We Live On The Internet

I’ve been knocking around online, one way or another, since the mid-1990s, but I noticed something for the first time today. We tend to describe things that happen offline as ‘Real Life.’

That never struck me as odd until today, for some reason. Not the fact that we make the distinction between online and offline activites so much, but the phrase we choose to use. Real Life – or ‘RL’ – as if things that happen online are not real. And I began to wonder whether people behave badly and say things to others online that they wouldn’t say offline precisely because, on some subconscious level, they consider the online world to be ‘unreal.’

If you spend any amount of time using social media, trolls are never far from your mind. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve only been trolled once so far – and that was very mild and may have been the result of someone typing the wrong @ address on Twitter – but I’ve seen others suffer horribly from it. A lot has been written about the sense of empowerment which the anonymity of the internet gives some people, the sense that because they feel they can’t be identified that they can say and do what they want. And I think that’s part of it. But I also wonder now whether the sense that none of this is real, none of this matters, is also something to do with it. If it’s not real, we can be as rude and hurtful as we want to someone and it makes no difference.

I once wrote a story in which violent events somehow generate enough energy to loop time, so that people can go and visit them. You can visit the Blitz or the firebombing of Dresden, and so on, and a secret cottage industry of guides grows up to take sensation-hungry tourists into these little pocket universes where the violent events happen over and over again, forever. Because these events have already happened, and everyone in them is ‘unreal,’ the tourists can do whatever they want. Murder, rape torture, it doesn’t matter. It occurs to me that social media – and I’m thinking specifically of Twitter, which is a very robust environment and gives greater scope for anonymity than Facebook, for instance – are a similar arena, if you look at them in a certain way.

Of course, anyone who’s spent any length of time playing computer games will be familiar with this. I used to game a lot, and mostly I used to play first-person shooters – one of them was even called ‘Unreal’ – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There is no finer feeling, after a crappy day at work, than to whack legions of aliens. But those are games, and social media are not. They’re part of Real Life, not something separate from it somehow. People on Twitter are not just a wacky avatar and a bunch of bad puns; they’re real people. Well, most of them.

I’m probably making too much of this ‘RL’ thing. It’s a useful shorthand for interactions we have offline, after all. And I suspect – although I have no empirical evidence for saying this – that it’s something mainly confined to older users. Younger users may not feel the need to make any distinction between online and offline. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, only time will tell.

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