This is Real Life

The funny thing about milestones is that, when they happen, you don’t always realize a milestone is happening.

I remember flipping out like I’d won the lottery the day my dad told my sister and I that we were getting AOL. I was probably seven or eight. He installed the client with floppy disks, so I can’t have been too old. That was a major milestone in my life, but all I cared about was that my cool neighbor Josh (who was 5 or so years older than me and played guitar and was therefore my idol) had AOL and now so did I.

Today, I don’t really remember a ton from those early years of AOL, except looking around for every Star Wars chat room I could find. But the reason I see that as a milestone is because I haven’t been offline since. There have been some incremental updates since then, like cable Internet, Facebook, and MMORPGs, but that was the day that started it all.

The shape of Internet activity, usage, and influence has changed dramatically since then, from the dotcom bust to the Arab Spring to the current American presidential campaign, but I want to highlight one particular factor that has a knack for sneaking by under the radar: people don’t “go online” any more. We are online.

Consider this: with dial-up, we only spent certain times online because they needed to keep the phone lines open. Even after DSL and cable came along, for a while most people still had desktops with network cables plugged in, so you still had to go to your access point to get connected. Now we have laptops, tablets, smartphones, WiFi, and 4G. If you’re reading this, odds are you actually have to go out of your way to not be connected to the Internet.

All of that was preamble to the main point I want to make in this post: if it happens on the Internet, it’s happening in real life. I’m going to repeat that, please read this slowly and let it sit for a moment before you keep reading. If it happens on the Internet, it’s happening in real life.

Twitter is public by default. Hundreds of millions of people are on Facebook. Youtube comments can be read by anyone who goes to the video. None of these things may look or feel as real and serious as talking to someone face to face, but they’re still messages you convey from yourself to whoever can read it.
Depending how you feel about technology and social media, that idea might be exciting or scary, or it might just seem obvious, but it’s important to remember because it’s far too easy to think of the Internet as this distant, other thing that only matters when you’re there. But the truth is that, whether your username is John Smith or pizzalover52, your online interactions are real interactions with real people.
So that’s the main point: this is real life. The internet. Social networks. Digital life. It’s all real. What do we do about that?
I have a few suggestions, and then I’d love to hear yours.
  1. Be consistent: if you’re normally friendly, you can be friendly online. Anonymity creates a powerful temptation to do things you would never do “in real life” because no one will know it’s you. But you’ll still be doing unkind things to real people, and you’ll still be acting unkind, which will have an effect on you, even if not on them.
  2. Love your neighbor: Jesus* taught to love your neighbor, and dispelled the notion that “neighbor” could be boxed in by limitations like proximity, nationality, or beliefs. So even before the Internet, everyone was your neighbor, but now thanks to the Internet, everyone is next door.
  3. Be holistic: try to present your true self online. It’s tempting to only post your funniest jokes and your greatest accomplishments and your most flattering pictures. I won’t suggest that you counterbalance that by posting your deepest darkest secrets and pictures of all your zits, but consider being a little more vulnerable. You can get a surprising amount of support from friends on Facebook if you’re honest about the fact that your life isn’t perfect. Just give it a shot.
What do you think? How do you embrace real life in the age of the Internet?
* I don’t think you need to be a Christian to recognize that everyone is your neighbor and that you should love your neighbor, but I do believe his way of making his point was one of the best.
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