There’s a bit of a problem with discourse about the internet and how it fits into modern life. Whether the specific topic is about bullying, political activism, marketing or anything else, you’ll continually hear pundits referring to two particular universes:
The Real World
This is the world that existed before the internet. Sometimes I suspect it actually refers to the world that existed before computers.
The Online/Virtual World
This is everything which happens via network cables and wi-fi. Anything which is watched or read on a monitor screen. Material on social networking sites. Blog posts.
Thing is, online and offline haven’t been separate universes since the mid-2000s, if not earlier. I pick ~2005 because that was when Facebook, YouTube et al properly emerged, and it’s the growth of social networking that properly tied the digital realm to everything else.
There is no separation. It’s all simply the real world. Everything is interweaved.
Yet the term “in real life” remains. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, a holdover term still used by people who remember a time pre-internet. It seems unlikely that anybody born after 1995 will regard the internet as something ‘else’.
Why does this matter? Why does it bother me?
Because the people that trot out these terms most regularly tend to be policy makers; politicians, in particular. Most recently I’ve heard the dual-universe theory mentioned repeatedly in the context of bullying.
Or is it online bullying? Or, to use as even dafter term, cyber bullying?
No. It’s just bullying. It might be a slightly different delivery platform, but it’s still good, old fashioned bullying.
The risk of separating it off as some kind of other thing, something distinct, and taking place in a ‘virtual world’, is that it removes it from perceived reality. For the trolls and the bullies it gives them carte blanche: their actions in this virtual space don’t really matter because it isn’t real life.
The separation is a distraction. It makes the internet sound like something temporary and fleeting, something which will go away, where your actions have no long term consequences. It makes it easier to bully and pirate, because the myth of separate universes removes context and responsibility.
For both the policy makers and the bullies, to make decent progress we have to first jettison the idea of the two distinct worlds. We live in one reality, and the internet is an integrated part of it.