The Internet is Also Real Life

The distinction between Real Life and the internet is frequently made. Particularly by people for whom the internet is not a big, or in some cases any, part of their social lives. But the internet is not on a different planet. It’s right here on Earth it was created by people and is made up of people just like Sydney or New York City or Timbuktu.

The internet is a huge part of my life, and has been since the early 1990s, when I was first introduced to the weird and wonderful World Wide Web. Oh, the glory of it.

I remember my very first email address. Hard to believe now, but back then email was a wonder. I could stay in touch with friends and family all around the world without stamps or envelopes or treks to the post office and without the insanely long waits.1

In those early days I spent a lot of time reading through various different rec.arts news groups. People exchanging opinions! As if they were in the same room! Except they weren’t! Woah! I joined loads of different listservs. I discovered weird and wonderful blogs and would lose days reading back through the archives. I even commented on some of them. By 2003 I had my own blog. Er, this one. In the last few years twitter has become a large part of my life and through it I have met many amazingly smart and witty an inspiring people.

Online I have found people who care about the same things as me. I’ve found communities I feel at home in. I loved it then and I still love it.

For twenty years now I’ve had many people in my life I think of as my friends whom I’ve never met in *cough* real life. But I know them. Not the way I know the people I’ve lived with. Not the way I know my closest friends. But in some cases I know my online friends better than some of my offline friends and acquaintances.

These online friends are not imaginary. We who spend big chunks of our lives online are real. We make each other laugh. We make each other cry. We annoy each other. We talk to each other several times a week. We fight bullies together. We share experiences. We care about each other.

When one of us dies it hurts.

Social media is not an abstraction. It’s real. It’s made up of real people, who live and die. Their deaths are real and painful.

  1. Okay, obviously, not entirely true. As with snail mail it all depends on how good a correspondent a person is. But in the first days of email we were all so excited we were amazing correspondents. Until the novelty wore off . . . []


  1. Stephanie Bittner on #

    People online are often such wonderful people, and sometimes they let parts of themselves out that you’d never see in person. I think the idea that people online aren’t real people is what leads to so much of the abuse and inconsiderate behavior that trolls (and others) get up to online.

    I’ve never been close to an online person who then died, but I’ve had people I thought were dear friends vanish, never to answer an email or a blog post again. It can be heartbreaking.

    • Justine on #

      I totally agree there are ways in which we sometimes reveal more of ourselves online than off. It’s beautiful.

      Yes, absolutely. It’s called online disinhibition effect. Unfortunately a fair amount of those trolls don’t think some of their targets are real people offine either. Such is their misogyny and racism. 🙁

      • Stephanie Bittner on #

        Some trolls seem to think they’re the only real people on the planet.

  2. Aline on #

    I find ‘real life’ to be kind of a fascinating term because it has such a variety of meanings and it’s by conflating these meanings that people often come to undermine the value of online friendships. Like, ‘real life’ is often used to discuss things and people you can feasibly physically share a space with and/or physically interact with, but it’s also used to discuss aspects of our identity that aren’t immediately evident or we don’t think of as necessarily relevant online (as in, IRL I’m 5’11, Mexican and a biology student; they’re not things you can easily tell online unless I make a point of mentioning it and depending on what we’re discussing, it’s not something I would often mention). At the same time, ‘real life’ has come to embody a set of things and people that we consider important and would often prioritise over other things and people – as in family and jobs and school – probably as a consequence of the other two meanings.

    I think a lot of people reach the conclusion that since some of the most important things in our life happen mostly offline, ‘real life’ is inherently more important, and that relationships online must be less real (or less honest) because people can choose how they present themselves (even though this is true in IRL interactions, too). But, as you’ve shown so well in this post, this is nonsense and comes from fallacious reasoning.

    • Justine on #

      Yes to all of this. Well said.

      It’s not like we stop being who we are when we’re online. It’s more that some aspects of ourselves are not immediately obvious. But it’s not like everyone we interact with in “real life” can tell all of the aspects of our identity either.

  3. Dustyn on #

    I find this correlates beautifully with a few items that have been on my mind lately. Thank you for posting, Justine. It helps to know that there are plenty who understand that IRL and “real life” doesn’t mean that any friend is any less than another. If this makes sense at all -.- sigh.

    • Justine on #

      My pleasure. I think we forget how relatively new the whole online world is. We’re still figuring out how to make sense of it, morally, ethically, legally etc.

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