Online Life Is Real Life

internet collage

illustration by jessalyn aaland

You know the pattern: trolls infect message boards; disrespectful thoughts are voiced in comments; vile hatred and immature squabbling is shrugged off… all because this online world we both inhabit at this very moment (me writing, you reading) is considered an escape from reality.

Lovers and friends make acquaintances via dating sites, games, and social networks. A global conversation occurs over an electronic medium. Cultures collide, meld, and leak over into each other’s midst all without physical contact.

And still, we shrug off these situations (good and bad) like poor substitutes for living. You wouldn’t believe how many people do not think meeting your partner online is a valid. Or that your friendships that develop through a game or a chat room could possibly hold the meaning of the friends local to you.

But are these virtual experiences and venues any less valid or effective than those that happen in person? Look at all that we accomplish through virtual avenues: raising funds and awareness for global causes; connecting people who can change the world from thousands of miles away; spreading knowledge and ideas to those who may not have access to them otherwise; and, on a personal note, helping people like me learn how to see the world and my place in it in a totally new way. The online world brings change, freedom, and so much more.

Why do we discount an online life? Why do we act as if “Real Life” is always more meaningful, respectful, and worthy of our care? Why do we act differently online than we think is appropriate in “Real Life”?’

Here’s what Alexandra Samuel says at the Harvard Business Review:

It’s time to start living in 21st century reality: a reality that is both on- and offline. Acknowledge online life as real, and the Internet’s transformative potential opens up:

  1. When you commit to being your real self online, you discover parts of yourself you never dared to share offline.
  2. When you visualize the real person you’re about to e-mail or tweet, you bring human qualities of attention and empathy to your online communications.
  3. When you take the idea of online presence literally, you can experience your online disembodiment as a journey into your mind rather than out of your body.
  4. When you treat your Facebook connections as real friends instead of “friends”, you stop worrying about how many you have and focus on how well you treat them.
  5. When you take your Flickr photos, YouTube videos and blog posts seriously as real art, you reclaim creative expression as your birthright.
  6. When you focus on creating real meaning with your time online, your online footprint makes a deeper impression.
  7. When you treat your online attention as a real resource, you invest your attention in the sites that reflect your values, helping those sites grow.
  8. When you spend your online time on what really matters to you, you experience your time online as an authentic reflection of your values.
  9. When you embrace online conversations as real, you imbue them with the power to change how you and others think and feel.
  10. When you talk honestly about the real joys and frustrations of the Internet, you can stop apologizing for your life online.

If this sounds like the kind of reality you want to live in, I’ve got great news: you can move in today. All it takes is the decision to treat your online existence seriously, honestly and attentively, and you will find that the Internet is RLT: Real Life Too.

What do you think about this? Are online life and offline life different for you? Should they be?

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July 16, 2010  |  relationships, society

15 Comments


  1. They are different for me, but in the same kind of way someone might draw a distinction between work life and “real” life. I have different worlds that I exist in that stay relatively independent of each other, but that doesn’t make the relationships of experiences any less real in one than the other.

  2. The skepticism about online dating has never made much sense to me. I just figure that people who manage to find each other that way are lucky to have found each other, just like people in “real life.”

  3. For a long time, because of various personal things, the only friends I had were online friends. It was absolutely crucial for me, in terms of regaining my sanity and my ability to live a non-hermit life, to own that those people were real friends. Someone who’s there for you at 4am on Skype is as much there for you as someone who takes you to the pub and buys you a bottle of wine.

    I hope we’ll be the last generation that divides the two things like this. Our children will live in a much more joined-up world, and be the better for it.

  4. You know me from Twitter

    I’m married, and haven’t yet taken the large and daunting step away from that, so I apologise for the anonymity.

    I met a wonderful woman in the digital space. Over six months we fell in love and then met in the ‘real world’. Our relationship has grown into the most significant of my life. We see each other most days, and we talk constantly online. In the next two months I’ll be making the big change in my life so that we can be out in the open. Neither of us sought this, neither were looking but just as could happen face to face we found something in each other. Neither believed it until we met and realised that we had been far more honest, knew each other far better than most couples because we had our guard down online.

    No one can tell me that it isn’t as valid just because for the first six months we hadn’t physically ben in the same place.

  5. I keep my online and offline lives completely different. I mixed the two once and didn’t like it. Offline is where I work. Online is where I can speak my mind without worrying that my bigot of a boss is gonna see I’m a dirty, godless liberal who thinks people like him are idiots.

  6. I’ve known this since 1995; not news to me at all. I started out as a spod in university (user of telnet programs for chat purposes) and still maintain a few friendships I made that way. I’ve always found honesty to be easier online, mostly because faces were hidden, so what I had to say was all people had of me to go by. I couldn’t not be myself. I couldn’t not share who I was and what I felt with these other people I was sharing so much of my time with. I’ve known so many people who got together IRL (in “real” life) thanks to their time on talkers, or web based chatrooms, and Instant Messenger. For a while, I was starting to think I was the only one unlucky enough to have to try and meet people face to face, actually.

    It’s far easier now than it was then, I’ll tell ya. The internet was barely a concept for most of the people I knew, let alone thought of as a useful place to spend quality time. There was also such a “anti-social cellar dweller” attitude about it then. In a sociology course I was taking, I wound up doing one of my assignments on this misconception, using my own experiences as a very useful guide to setting things straight. Had I been more into my education, I think that would have been a direction to pursue for Masters work.

