Why the Distinction of Online vs. IRL Makes No Sense (Or, Our Reality Is Already Virtual)

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The first time I used the term “meatspace” in an academic setting, my professor stopped me.

“Meatspace?” she asked.

“Meatspace,” I answered, “because we’re made of meat.” She shuddered and told me that was disgusting. “I can’t take credit for the term,” I continued. “People, like, actually use it. I didn’t make it up.” Which is true. But it’s not the term most people use to describe the antithesis of cyberspace, that place where we write with pens on tangible paper, where we walk through the world with our feet stepping on physical ground.

What most people I’ve encountered say is “IRL.” In real life. I totally get the impulse to use it — it evolved organically in digital space as a chat abbreviation as a way of denoting the space outside AIM, ICQ, or a game, so it seems appropriate to talk about the boundaries of technology with it, to use it in exactly the way we are. It’s short and sweet and conveys exactly what we mean in an economic way. It means not online. Not in the computer. Furthermore, most people know what IRL means, unlike meatspace. And also unlike meatspace, it doesn’t come with a healthy side of recognizing our own mortality and accompanying existential dread. The term IRL, or its longhand “in real life,” won’t make any professors shudder.

It makes me shudder, though, and I try never to use IRL in such a way. Because I actually don’t think it conveys what I mean to say. Not at all.

Things we do online already matter as much as the things we do in meatspace. This might seem like a no-brainer, especially since I’m preaching to the choir. Queers have understood the value of digital spaces since they started existing. Communities whose members were fewer and more spread out found a way to cheaply congregate over long distances. Autostraddle readers, in particular, understand the impact of digital spaces better than most — our community began online and moves sometimes into meatspace, with events like A-Camp and International Brunch Weekend. Hell, we made a whole section of the site for meatspace meetups. The relationships we forge in cyberspace don’t stay there. They have consequence in the physical world.

But aside from our own personal experiences with community building, we’ve had years of evidence that the weight of our actions online is increasing and can have major impacts on the physical world. Did you know that World of Warcraft has an in-game economy with actual monetary value? While the practice of buying and selling in-game currency for physical-world currency was against the terms of service until relatively recently, it still happened and thus assigned an exchange rate between a virtual world and a meatspace world. I remember reading articles by economists about it way back in high school.

I’d just graduated from Rutgers when Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his roommate, Dharun Ravi, streamed his first encounters with men for everyone to see. A fleeting image, existing only inside a computer and in the minds of those who watched, killed someone.

Social media was constantly credited during Arab Spring; it allowed protestors to organize and documented what they were experiencing for the rest of the world. Now, according to a Wired article from January of 2016 that everyone should absolutely read, regimes more totalitarian than the ones they replaced are using the same tools to install themselves and maintain their power.

Most of us will never see most of our money in the physical world — to many, it exists as a series of ones and zeroes on a computer screen. We’re not even on the gold standard anymore, we just all agree that these ones and zeroes in the computer have value.

And in the past couple of months, Russian hackersMacedonian millennials and our own voting populace’s perpetuation of fake news in digital spaces decided an election. We’re now seeing the beginning of an era where neo-Nazis have control of the White House, and it’s due in large part to things that didn’t happen IRL. And now virtual space is being used to create an anti-science, anti-fact meatspace reality.

So why oh why in our common parlance are we still using the term IRL? In the meatspace/cyberspace dichotomy, using “in real life” to describe one side of it implies that the other isn’t reality at all. It’s fake, somehow. But it is real. This is our reality. When we can lose jobs based on a Tweet or garner the ire of Gamergaters and White Nationalists (often one in the same) such that they use online tools to stalk and harass us, that constitutes our digital life as reality (and a harsh one, at that). Why are we pretending otherwise? Perhaps I’m overreacting and it’s only a term, but I think framing our digital existence this way is doing real harm.

I spoke at Out in Tech a couple weeks ago. “You all know what I’m talking about,” I said to an audience of queer tech industry pros, programmers and entrepreneurs. “Just because it’s digital, just because you can’t hold it in your hands, people don’t think it has value.” A whole bunch of heads nodded along. It’s frustrating to work so hard on something and have it not recognized as real. Until this week, I thought that people who produced and worked on digital products would understand their absolute reality better than most, and mostly because of this frustration. I figured the industry itself would understand the “real” consequences of their cyberspace creations. Now, however, I’m not so sure. Because why else would industry professionals, who know full well that what they do has an impact on the physical world, fix problems only after they’ve done damage and not before? I’m not talking about the folks at Out in Tech, by the way. They were lovely and also queer, after all, so they’re carrying with them the history of queers and the internet. But it’s not as though electing white nationalists was necessary to point out to social media platforms that they’ve got a major issue, and that we should be thinking critically about the platforms our digital products provide them.

