Precious (Binary) Illusions

I remember a writing seminar I was in - about ten years ago, now. During the critique of a short story by a classmate that featured instant messaging, the classmate said: 'I wrote this because I believe nothing important can be said online. Nothing really important, anyway.'

We have this mental framework: digital – distraction – loneliness, and face-to-face – intimacy – meaning. The first set is billed as generally negative, while the second set is billed as positive. Scholars like Sherry Turkle, especially in the social and humanities portions of academia, can take this dichotomy also: that the digital is a curiosity, that relationships and networks made digitally are somehow not the norm. Or that such relationships simply aren't 'real' – that we are substituting constant digital connection for meaningful conversation. It can be likewise inferred that what we are connected with digitally is but an illusion, a copy at best and a series of lies and deceptions at worst.

I put this to you:

If nothing important can be said online, if the physical is – by default – more worthy, then why do we have practices like 'doxxing' – revealing personal addresses and details of a person as a way to get vengeance? Would that not be counted as a threat impacting the workplace / school life and private life of that person any other time – what about the online space makes it different? Should it be treated differently at all? Why do we have software like Skype, allowing us to keep in contact with those in other towns or cities? And how is this different from phone calls – another mediated communication, with no body language cues? And why then, on a more personal note, are the friends I've had for the longest time (12-14 years, at the moment) also those I have met and talked to primarily online? If nothing truly important can be said online, then it would follow that friendships would not be able to start or primarily take place in forums, chatrooms, discussion boards, or those channels. My work is done digitally just as much as my friendships are digital.

It's not all peaches and roses online either, though. If we think of the physical as raw – like cutting into an onion and causing tears – the digital can be just as raw. It can hurt: we can learn about the death of friends, or broken relationships, or see pictures or people telling us we're worthless. Parts of it can make us uncomfortable: from political extremism to sexual kink communities to creepy urban legends to hearing about sexist rants and abuse at conventions. We also have our favorite places and people as well as those we try to avoid. We have our favorite places and the places (and people) we try to avoid. We can find satire and extremism and death and work and love – all of these, just as we can in the streets and driveways, parks and bathrooms.

So what is the illusion – if there even is one – here?

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks via Compfight cc


A similar discussion occurred in my Freshman composition class a few weeks ago. Several of my students, the supposed digital natives, commented that online or Facebook friendships were not "real" friendships. I was surprised by this because many of the students spend much of their time/lives in digital spaces. There lives are played out via Facebook status updates, Instagram pictures, and Vine comments, but they do not want to consider this space a real space. I asked them if they considered the people in the class "real" friends. Many of them remarked that they were classmates or associates, but not "real" friends. Why can't this be the same for online or Facebook friendships? I remember when the word associate was applied to a person with whom you were linked but not personally connected. Why doesn't this same language apply to online friendships. We seem to privilege the physical, ignoring the "real life" implications that online has in our lives.  I wasn't aware of this binary. Now, I wonder of its implications. If things that take place online are an illusion, what about teachers who instruct very meaningful courses online? What about students who receive degrees from attending online classes? Thanks for the post. It really has me thinking of the ways I may be reinforcing this dichotomy between physical and online spaces. 

You're welcome!

Yes, conversations like that - taking place among the supposed "digital native" generations - are why I wrote this particular piece; if we consider Facebook or Twitter or Vine to be "less real", then of course it's no surprise that racism, sexism, doxxing, stalking, death threats, etc don't get as much attention as they would otherwise, even though it affects physical spaces and safety. If we say Facebook is "less real", then why are employers looking at Facebook posts to screen out applicants? If we say online classes or learning are less privileged, what about those who cannot access physical classes for whatever reason - and the structures we create in doing so? Etc.

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