The internet is real. Things which happen online really happen.
Depending on your experience of the internet, this might seem anywhere from completely obvious to blatantly untrue. In this post, I want to explore why after some consideration I’ve decided that it is true, and why it matters.
Recently I hear someone describing a meeting from a while ago in which some of the people were physically gathered and some were present via an internet connection. In her description, she contrasted those who were ‘really’ there with those who were there ‘virtually’. I understand why and this is a common way of thinking about such situations – but I also think it opens up the path for a really problematic mistake.
There’s also a lot of discussion around at the moment about how a remote meeting, for example via video conferencing software, is different to one taking place in person. I agree that it’s useful to get at that difference and notice what does and doesn’t happen – but that difference only makes it a different thing, not an unreal thing.
A meeting held online is still a meeting. A person you talk to online is still a person. A relationship which happens through an internet connection is still a relationship and it involves a connection between two people.
Why is it a problem to say that the ‘virtual’ is different from the ‘real’? When I was young, I was taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. I spent a long time trying to pretend that was true – but it isn’t. Words and the lack of words, the way you are treated and the way people behave, has a very real effect. This is not to diminish the problems of physical violence: sticks, stones, fists, and bombs are all damaging and at the same time that lockdown is putting some of us in much more contact with the internet, it is also leaving some people in more physical danger from abusive relationships and other problems. It is to place a value on mental and emotional health which isn’t always present in the society in which I live. If it were true that words could never hurt, they could also never help or otherwise affect us. If it were true that the social world to which words belong had no effect on us, it might also be the case that stuff which happens online wasn’t real.
Words can hurt – and encourage and support. Someone in a video conference (as those who have been trolled or Zoom bombed know) can hurt – or help. At the moment, I’m talking to a lot of people, mainly in the Quaker community, who were previously aware of the internet as an option, perhaps for a limited range of activities or in a rather abstract way. They are now suddenly using the internet for almost everything, and finding steep learning curves with new software and being surprised by just how many things are already happening online. A lot of us are very grateful to have this option – and aware of those who don’t. Some are also puzzled or inclined to keep regarding it as unreal or second-rate. Saying that the internet is real doesn’t mean you have to like it, either: I don’t like mangoes, but they’re real.
There are things for which a purely online meeting is obviously not adequate: getting a massage or going to the dentist, for example. But a meeting held by video conferencing is still a meeting – it can make you feel better or worse, decide your action points and your attitude – even as you might struggle with the dissonance of the presence of faces and voices in the absence of bodies. And the chat you have on Facebook is real, and the connection you feel when someone posts is real, and the affection – and the annoyance and the ambivalence – we build up as we meet the same people again over time are all real. It’s virtual too, of course, but that’s the medium, not the message: a hologram of a dinosaur is a real hologram of a dinosaur.
Implying that things which happen online aren’t real, while perhaps useful for expressing frustration at what the internet can’t do or enabling you to dismiss things about it you dislike, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the situation. For those who have made real connections through the internet – often an important source of social contact for disabled people, for those who are isolated, for most of us who are in lockdown or social distancing, and for those who anyway chose to connect online through social media, email, dating sites, and so on – hearing that online friendships aren’t real, online dating is disordered, or connections through the internet will never measure up to the standards set by those who can choose to focus on in-person connections, can be deeply hurtful. Please don’t even start down that road. Online stuff is real stuff.