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IRL or it Didn't Happen: Why We Still Dismiss the Digital

Ten years ago, Stephanie Tuszynski set out on a mission that concerned the internet, sociology and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Tuszynski, an American Culture Studies PhD candidate at the time, wanted to find out what it was that drew members of an online Buffy fan group, The Bronze, together. But she also wanted to discover what the community meant to them. Why was it important? Why did they keep going back? Was it even a 'real' community?

From the opening comments in the dissertation that resulted three years after Tuszynski began her study, it's clear that she felt it was still necessary to challenge persistent establishment dismissal of communities like The Bronze. When Tuszynski began her research, many academics refused to refer to such groups as communities.

We're not talking about the early, hesitant days of the web here. By 2006, we're talking about the post-dotcom bubble era when sites like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube were either already popular or on the brink of becoming global sensations.

And yet, Tuszynski noticed that die-hard fans of a popular TV show sharing their experiences and building relationships online were still considered insignificant by stalwarts. "Critics maintain that any social group which has no corporeal location and no face-to-face components cannot be recognized as a community," she wrote in her thesis. But she went on to add, hinting at the underlying purpose of her study: "The idyllic notion of community generally being defended by critics seems perhaps to be little more than nostalgic fantasy."

"The idyllic notion of community seems perhaps to be little more than nostalgic fantasy"

Tuszynski wanted to prove that academic institutions, being archaic and out-of-touch, had got it wrong. The Bronze was more than fantasy, it was irrefutably reality.

And Tuszysnki was not alone in feeling that the digital had been erroneously overlooked. In late 2011, Alexandra Samuel gave a TEDx presentation which confronted public dismissal of online activities as trivial or not real. Reacting against the ubiquitous initialism "IRL", Samuel quizzed her audience, "What if we stopped apologising for the time we spend online and commit to what we're doing online?"

Online friends were real friends, online work was real work, online play was real play. By late 2011, the public were so committed to the digital that Samuel's argument seemed to be stating an obvious, yet unspoken truth: the IRL meme posed a false dichotomy that was preventing us from taking the online seriously.

Buffy fans are real.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, partly as a reaction to books, essays and lectures which continued to descry the booming social web as some sort of distracting pestilence, social theorists like Zeynep Tufekci and Nathan Jurgenson attempted to thwart misconceptions about why the digital was anything but fake or purely transient.

Larger studies on the subject were reported under headlines like "line between online and offline life continues to blur," for example. And I recently interviewed a behavioural sciences researcher who told me that the subject of his own study in computer-mediated interaction was initially dismissed as nonsensical "txt spk" that had no real impact on lives or experiences. That, he told me emphatically, was demonstrably untrue.

Just like for Tuszynski in her 2003 survey, the greatest allies for any advocate have always been the real, everyday people who continue to demonstrate, without being prompted, that they live real lives online and offline. They naturally, as it were, adopted online interaction as part of their social world. Academia was just awkwardly, if unsurprisingly, slow to catch up.

The backlash against foolish misconceptions continues, and it is a battle that may rage for a very long time. Not least because the same allies who helped prove that "IRL" was a misnomer are, curiously, the very same people who use that term most freely.

 

 

Head over to Twitter and search for "in real life" (include quotation marks) among all recent tweets. You'll see hundreds of people making wry observations about the differences between the offline and the online.

If you asked them whether they really mean that everything online is fake, they'd probably laugh and say that's not quite what they are saying. They'd probably admit it's real enough, but they can do stuff there they can't do "in real life" [face-to-face]. Or, perhaps, that they're more immediately aware of falsehood and deception online:

 

 

People lie "IRL" constantly, but there is a commonly held perception that people deceive each other more readily and self-gratifyingly on the internet. Like the dog who goes online in New Yorker cartoons without being identifiable, so too may any one of us pull digital wool over our online friends' eyes. The popular obsession over "catfishing", however overblown, suggests a widespread cultural anxiety of public duplicity that is difficult to relocate away from other, more positive connotations of the web.

In that list of recent tweets you searched for you will also see people talking about dreams, TV shows, movie stars and even school as contexts which seem diametrically opposed to "real life". Before the world wide web, we were still deeply embedded in things which we insisted on referring to as unreal, despite the fact that we actually might have spent the majority of our time there - and despite the fact that they influenced us to a greater degree than we were prepared to admit. (Just like the internet.)

Real life is always just around the corner. We're constantly trying to resolve our unreal experiences towards it so that they can somehow be validated. It's a kind of ontological neurosis, but we all display it and, I would like to suggest, there are plenty of reasons for its persistence.

However inseparable from reality, the digital is still understood as a place where elements of fantasy play out every day.

