The web is the real world

I am increasingly uncomfortable with IRL (in real life) versus online distinctions, so Joshua Porter’s The Non-collision of Relationship and Independent George post really resonated with me.

Two ideas in particular stood out, here’s the first:

I think the dichotomy of a “digital life” being somehow different from our “real life” is becoming more false every day. Not only do people understand how web technologies work, but they’re leveraging them to improve all parts of their lives.

In the past year, my Dad got a laptop (a Mac, because he listened to me) and got online on his own for the first time. A few months later, he’s checking out the neighborhood in Florida where my brother moved using Google Earth. He emailed me when I was at the IA Summit in Vancouver to say he saw pictures of me on flickr. He doesn’t have internet access or even a computer at his job — that he could so easily and quickly pick up the digital technology that his kids more or less take for granted is a big deal. I’m pretty sure he considers it part of his “real life” when he looks at my pictures, emails me to find out which weekend is a good one for him to visit, or asks me if my building is two or three down from the hotel in the satellite photo he’s been looking at.

The second idea:

The main difference in the last 15 years of human living isn’t that somehow being online has created an alternate universe for us. It’s not that the Internet has made us into lynch mobs. The main difference is that instead of our hazy memory of what happened we have a digital record.

I know it works this way for me. I can’t, off the top of my head, list every book I’ve read in the last four years. But I can go to to my book review blog and refresh my memory. The story of how, when my grandmother tried to ship me an old polaroid camera, I wound up with a rifle has an accessible and arguably permanent home living as a blog post.

Digital records also bring professional benefits. When I left my job at JWA, one of the suggestions I had for hiring someone new to was to Google applicants — because the right person for the job would show up there, ideally as a blogger, active forum poster, or some other kind of engaged participant. If you want to run an organization’s website and help chart their online strategy, there should be some evidence you in fact know what you are talking about out there… in the real world.

Of course, having digital — public, nearly universally accessible digital records — isn’t entirely positive. But the downside can, for the most part, be chalked up to people being assclowns. Yup, just like in meatspace (sorry, couldn’t help myself), the web has its share of people being annoying, stupid, or thoughtless. The difference is, without photos on facebook, only the other kids at the party would know how drunk the RA on was. Without indiscreet blog posts, HR might never know of a job applicant’s penchant for badmouthing coworkers.

I think the interesting question is, what will having digital records of our messy, real lives mean in five years? In ten? Will an angry blog post from 2001 be held against a person forever, or be considered in the context it was orginally posted in? Will we learn to treat our digital representations as humanly as we treat each other? (For better or worse?) Will we realize compassion can also take digital form?

If we look back on the current MySpace hysteria, what will we see? Will panic about social networks seem us as ridiculous as the first congressional hearings (in 1952!) on “violence in radio and television and its impact on children and youth” seem now?

2 thoughts on “The web is the real world

  1. I used to think that having a digital record would change things. If nothing else, it would make it easier for truth to out.

    But human nature hasn’t changed. Around 1990 I was co-moderating a discussion on an online system (the WELL). One of the conference participants got pissed at us and began posting all over the board that we had removed his posts. We hadn’t. Two months later, having failed to convince board participants to look and see the posts that were there, on the same board with the messages claiming that we had removed them, it sank in that as much as digital networks extend our ability to reach one another, they don’t change our tendencies to not look, to see as we are, rather than as things are.

    This is neither good nor bad, and your reminder that hysteria about new media is nothing new, is most welcome. Sadly, I don’t think that we are going to learn to treat our digital representations humanly until we learn to treat each other humanly. But that also means that our positive sense of humanity is as present on the web as elsewhere.

  2. Now I see I have found a good blog. :-) I’ll have to revisit this, perhaps tomorrow. The segregation of real life and virtual life is a very natural way of separating what are two modes, and yet there are some of us who recognize these two ‘modes’ as indistinct; they are integral. And the generations which follow us will not understand why we separated them in the first place.

    But then, how do we communicate a virtual world to those who have not seen one? By separating modes. As internet penetration increases and access to what we call virtual worlds becomes less of an issue, the ‘virtual world’ phrases will…

    virtually disappear. :-)

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