The New Real World

My friend T lives in the Seattle area. He plays Magic and is quick to respond to bullshit with biting wit. Another friend, H, loves her whiskey, owns many guns, and has an adorable Lab named Annie Lou.

These two people are my friends. I’ve also never met them face-to-face, in what many would consider the “real world”. I know them–and have since I was in high school–thanks to Kingdom of Loathing, where we’re members of the same in-game social “clan”. We’ve never drunk beer together, sure[1], but I’ve typed a lot of words into clan chat over the years, and they have too. We know each other better than I know many in-person acquaintances.

Using the word “friend” to describe relationships that have never seen so much as a handshake might seem strange. Some might scoff at it, saying that my generation of technology-addicted Millennials is just fooling itself, and that we’re living in an increasingly isolated, asocial world. These criticisms are part of an even broader argument: that the internet and “real life” are two non-overlapping spheres, and that activities in the former are somehow less valuable, less meaningful, or less real than activities in the latter.

You know what? It’s almost 2015. It’s time to accept that the internet is real life.

Though it may come as a surprise to anyone who thinks of me as an outgoing, dramatic people person[2], I’m actually a pretty big introvert. [3]

When I’m faced with new stimuli, I usually find that takes mental energy from me, rather than giving it. I prefer predictability and routine to an onslaught of new experiences. Moments when I have to make quick decisions or assimilate lots of new information wear me out extremely fast.

This plays out in my social interactions. In person, with some exceptions, I’m often the quiet one happily observing the party from the sidelines. When an argument causes blood to boil, I have no turbine energetically turning inside me–I’m just uncomfortable. Face-to-face interactions highlight my clumsiness with words, my inability to tell a concise story, the way my memory refuses to hold on to hard facts.

Uncooperative brain

But online, it’s a whole different story, as I discovered when I was younger. Online, I have the time to compose my thoughts before I speak. Online, I can look up words and facts with a few swift keypresses. Conversing online allows me to socialize on my terms in a way that face-to-face interaction can never fully allow.

In other words, I’m way better at socializing online than I am in person.[4]

So when I see people claiming that online socialization is by its digital nature stunted, I can’t accept that. Socializing online isn’t worse than socialization offline–on the whole, my daily conversations online are far more rewarding and meaningful than those done in person. It’s just wildly different, and we’re still catching up.

Socialization, the way in which we interact and form relationships with other humans, has been a primarily face-to-face endeavor for most of our history as a species. It’s why “social function” and “party” are nearly synonymous terms: if you’re being social, you’re interacting with people face-to-face. For thousands of years, that would have been so self-evident as to be invisible. How else would you socialize?

Extreme socialization

Face-to-face socialization rewards certain traits, such as eloquence. A master socializer is well-spoken and able to eloquently articulate their ideas–because too much stumbling over words or fumbling for meaning puts strain on a social encounter. Being able to speak clearly is also a plus for face-to-face socialization; if your words can’t be heard or understood, then your social interactions aren’t likely to go places. It requires an improvisational mind, able to react quickly to sharp turns in the conversational road. And, of course, a good socializer understands people–they know how to read and respond to body language, for instance.

The internet–particularly, the social web–and the proliferation of personal computers and mobile smart devices changed everything. It enabled us to have interactions with other people that don’t look anything like the social interactions of the past.

Increasingly, today’s social interactions are written, not spoken. They reward editing and self-reflection, not boldness or the ability to improvise. They require the ability to read tone not in body language, but in text. They can be completely anonymous. And they can reach dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people with ease.

Make no mistake: online socialization is an entirely different beast from face-to-face socialization. It requires a separate set of skills and can take on forms that face-to-face socialization could never attain. But although it’s a different form of socialization, it’s still socialization. It’s still human beings interacting, building (or destroying) relationships.

Now, this isn’t to say that the digitization of social life is a 100% Certified Good Thing. As more of our interactions occur online, we’re faced with some thorny questions.

Good talk.

For instance, how does socializing on the internet limit our intimacy? After all, you can sit quietly and sip a cup of tea in the presence of someone you love, but how are you going to do that in a chat window? Relatedly, how does having largely asynchronous conversation (where there is no overlap or process, only people presenting fully-formed thoughts) affect the flow of conversation?Or what are the ramifications of having “public” spaces online that are owned by private companies? In person, we can talk on the sidewalk or in a park, and those words disappear into the air. Today, if you want to talk online, you’re almost required to do so on someone else’s private property–usually someone who’s recording what you say and interested in using it to sell you things. What does this mean for free speech? For privacy? Are there any alternatives?

Speaking of privacy, how do we balance the importance of privacy and digital anonymity with the equally important goal of preventing abuse or harassment? And how, in an age of “sharing”, do we meaningfully protect privacy at all–not just our own privacy, but the privacy of others?

Finally, how much information about ourselves should we share online, and what does it do to us to constantly monitor our online personas?

Socialization online comes with no end of big, important questions, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. All I’m saying is that despite these questions and despite the radical departure from earlier types of socialization, it still makes no sense to think of the internet as anything other than “real life”.

A couple of years ago, I got a message in my Tumblr inbox from a user I didn’t recognize, expressing interest in, well, me. Because of that message, we got coffee, watched a movie, and had an outstanding few weeks getting to know each other before we parted ways. Over the next few months, we stayed in touch via text message and post, and ended up falling in love. We dated for most of a year.

These days, we fall in love via text message and Snapchat pictures. We find friends or lovers by messaging them on OkCupid. On our Twitter feeds and Tumblelogs, we express personas to the world in a way that generations before us never could have, and we gravitate toward people whose personas resonate with us.

With Steam and Skype or Vent, we play games with our friends. Google Docs allows us to collaborate on projects with our coworkers–or track household chores with our roommates. A not insignificant number of people make a living–a living!–solely by creating online content, as bloggers or vloggers or webcomic artists.

It’s time to stop thinking of the internet as a separate sphere, somehow more fictitious than the rest of human experience. The internet is the real world. Sure, you can’t touch it, and yeah, it doesn’t look like any form of socialization we’ve seen before, but when you get past that, it’s the same thing we’ve always seen: people talking with one another, sharing with one another, telling stories and building relationships.

If that’s not “real”, I don’t know what is.

Further Reading

Seriously, check these out.


The new WordPress Gutenberg editor does not currently support footnotes. This is silly, but here we are. Here are my footnotes from this post, preserved awkwardly until I can reintegrate them more elegantly:

[1] On numerous occasions, however, we’ve all happened to have been simultaneously enjoying glasses of bourbon, scattered across the country though we are.

[2] so, anyone who knew me in high school

[3] For a fantastic look into introversion, I strongly recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

[4] Okay, there is some fudging of truths here. When I’m “on,” I can do the in-person socialization thing quite well. But I’m rarely “on” like that. I don’t have to be in order to socialize online.

Image Credit

Eye! by Fabio (star-dust) on Flickr, released under a CC-BY-2.0 license. Used as reference.

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