Way back in 2011 I embarked on a project exploring the colloquial distinction between “the Internet” and “the real” — as in, “Linda, why don’t you join us in the real world instead of texting your friends?” I interviewed friends, parents, and acquaintances hoping to identify the differences between online and offline experiences, and coming to the conclusion that our current, lived experiences were only tangentially related to our concept of “being online”. Instead, semi-obsolete technologies and normative assumptions about what characterizes “authentic” experience loomed large in my interview transcripts.
Five years later our everyday lives are more enmeshed with the virtual than ever, and I feel compelled to revisit my earlier project. Have our concepts and mores shifted with the times— or is our concept of online experience rooted in something more permanent that the technologies that continually reshape and transform that experience?
I originally suggested that our conceptual division between the virtual and the real seemed to be based on an outdated bodily experience connected with being online. Just a decade ago, being online was something one did for hours on end, seated at a desk, looking at static text and images. In “Life Online”, published in 1998, Annette Markham describes her experience of “cyberspace”:
Sometimes I blink and realize I must not have blinked in a long time because it feels so good. I’ll close my eyes for a while, enjoying the sensation of not staring bug-eyed at the glare of the computer screen. My back constantly aches no matter how I adjust the chair. If I don’t chew gum, I clench my teeth… (Markham, 1998, p.59).
This description may still characterize some forms of online experience but with the shift towards ubiquitous and mobile computing technologies this is only one among many different types of online experience. One young professional described this shift in the basic nature of being online: “Logging on with AOL, with dial-up and stuff…I was online. Just the fact of getting online was a big deal…whereas now I’m basically always online…the Internet is just in the background.” The Internet is no longer a foreign experience, discrete from the rest of our offline experiences, demarcated by the signature beeps and boops of a dial-up connection and associated with a particular form of embodiment. But the outdated experience described by Markham continues to permeate our archetypal understanding of “being online”
In addition to this somewhat obsolete distinction between types of bodily experience, part of our conceptual division between the virtual and the real is based on an implicit assumption that online experiences are simulating “the real.” We think that online experiences are an attempt to replace or to mimic reality— an idea which manifests itself most prominently in the case of online sociality. In my interviews, online sociality was commonly cited as being most noticeably “unreal” form of online experience, describing at length the fundamental differences between social media and face-to-face interpersonal interaction. This iterates common tropes about online sociality as “false”, or otherwise detracting from forms of offline sociality (ie, Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together”, 2012). By why is this different form of sociality automatically understood as “false” or “unreal”, rather than as parallel or complementary? Why do we assume that online social experience is meant to simulate or even replace offline social interaction? Online sociality inevitably takes the place of some other types of social interaction but ultimately these technologies are never designed to replace or even to mimic traditional forms of offline interaction.
Again, it is possible that older forms of online sociality — like strangers talking in a chat room late at night — still dominate our understanding of the experience. Newer forms of online sociality are increasingly enmeshed with our in-the-world activity, moving away from a desk and into embodied, physical conversations. New technologies are shifting the dominant paradigm of online activity towards augmentation rather than simulation. We can maintain features of traditional forms of sociality – mobility, synchronicity, body language – while adding a new, enhancing features, like extreme spatial distance, searchable hashtags, or gifs in a Slack chat.
Of course, what complicates this argument is that the online experience is not cohesive or universal for all individuals. Simulation-oriented forms of virtual experience now exist alongside these new forms of augmented experience. Many users spend hours immersed in virtual worlds including MMORPG games like World of Warcraft. These kinds of virtual experiences are becoming even more immersive with the development of higher quality graphics and exploding online gamer communities. How can we characterize “the virtual” when experiences of being online run the gamut from the passive, augmenting experience of having a smartphone in your pocket to the immersive, simulating experience of spending 8 or more hours a day playing in a virtual world? It is still too early to tell, but it seems that the radically discrete forms of online experience are becoming obsolete even in the case of heavily simulated experiences. New technologies (and perhaps our own predispositions) are driving virtual experiences of every kind to be increasingly enmeshed with offline embodied experiences and activities. A lovely example of this is in-person e-sports (Mozur, 2014), a hybrid of immersive/simulated and the passive/augmenting forms of online experience. It is an experience that is both “being online” and simply “being.”
The difficulties of characterizing virtual experience will only become more complex as new interfaces and practices of use are developed. But the question is not, as they say, “purely academic”. Much of the current way we talk about “the virtual” and “the real” carries important normative weight about what kinds of experiences are more or less legitimate. As virtual experiences diversify and invade every aspect of our lives, it will be increasingly important to have a nuanced understanding of virtual experience and its normative standing within our society.
- Markham, A. N. (1998). Life online: Researching real experience in virtual space (Vol. 6). Rowman Altamira.
- Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic books.
- Mozur, P. (2014, October 19). For South Korea, E-Sports Is National Pastime. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/20/technology/league-of-legends-south-korea-epicenter-esports.html