For one thing, we still explore the potential of the internet to bring us away from our "real" (in the sense of unavoidable) responsibilities as human beings. The Verge recently discussed the ongoing, if muted, popularity of Second Life where British woman Fee Berry, "doesn't have to be a graying 55-year-old mom; she can keep the bright eyes and warm smile, but can pinch, tuck, and pluck the other bits so that she becomes 25-year-old Pendragon, a vampish babe with full lips, long jet black hair, and heavy eyeliner."

And yet in the same article the author, Chris Stokel-Walker, reports anthropologist Tom Boellstorff's comments on the many people who use the Second Life environment for nothing more than sitting around and watching TV with their friends. "An entire world of opportunities out there and people choose to be couch potatoes. It is, eerily, just like real life," comments Stokel-Walker wryly.

That malleable quality, that sense that the web may be just like real life but is in fact packed with more opportunity and variety, is what leads to a lot of the instinctively expressed doubts that what is online represents what is offline. It must, therefore, be unreal. Is this the real life, we ask, echoing Freddy Mercury, or is it just fantasy? The real, in contrast to everything else in the popular imagination, has to be hard, serious, physical, intransient and boring. The rest is just too good to be true.

"The real, in contrast to everything else in the popular imagination, has to be hard, serious, physical, intransient and boring"

Another major problematising factor, and something I have been thinking about for a long time, is the perceived dichotomy between the written word of the digital and the spoken word of the offline. As a medium, services like Twitter confound both our traditional understanding of speech as ephemeral and our legal system's insistence on treating the written word as flatly distinct from the spoken. Until very recently, the web was a place where people could make jokingly conversational quips about blowing up airports only to rapidly find themselves in jail and unemployed.

Nothing like the "Twitter Joke Trial" demonstrates better our cumbersome ability to decide what online behaviour actually means to us as people, society or system. Paul Chambers was forced to endure trial, appeal, a High Court appeal and a second High Court appeal before at last, in June 2012, a reversed judgement was conferred, upturning his conviction of two and a half years before.

To the reasonable person it looks like madness, but in the end we may put it down to the fact that Chambers' innocent tweet, being written down online, was anything but easily forgotten. In fact, it was all too real for some - particularly the law enforcement officers and members of the Crown Prosecution Service apparently unaware of any precedent that would let them ignore his statement.

People are constantly noticing the strange differences between the digital written word, which we use conversationally, and the "real" conversations we have verbally outside of the web. The following tweet is amusing as an example of this and it is also as a tweet which has been copied and pasted hundreds of times since December 2011 (this is the earliest instance I can find):

 

 

It's a popular piece of observational comedy because it makes an obvious thing seem less obvious. We don't need to think about the differences between these two types of communication since we generally use them in their proper places without feeling awkward about which goes where.

And yet, via "IRL" tweets and status updates, we notice the little things which appear to separate digital from non-digital. There is no need to explain to most of these people that their online activities are real too - I suspect they already know that (though their parents, school-teachers and local police officer may need a helping hand if they are less familiar with the web).

IRL tweeters get enmeshment because they live it. But what they pick up on, understandably, are the little "sore thumbs" which stick out in online interaction. The things which trouble them here and there and, however falsely, imply dichotomy.

"IRL tweeters get enmeshment because they live it"

Some of this goes back to a fundamental fear of the computer itself. Indeed, an awareness that computers are quite stupid and don't understand us well. The original man vs. machine dichotomy informs our instinctive rejection of the digital as something that doesn't really "get" us as humans because we are supposedly complex beings. "It's a machine's world, don't tell me I ain't got no soul," (to quote Freddy Mercury again). When we express something through a computer, are we really being true to ourselves? Or has the medium stolen our message?

In order for us to accept digital experiences neatly as part of reality, they would have to slide under all of our unreasonable, backwards-facing assumptions about that reality unnoticed. A difficult ask when one considers that so much about new technology, including social media, is designed to draw us away from the inefficiencies of the present and past. We inevitably flinch at its newness precisely because the digital is primed to disrupt.

And we are expressing the effects of that disruption all the time, as I have noted. That it gives the digital a bad name is deeply unfortunate because it holds us back in the fight against institutions and laws which don't know how to interpret online communication. But all the same, the establishment is, however slowly, beginning to turn its head to face in the right direction.

Still. We, as trailblazers, could be much, much better at giving credence to and unpacking the observations made by people who continue to suggest that real life is tragically elsewhere. We could listen far more sympathetically to those whose online experiences, however vast and rich, often come to rest on a sense of unparalleled longing for something more. For theirs is the most human response. They simply yearn for truth, they dream of the distant real.

 

 

Photo: "Sunset at Fishermans Cove" by Alpha Alt. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo: "Anthony Stewart Head Giles in Buffy" by fluterirl. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Photo "Weddings in Second Life" by rafeejewell. Rproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.

Update: A previous version of this article stated that Stephanie Tuszynski was a Media and Communications PhD candidate. In fact, her doctorate was in American Culture Studies (Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio).

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