People often toss around the idea that the internet is “not real life,” as though this thing — made by people to allow those people to share and interact with other people — is just the playtime before more serious business. The real business.
Here are some things that happen on the internet:
- People make friends.
- People order pizzas.
- People go to school.
- People find love.
- People work.
- People Amazon Prime themselves things they could easily pick up at the drugstore down the street, and they totally would just walk over there this afternoon if it weren’t raining.
- People connect.
- People create.
Here are some other things that happen on the internet:
- People lose friends and family.
- People lose jobs.
- People are bullied and mocked.
- People are threatened and forced from their homes.
All of these things really happen between real people. (Really.) They are therefore, by definition, happening “in real life.” When you claim that the internet is “not real life,” you diminish all of these very real experiences. For the positive ones, that just sad; for the negative ones, it’s dangerous.
Humans are connecting. Interacting. Learning. Supporting themselves. Ordering pad thai.* Sometimes, these things happen over a series of tubes, sometimes over a cup of coffee. Claiming one is more real than the other is disrespectful to the people having those experiences. To us. When you say the internet is “not real,” you diminish the deep bond of the couple that live on opposite sides of the world and met on a message board — their relationship is less-than. You diminish the man furthering his education and professional development with online courses — his efforts are less-than. You diminish the woman receiving rape threats on Twitter — those threats are less-than — and you diminish the culpability of the very real person who made those threats. It’s not a real threat. It’s just the internet.
If you want to support that conception of the internet, go right ahead. But first ask: do that couple, that man, or that woman feel a lesser degree of love? Of accomplishment? Of fear?
We could pontificate about the attributes of “realness” until the conversation comes to an abrupt end when we all get sucked into our own navels, or we could just decide that any place where human relationships, education, and livelihoods blossom is a real place. We can do that because not only did we make the internet, we made the language we use to talk about it. We define. We decide. That power-slash-responsibility is not one I’m about to abdicate. “It’s just the internet…” Okay, except we are the internet. It’s “just” us.
It is possible that all of life is just an illusion; a false front erected by an evil demon, as Descartes once mused before concluding otherwise. Maybe the internet itself is an evil demon; that would certainly explain the popularity of child porn rings and Farmville. But until I have proof of that, I’m going to behave as thought it is, y’know, real. That’s the only experience I have, and I refuse to call it less than that. Last I checked, the opposite of “real” is “fake.”
Without people, there’s no internet, not the way we know it. There’s just a bunch of servers, sitting in a room somewhere, wondering when the people are going to come along to upload cat GIFs.
TL;DR: Are you alive? Is something happening? Then it’s happening IRL. Full stop.**
*Yes, I order a lot of take out on the internet. You tell me you wouldn’t do the same, if your city had a bakery that would bring you hot, fresh cookies and a glass of milk when you asked them to via the internet.
**Holy crap, pontificating about the internet really sends my punctuation usage to a whole ‘nother level of excess.