Rubbing On Our Glowing Rectangles: The False Distinction Between “Online” And “The Real”

The language of offline VS online dominates the way we think of social media and communication. Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson wants us to move beyond it.

In that moment when you round the street corner and meet up with a friend, and the two of you are still on the phone speaking to each other, there is a funny pause. Maybe right before you see her you say, “I’m here” and she hears your voice twice: first in the air and then through her speaker’s electrical conversion. Staring at your girl while still on the phone with her, you smile and hang up.

We tend to think of this scenario as encompassing two different worlds. One is virtual: telephone, text, email, and Facebook. The other is analog: unadulterated, logged-off real-life. Naysaying authors and cultural leaders believe that we spend too much time in the first world, and not enough time unplugged, on Earth.

In his novel essay The IRL Fetish and elsewhere, Web theorist Nathan Jurgenson argues that this popular way of thinking obscures the ways in which the offline and online commingle, and how their entanglement shapes our behavior.

For Jurgenson, the pictures, posts and tweets we view and produce online are made up of lived experiences. And in turn, our offline behavior and social interactions are influenced by digital networks: our desire to document and to share.

Jurgenson declares: “I am proposing an alternative view that states that our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once. We are not crossing in and out of separate digital and physical realities, ala The Matrix, but instead live in one reality, one that is augmented by atoms and bits.”

Against digital dualism, the belief in two opposing realities, Jurgenson puts forth an acknowledgment that digital and physical space are different but are enmeshed and constantly interacting in our experience. He calls this augmented reality. “Atoms and bits have different properties, influence each other, and together create reality,” he writes.

One of the conceptual shortcomings of digital dualism is to worship and privilege “the real” over the lesser virtual. Jurgenson labels this the IRL fetish. According to this view, Facebook friendship is quite shallow, chat rooms are for creeps, online activism is a joke, twitter is meaningless BUT… that conversation I had in real life was incredibly authentic, my trip to the beach transcendent, all my real-life social bonds iron-clad.

In addition, digital dualists tend to lump all their criticism of internet entities and social media practices into one category, rather than examine each company or context differently.

As Adrian Chen smartly observes, much of what we identify as idiotic and shallow features of socializing online are actually specific, clumsy features of Facebook, it’s design and internal logic. “Friendship on Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet,” Chen writes, “is reduced to trading pokes and likes with co-workers or old high school buddies.” It’s not that Web chatter as opposed to face-to-face talk is inherently empty, but that a very popular and particular platform for communication is exceedingly lame.

And on the international scene, Zeynep Tufekci reveals how the false binary of digital dualism can lead us to unproductive thinking, specifically with the Arab Spring. “There has been a false debate. Was it social media or the people? Was it social media or the labor movements? Was it social media or anti-imperialist movement? Was it social media or youth? These questions are wrong and the answer is yes. The correct question is how,” she notes.

So rather than ask, as Chen does, What specifically about Facebook is so alienating? Or with Tufekci, How did new and existing resistance groups utilize social media in Egypt? the digital dualist either laments the loss of human connection or praises the Internet as Democracy’s love child.

A framework that acknowledges the richness and entanglement of our Web environment is one that realizes time spent online doesn’t necessarily mean time spent NOT having “real” “authentic” exchanges. It is a framework that judges communication technology by its efficacy, it’s ability to accomplish political and cultural ends, rather than dismissing one form merely to glorify another.

Jurgenson is careful and smart to reiterate that digital bits and material atoms are not, in fact, the same. In important and obvious ways (a lover’s touch, a classroom workshop, a platoon’s solidarity) physical proximity is sometimes the best way to forge trust and to communicate emotional nuance. Augmented reality assumes this. It knows this.

All Jurgenson wants us to do is realize the ways in which the digital and physical complicate and entwine each other. By ridding ourselves of the false dichotomy of digital dualism we free up intellectual space for metaphors and frameworks that better describe our particular moment in history: How an email might bolster a family tie, how a camping trip might inspire a blog post.

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