I recently went back and checked in to my LiveJournal account for the first time in quite a while, and I was a little surprised to discover that my first post was in September 2006. I could have sworn it was much longer ago than that. Six years is a long time online, obviously. Back in 2006, Facebook was only two years old. When I made my first post on LJ, Twitter had been running for just six months. The world has changed an awful lot since then.
I looked at my LJ because I noticed something a few months ago that I found interesting: the abbreviation ‘RL.’ You’ll all be familiar with it, of course. “I met so-and-so in RL.” “I know such-and-such from RL.” Where ‘RL’ means ‘Real Life.’
On the surface, it’s obvious. We use RL to discriminate between the interactions we have online and the interactions we have offline, but it’s an interesting choice of terminology. It seems to suggest that we consider what happens online to be somehow unreal, somehow separate from our everyday experience, and that seems, to me at least, to open a whole hallway of interesting doors.
Behind one of the doors we find online trolls – people who behave quite shamefully towards other online users, in a way they possibly would never behave in larger society. And I do wonder whether that separation, that filter, between what happens online and what happens in RL actually enables them, as if what happens online doesn’t matter. It’s not real, it’s all a joke, it’s online.
Behind another door we find people working behind fake identities. Twitter is actually a good place to hide, to have fun, to pretend to be someone else. It’s a place where a cat can scheme to rule the world or – as in the case on one account I have – a colossal crayfish can become Mayor of London. It’s mostly harmless, and often a lot of fun.
On the other hand, it’s a robust environment and it can sometimes be very ugly. Sometimes it seems to me that it’s just a couple of tweets away from everyone having a row. Sometimes it seems like one huge angry stream of consciousness.
A little while ago someone put up a blog post about someone they’d had a relationship with. The person in question was only identified as ‘V,’ and V was portrayed as an abuser, sometimes violent, who had parlayed their Twitter popularity into a way to get money and sex. As I understand it, one of the people who had lent money to V saw the post, decided they’d had enough, and outed V on Twitter, to some opprobrium.
In terms of Twitter, I’d say there really can be a disconnect between the online world and RL. I like to think I present more or less the same online as I do offline, but others do not. I followed V for quite a while, and their public and private persona don’t seem to match. Many others remain in character – I’m thinking of the rather remarkable continuing performance of @Pliocene_Bloke in particular, but he’s not alone by any means – and might be quite different in private. I’ve met some of the people I follow, and they’re pretty much the same in daylight as they are on the screen of my laptop. It’s a great big playground of the mind, for good and for ill.
Personally, I’ve never made a distinction between the online and offline world. To me, Twitter is part of Real Life, it’s something I do in Real Life, and separating them seems as odd to me as making a distinction between what happens on the phone and Real Life. But within that structure, things are quite complex. Some of the people I interact with are real, some are in character. One of them is a piece of software based on the tics of a Tourette’s sufferer.
I think we tend to forget that the online world is still more or less brand new and we’re still developing our responses to it. I think to an extent Twitter serves as a hothouse for those responses; it’s very fast – sometimes almost out of control, it seems to me – and more or less self-policing. It’s sly and clever and often very very funny, and it might just be the future of how we regard the online world.