We’ve all heard or used the phrase “In Real Life” or IRL for short — and as mentioned in this post, I personally hate this phrase, especially when used on Twitter. Why? I’m so glad you asked!
I’ve been living part of my life online since the days when “social networking” meant a BBS and a 2,400 baud modem (and silly us, we just looked at it as goofing off). I’ve made friends (and probably some enemies) along the way. There have been good times and bad times. In short, just like my life away from the keyboard. And “IRL” isn’t just an acronym, it represents a point of view, and that’s what I really object to.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed many of my friends getting nervous about meeting up at Comic-Con (no, I’m not going, and still haven’t achieved a zen-like calm about it either!). Through no fault of their own, many of them have wrapped themselves around an axle because they’ll be meeting many of their Twitter friends for the first time in person. Usually their worries boil down to something like this: “What will they think of me? What if they’re hugely disappointed I’m not as cool in real life? What if I don’t actually like them as much?” and usually goes on in that vein for awhile. Now all of the folks I know who will be meeting each other regularly talk with one another on Twitter, sometimes exchanging dozens and dozens of tweets each day, as well as less frequently e-mail and phone calls. They’ve talked about deeply personal things that upset them or fill them with joy. They’ve had light banter and small talk. And many hilarious hashtags . . . oh, hundreds of hashtags! Information both mundane (“I Like Coffee!”) and transcendental (“Double Rainbows!”) have been shared in words, images, and video. Occasionally there’s even been drama, but thankfully at least in my experience, Twitter has been mostly free of that as compared to some other mediums.
So what’s all the hubbub, bub? No matter how geeky one might be, one still feels forced by societal norms to discount what happens online as less important and less meaningful. If everything that happens IRL is “real,” what does that make what happens online? Is it unreal? (still love that game! *grin* Made a lot of friends playing it too! ) Does it make it somehow less for the lack of additional sensory data? This is what doesn’t make sense to me. Great literature (completely subjective what you find “great” so not thinking of any one story in particular) is generally regarded as being “great” partially for seeming real, or for describing some truth that is universal – and it’s just text on a page. So a lack of sensory data shouldn’t discount the value of things online. And unless you like tweeting at bots, everyone you interact with on Twitter is, in fact, real. (Your degrees of reality may vary).
That’s not to say that knowing someone on Twitter means you know everything about them. But the same is true for knowing someone in person. There are friends that I’ve somehow managed to keep for almost three decades, and I can guarantee I don’t know everything about them and vice-versa. Again, Twitter and other online places, are not really that different from “real” life.
And as people living a portion of our life online — and chances are if you’re reading my blog and likely happened on a link to it from Twitter, this describes you pretty well — we need to stop buying into the perception that what we do online, whom we meet, and the relationships that have grown out of that are somehow less for not having occurred in person. Some folks I’ve met on Twitter I’ve actually met in person, and many, many more are simply text, avatars, and twitpics, or if I’m very lucky a voice on the other end of a phone (sometimes the voices even sing!). That said, those that are my friends from online, are well and truly my friends regardless if we’ve shared contiguous coordinates of space-time. Some of you are more like family than some of my actual family. Some of you I know better than people I’ve known for decades and played drunken games of I-Never with (talk about a way to get to know people!).
My point in all this is, both for those attending Comic Con and for those who have the opportunity in general, don’t fret over meeting someone you know only from online (standard exceptions for creeps and crazies apply). You’ve already met them. You already know about their spouse/kids/drinking problem/that bad date in college/etc. If you consider them a friend, chances are they’ll be exactly as you expected. I’m not talking about how they look, or whether they’re wearing an item of clothing that makes you want to cringe — that’s not what you’re friends with anyway. You’re friends with that wrinkly little brain sitting behind their eyes (and if so inclined, whatever spirit, soul, chi, etc. that you believe in — personally I think we’re all filled with interdimensional marshmallows). So be a true friend to each other, and in the spirit of a character that Heinlein probably still regrets even in death, grok and grow closer. Because in the end, when in a world of more than 6,000,000,000 you find someone you really click with, it doesn’t matter how you met or where each of you normally lives. I’m still enough of a hippy to think that’s actually pretty cool.
So be a friend to me and stop using “IRL” — it denigrates all that happens online as a mere sideshow and as I pointed out already, I think it can be quite a bit more than that. It’s just another method of communication which has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, but is not really better or worse than any other type of communication — just different.
Of course, we still need a nifty acronym to describe what happens offline — as a gamer, I’ve been using AFK or “away from keyboard” for ages to describe it in a sense, so let’s just say LAFK – life away from keyboard. For example “I’m really hoping to go to Comic Con next year and meet you all in LAFK!”