    I completely agree with the notion that internet time can be real life time. It better count as real life time. Most of my life winds up being spent using it, either for blogging, or for research or random games and chats with friends.

    A world full of users can’t be wrong.

  7. I would never go as far as to say that friendships online are less real, but I will say the ones that feel more real, are the ones in real life…don’t confuse yourself people…there is a difference between The Matrix and The Real.

    I’ve experienced the virtual search for romance and it is nothing but an illusion as far as I am concerned and I have been guilty in part at times to be a part in creating the illusion, not for ill means but for unintentional reasons simply because of what meeting online entails…a monitor, too much time in the beginning to where one’s personality is found through a check-list or 4 plus hour long conversations and not actual human experience face to face. Face to face, forces one to either coward away from conflict or to deal with it when the internet, its free game and the freedom is found easily without consequence because you can just delete them, ignore them or get up and turn the computer off. If anyone considers that last part real…find serious help because you need it.

    Yet to determine that they are not real I think is an overstatement and a false one. I just prefer The Real over The Matrix.

  8. I would also add that I have tried more and more to be exactly as I am in the real life as I am in the virtual world. The only thing is all one can ever see is how I react to positions of opposition, positions of agreement and things I like.

    There is more to the REAL than that so again…The Real over The Matrix. Unplug yourself and you can realize that when you go to The Matrix, The Matrix doesn’t become a part of your life, but an aspect of your life.

  9. This post was really well-written and perceptive, I thought. I suppose the point is not whether we erect different boundaries about what we reveal/discuss in the two “worlds”, but whether we really act like our real selves in our online life. Or does that slight detachment from “reality” make us act like some people do in their cars – letting behaviors and attitudes loose that we wouldn’t dream of displaying to someone who was standing next to us. (I don’t generally get a “walk-by” finger, do you?)

    A lot of comment threads would be improved if people used them to engage in real conversation rather than chances for witty or not so witty one-upmanship without any call to defend their statements with an actual fact.

    So, thanks, GodlessGirl for the chance to think about this.

  10. I do my schitck offline.
    I do my schtick online.
    It’s all schtick to me.

  11. A few thoughts:

    1: I met my husband online. We met through a message board, then began emailing. The emails turned into genuine feelings of friendship, which caused us to meet in person. Meeting in person changed the friendship into an actual relationship, which lead to us getting married. We’ve now been happily married almost 6 years.

    2: When dealing with social sites like Facebook, I’ve learned the hard way that what you say does actually matter. I use Facebook to connect with people and that means posting things that I find to be interesting. However, some of those “interesting things” can sometimes be offensive to others. I post what I want on my own personal page with the understanding that the people who dislike it are welcome to ignore it, as I, myself, do. But that hasn’t stopped having some EPIC arguments with people, primarily my own family members.

    3: Being online doesn’t change who you are. It simply changes how you express yourself. If you’re an asshole offline, chances are you’re one online.

  12. I would also add that the sentimentality in which we deal with the sublime of every day life should extend to our interactions online.

    For example, I recently discovered that one can still send telegrams. It’s absolutely absurd and very expensive but it’s true. I posted this on Fb, and recieved the following response: “There’s a way that the world was more exciting when a hand-delivered telegram could start your heart racing.” Okay, valid. Yet, doesn’t that unopened e-mail, with its vague but intriguing subject line and preview – all of which you can read is “Hey N…” just stir the proverbial butterflies? (Especially when it’s from that witty guy on the Star Wars Expanded Universe message board who talks like Han Solo if he were from the Midwest? Uh, yeah!)

    If an end-of-the semester Facebook wall post is the new yearbook autograph, don’t fret. For one thing, that post can’t get destroyed carelessly lying under the bed shoved against the back wall with the old baseball cards and three left shoes in your childhood room now occupied by your tropical storm of a younger brother. So that’s good.

    Also, I guess “You’ve Got Mail” proved this, years ago; same sentimentality as “Shop Around the Corner,” new technology. That’s what I like to see.

    • Nicely said!
      Though I suppose what makes a telegram more exciting would actually be its novelty, rarity, and the importance the message must have in order to be sent in such a special fashion. Spam, chain mail, and work-related communication devalue email. It’s no longer a special means of communication that shows more care to the other person.

  13. On/off-line… it’s all real life.

    People may act differently in different areas, different “faces” they may present so to speak, but it’s all part of our lives. No need to create false dichotomies between your “online life” and “real life.” :)

  14. I’ve thought a lot about how to respond to this; personal anecdotes, philosophy, generational examination. They all could lead to long-winded examinations and my mind is spinning a bit. Boiled down, I get the following:

    I think that the real difference that the internet has brought to our culture is anonymity. Avenues for ‘safe’ expression and the ability to self publish in near-real time, have led to changes in our culture. It’s given voice to ideas and grievances that otherwise would never have been expressed.

    Whether you use the tools to find love, follow a political movement or assist your fellow man doesn’t matter. The internet can divorce you (or those you interact with) from responsibility. As long as you temper your emotional (and/or financial) investment with that in mind; the virtual world can be a rewarding place to exist.

    I’m vapor locking, but I hope that what I’ve written clearly distilled my point.

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