Many platforms lean on the very romantic notion that everyone has the right to be the worst versions of themselves at the expense of other users. This laissez-faire attitude toward harassment that’s perceived as digital, and therefore not “real,” has given rise to pockets of the internet where young white men can be radicalized. Unlike when young brown men are involved, there’s no effort to stop this. Now I get it — we don’t want to poke our hands into those pockets because it sucks to be there. When I was doing the initial research for my novel about Gamergate, I described it as giving the internet a proctology exam. I stared into the asshole of the internet for hours a day if I could handle it, and minutes if I couldn’t. Those people say terrible things. But unlike “civilian” users of a technological service, the company building and providing said service has an obligation to go poking their nose in and ask the big, tough questions. Questions like, “am I going to make sure my product doesn’t help create Nazis? Marginalize its users? Create an environment ripe for harassment?” Companies SHOULD be responsible for figuring that out. It’s an argument that the families of Pulse shooting victims are making about Google, Facebook and Twitter in the case of Omar Mateen.

What we have, instead of responsible technology companies, is a culture built on the idea of disruption without any boundaries for who or what should be disrupted. The tech industry has been so focused on the idea of destabilization that I have to wonder if there aren’t more Thiels out there than I anticipated. How many industry folks are pleased with themselves that they’ve helped disrupt American democracy? Diluted the concept of truth? Poked holes in the notion of equality? Or did the industry simply not believe themselves — for all its talk about disrupting the way we do things, the way things are moving forward, did they not actually believe, deep down, that they had the power to do so? Technology companies are certainly behaving like they believed the boundary between the “real life” of IRL and digital experience was secure enough that disruption would only mean “disturbance,” as in the first half of the definition, and not “problems” as in the second half? Frankly, I have no idea if the humans behind these companies think this way. But the shock and willingness to cover asses by banning neo-Nazi accounts and handling the distribution of fake news after they’ve already done irreparable damage suggest a lack of foresight and fairly fast revulsion. And honestly, it doesn’t matter; the end result is still the same. One thing I do know for sure: tech bros will not get cookies from me for screaming “not that kind of disruption!” and fixing it after the fact.

And maybe it won’t matter, but I will evangelize dropping IRL from our collective vocabulary until the end of my days, because it’s all real. Every Tweet, every VR harassment case, every doxxing and SWATting and fictional gold coin spent. It. All. Counts. If the industry had listened to the countless women, people of color and marginalized community members talk about the real way cyberspace effects their meatspace, these companies might have known that already. Hell, if the industry had listened to itself, maybe it could’ve guessed. If we want something truly disruptive, let’s use our language to disrupt our impending technocratic dystopia. And let’s all remember that we’re playing with power the likes of which humans have never had before. Never call cyberspace fake again.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. This is a great article because it works so well as a conversation starter, because it touches on a lot of things which make people uncomfortable, like this is something which needs to be in a conversation so that if nothing else people realize that the level of toxicity that sometimes get injected into conversation online is not something which is fine. Also then there is the trend, where the kind of language and just general hatefulness that you could find on /b/ now seems to have become so normal that it has seeped back from that corner of the internet to discussions you have with people face to face in like a room full of people and that has probably been the most jarring change that has happened for me,in my lifetime that is.
    Like the kind of regression that has happened is really something worth talking about, and something that the rise of social media has kind of helped a lot with. So, umm…. good job 😀

  2. I really relate to feeling there should be no separation in how we view our virtual and physical worlds. In addition to all the support I found on the internet (from AfterEllen and Autostraddle specifically) in my coming out process, I met my girlfriend in an MMO, and our entire relationship is based online. We both feel like what you put into a relationship is what you get out of it, be it on the internet or in physical space. We’re a year in and going strong. In addition to my SO relationship, most of my friends are also online. I take strong offence at anyone saying these relationships “aren’t real”.

    To me it does seem completely obvious that if the internet can have such a strong positive impact in my life it can have at least equally negative repercussions in anyone’s life or the world at large. I am 100% on board with your sentiment that we should ban the idea of “IRL” because IT IS ALL REAL!

  3. Just this morning I was thinking although I’ve seen the movie Whip It, I’ve never seen roller derby IRL. Not negating an online experience in this case but I’ll be thinking more about this term now. Thanks!

  4. Meanwhile back in 2009, in Stockholm District Court…

    Prosecutor: You can’t remember when you got to know, eh what context, you said chat. When did you meet for the first time IRL?

    Peter Sunde: We don’t really use the expression “IRL”. We use AFK, but regardless I can’t recall that either. … No, I don’t know the answer.

    Court: Prosecutor, what does IRL mean?

    Prosecutor: “In Real Life”

    Sunde: We’re not so fond of that expression, we use AFK, which means away from keyboard. We consider the internet to be real.

