Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Internet and 'real life'

This post is meant as a short addendum to my previous post on sociology's problems in dealing with social interaction in virtual settings.

One of the things that often comes up in discussions among sociologists about the internet and online communities is when online events become 'real' events. For some sociologists, this crossover occurs when bullying moves from online to offline, when social movements that are organizing on Twitter make it into the streets, or when people looking for health information online take that information to their doctors' waiting room. For those of us who take the internet seriously as a realm of social interaction, all online events are real events.

About a year ago, Megwrites posted an excellent piece on the internet as real life. One of the many important points she makes is that judging the 'realness' of an action by its location in the physical world, rather than online, has the effect of creating a hierarchy of action that systematically privileges those people with the financial, emotional, social, and physical resources to engage in particular offline activities at particular times and in particular places. The "I didn't see you at the protest" phenomenon is one that assumes that the most valuable contribution to social justice work that any individual can make is to put their specific body in a specific place. If that place is not welcoming or unsafe for the individual for any of a number of reasons, their ability to register 'real' discontent is muted.

This is not to say that everything that goes on in online spaces is momentous or important. I feel just as comfortable acknowledging the existence of slacktivism on Facebook as I do the community-changing conversations that have happened in multiple online communities over the years. But slacktivism exists everywhere, online and off. Moreover, people's daily lives are a mixture of momentous and not-so-momentous events. That some of us kill time looking at LOLcats or watching mashups on YouTube is not phenomenally different than sitting around drinking beer and ranking sci-fi films or recipes or football players with your friends. The thing is, all of these activities -- online and offline, important and frivolous -- are real. People spend time on them, enjoy them, participate in them, and share them with others. The internet is not a separate sphere of the universe that we interact with, outside of the social context of our everyday lives. it is a part of that context. It would be helpful if we could start treating it that way.

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