It’s All Real Life

I always meant to write a followup to My Friends In the Internet, which turned out to be one of my more popular posts last year. It’s definitely among the top 10 in terms of posts I get emails about, which suggests it resonated with a lot of readers in some way or another. One of the things I wrote in that post was this:

The Internet is a real place. There are real people on it and in it. Like people in physical interactions, sometimes they do horrible, evil, unspeakable things to each other. Sometimes they engage in random acts of kindness. I am tremendously enriched by all of the people I am friends with online, and I wouldn’t trade any of those friendships for a day in a coffeehouse with someone who bores me, I tell you what.

It’s something that I wanted to expand upon and touch upon more deeply, because it is a very important point. The Internet is a real place. Things that happen here happen to real people. You may not see them or come into close contact with them, but they are still real. There’s a reason I don’t say ‘in real life,’ as in ‘I’m so excited to finally get to meet you in real life!’ Because when I meet people from the Internet offline, I’ve already met them in real life. I’ve already met them in person, too; we may know each other very intimately even if we have not physically been in the same place.

The suggestion that interactions taking place with people physically in the same space is ‘real’ implies that other interactions are ‘fake’ or of lesser value. This is what allows people to do things like dehumanising people they only interact with online; because they aren’t ‘real’ and those interactions apparently do not count, or have no consequences. It doesn’t matter if you behave badly to someone because it’s not real life.

A lot of discussion last year surrounded behaviour on the Internet, including bullying, and the mainstream media picked up on a lot of issues. Numerous newspapers revamped the way they handled comments and everyone talked at length about notable online bullying cases and all sorts of opinion editorials were crafted to explain why people are so vicious on the Internet. Many included the claim that anonymity was the problem, which doesn’t explain why some very high profile cases last year involved people known to each other, and why people people have no problem hurling invective under their own names or under very stable and easily traceable pseudonyms, which are definitely not the same thing as being anonymous.

I saw fewer people talking about the rapidity of the medium, the way the Internet tends to facilitate nastiness by sheer virtue of the speed at which it operates. It’s very easy to toss off hateful comments because it doesn’t take effort. It’s even easier to forget you made them when the cycle of activities online is so fast; once something drops off the front page, it vanishes as though it never was, and thus people don’t live with the long-term consequences of their actions.

An even smaller number of people talked about the consequences of dividing Internet and ‘real life’ and what that means when it comes to how people interact with each other online. If the Internet is not ‘real life,’ then what you do there isn’t really real, in any meaningful sense. When people are taught that the Internet is a fake and artificial place and the people they encounter are not real, it means that they don’t have to check their actions, to think about what they are doing. It doesn’t matter if you do them under your name or another, because they don’t matter.

Paradoxically, even as the Internet creates a permanent record of actions, it also erases them. Things move by at such high volume, and so quickly, that things are quickly forgotten about, except for a handful of people, usually the victims of abuse. Long after things have filtered down to the bottom of the pile, people may still remember them and still be living them, to some extent. The sustained bullying many teens experience online is awful not just because it is awful, but also because people focus on what is happening in the present, and don’t think about the past; don’t think, for example, about the fact that this person was deluged with the same messages on a Facebook wall a month ago, because those messages have been removed or they have dropped off the page so no one can see them, and having it start again renews all the wounds opened the last time, and the time before, and the time before that.

It’s all real life. In ‘My Friends On the Internet’ I focused on the value of online relationships and the connections made between people who only meet and interact online. But there’s a flip side to that; the same devaluation that leads people to dismiss friendships made online also ensures that people don’t feel as obliged to mind their behaviour and think about the consequences of what they do in online spaces.

There are a lot of things to talk about when it comes to discussing bullying and the way it manifests online. This is only one of them, of course, but it seems important to find a way of bridging understanding and communicating that what people do online matters and is real. It matters to the people they do it to, and it matters to the people around them. And, because the things we do also live with us, the infliction of damage on others also comes with damage to the self, but people may not recognise or realise it, because it didn’t happen ‘in real life.’