  5. So true. I married someone I met in meatspace, but who lives far away. So most of our relationshup so far has been through Skype and phone texts. People laugh when I tell them I saw her 6 times “IRL” as they say.
    I think many people underestimate (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary!) the impact of virtual space and the internet.

  6. This was a great read and I didn’t anticipate the directions it went to, but only because I’m already biased as I only ever say ‘IRL’ with air-quotes included – implying that the off-line Me is actually a rather poor version of the ‘real’ me that found greatest freedom away from the pressures and norms of meatspace (must work to adopt this word, or at least get over the shudders I get from it). I suppose that’s an oft-had side discussion that as many of us as freer to be queer, to be creative, etc in cyberspace, bigots and assholes get their anonymity-blessed freedom to wreak their havoc.

  7. Online life is as real as “real life”, but also, online socializing cannot replace the in-the-flesh variety, and is a weak substitute for the latter

    No one has ever advocated for it as a substitute, just a method of overcoming its absence a little less painfully, but I still feel the need to say it: online community isn’t enough

    – An Isolated Queen

    • As someone who also grew up quite isolated, I too never felt like the Internet was quite “real.” Especially when I started getting out more irl/out of my hometown/and being around more of my community members. Ugh. I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet forsure. Maybe I am in the margins but I don’t like the term “meatspace.” Also side note, whoever invented the comments section must have optimistically thought it was such an amazing way for open discourse, and imagine their reaction upon viewing it in action on YouTube or any mainstream news site. (Autostraddle’s is actually very engaging and typically cogent.)

    • Thank you so much for saying this. You articulated very succinctly what I came over here to say, and something I feel very deeply-while technology is a great *supplement* to “IRL” socialization (sorry, can’t force myself to say m–tspace), but it certainly does not replace it.

  8. Hey, all Thanks for the good read & comments. I am a 57 yo small town dyke. I am not super – techie but really appreciate being able to access the online Queer Community. I have also lived how the internet has brought instant access to the feminist community.
    I have no experience in the gaming community… I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram account. I have ventured into online dating and find it to be somewhat surreal at times… I have met up with a couple of women I first got to know online… When we went from texting, to talking on the phone, it was kind of weird for me… I had never met women like that before. Then when we went from talking on the phone to meeting in person, even weirder… Meatspace, indeed…
    I have also thought about the ethical responsibilities that go along with both participation in online community as well as the safety aspects of moving from online to in person ‘exchanges’. I suppose,each person and each Community needs to be able to have some kind of system for watch – dogging… Systems in place to help support safe use…
    I feel like I am living in the Brave New World… Exciting but also not without working through issues to improve connections and fair & safe egalitarian access

  9. This was a really good read. I agree that whatever happens in cyberspace has real consequences that we can’t just dismiss, however to me there is still a distinction; for instance I’m in a long distance relationship and although it’s better to have cyber contact than nothing it definitely sucks a lot more than being able to have in person interactions. I also like to have the distinctions when you have online contact with people (cyber friendships, talking to someone on online dating before actually going on the first date, etc) that you haven’t met in person yet cause I really feel like you can’t truly a person until you spend time with them; and some of them might be exactly what you expected but you don’t know for sure until that happens cause it’s easy to be misleading online.. just my thoughts, I agree that “IRL” is maybe not the most appropriate term, and that cyberspace has real consequences, but I still feel like a distinction is important to be made.

    • I agree that having a distinction can be helpful, though one thing I would add is that while I completely agree that people can be misleading online, knowing a person online can also enable you to get to know a different side of them that you wouldn’t know in person/in meatspace.

  10. Wall Street thinking, It is better to be hated with a dollar in your pocket then loved with nothing in your pocket. They will not change anything that costs them money technology companies are the exact opposite of democracy. They are capitalism at its worth disguised as freedom for all.

  11. YES.

    I thought this was going to be a discussion about how sensory input is all just brain impulses whether it’s coming from a computer or from the world outside the computer, but this was even better.

  12. I’ve been thinking about, and broaching it as a subject, the concept of digital relationships as a future or past mythology. Which, I mean, as in—meeting and engaging in deep meaningful relationships (friends, romantic, familial) through digital platforms and means and how if that connection was severed how impossible it would sound to someone who has never seen or engaged in that manner.

    Or something like that.

  13. This article was really good–we went over a lot of these issues in a cyberspace law class I took last year re: *where* something that happens online takes place (is it where the person typing was? where the person who received it was? where everyone who saw it was? a ~separate cyberspace location~? etc) and the whole topic was just really interesting.

    unrelated: I’m pretty sure 90% of the time I use “irl” is in the context of tagging a photo I see online that is definitely not of me with “me irl”.

    Example: this photo of a farmer (not me :\) with 5000 ducks (also not me :\) that I just found on my own blog in my “me irl” tag

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