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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