whom he has to work with to achieve his goals. On the other hand, there is a similar person who also spends 5 hours in front of a screen, but passively watching programs. The person who watches tv usually speaks out against the gamer who is “wasting” his time playing games. Does this just mean we hate change (a whole other discussion) or are we too afraid to realize we are sitting passively for hours. Honestly, i know its both, plus probably a myriad of other things but for the sake of this extremely long winded comment 🙂 i think i’ll stick with just those two for now

  4. 🙂 I know exactly what you are talking about! People who are unfamiliar with online gaming can be very critical of it but really don’t seem to realize that they spend an exorbitant amount of time watching television. As you say, at least online gaming encourages interaction with other people (as well as engaging the player mentally).

    I heard a great story recently about an Everquest 2 player whose online community helped her through a really difficult time with (iirc) chronic illness. These people she didn’t initially know offline had a huge impact on her life. And helped her feel empowered…because pwning! 😉

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