As the COVID dance of lockdown laws and ever-changing restrictions continues, online interactions have become the norm. If I’m not facilitating an online workshop, I’m group chatting with friends or attending my millionth Zoom get-together. In a recent meeting, a fellow writer said she couldn’t wait to meet me “in real life”. “But,” I said after unmuting myself, “isn’t this real life?”
With the dramatic changes our work and social lives have taken this year, it may feel like we’ve hit pause on “real life”. On social media I’ve read many laments of wanting to “delete 2020” and comments like, “When will we get back to reality?” This makes me consider if our world is “on hold” or if this pandemic space we now inhabit is more liminal and less simplistic than we think? However, this isn’t just a gap in time. Time is still running and unfortunately 2020 can’t be cancelled.
The term “in real life” or IRL emerged in the early days of the internet to distinguish between offline and online, positioning offline as the “most real”. However, as the internet has progressed in gigabyte leaps and bounds and our lives have continued to embrace the digital, it seems misguided to dismiss our online interactions as “unreal”.
If the online meeting I had yesterday isn’t “real”, does that cheekily mean my deadline is also not real? Are the distanced classes my partner is taking no longer important or assessable because they’re off-campus? Or do we need to reconsider the weight and authenticity of our online interactions and reframe what we consider “real”?
“I remember in late 2016 I went to the US and met up with a friend I made online,” says writer, editor and digital media artist Rory Green. “I remember being surprised how natural it felt after we hugged, like we had always hung out face-to-face even though we rarely video called one another.”
I have many online friendships I cherish just as much as in-person hangouts with my pub trivia teammates. And my relationship with my long-term long-distance partner is dominated by instant messages, emojis, selfies and phone chats, all of which are extremely loving, sincere and real.
“Removing ‘IRL’ from the ‘online versus IRL’ debate has made me really reconsider how I use tech and online spaces —, not just as a way of meeting new people, but as a way of maintaining existing relationships too,” says digital storyteller Tegan Webb. “All intimacies feel different, for sure, but not inferior. Just different.”
Admittedly, talking to my partner on the phone is always different to speaking with them in-person and there’s a magical feeling attached to being in the same room as them, especially after being apart for so long. However, when we’re online we’re also not really “apart” because neither interaction is lesser than the other, just different.
When contemplating her online communications, Tegan says, “It’s funny the things that have really stuck with me — friends leaving voice messages instead of texts, seeing people’s bedrooms in the backgrounds of video calls, having unexpectedly long chats while playing online games.”
As our new digital day-to-day continues to unfold, our intimacies and the ways we relate to one another have shifted. I love noticing people’s pets in the background of their Zoom calls or seeing Instagram live stories of them cooking dinner at home, just like me.
“It feels silly to separate people into URL/IRL friendships because the spaces bleed into one another,” says Rory. “I’d guess that many more people are conscious of this bleed now that so much COVID-19 communication and socialising is done online.”
This “bleed” is one I recently witnessed when attending the Emerging Writers’ Festival closing-night event. I turned on my fairy lights and danced to DJ Papiwhatsgood alongside fellow writers and artists, their friends and partners, and of course their pets. I was able to attend this entire festival without leaving my house, giving me the comfort of knowing I didn’t need to risk my health to have fun.
The biggest surprise was feeling like I was in the exact same room with other people dancing and loving life even though we were all in our separate isolation bubbles. Like many things that are considered merely black and white, the binary of “real life” versus “online” is full of grey areas and far more fluid than we think.
“I think people who don’t accept the premise that online interactions are ‘real’ often do so to avoid accountability,” explains Rory, referencing the online bullying and trolling that can occur in semi-public internet spaces. “To me it seems like a way of downgrading the significance of these events to suggest things are either not that ‘important’ or conversely not that ‘bad’.”
The value we place on certain experiences and interactions has an impact on how we perceive them. To dismiss online as less “real” than offline downgrades the negative impacts of online bullying and the significant impacts internet communities have on movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Such socio-political online movements have successfully mobilised using social media and other internet platforms. To dismiss online as less “real” also deprives us of the many ways we can communicate and form community, especially during these times.
The unexpected intimacy of online spaces is revealing new and hopeful ways for us to interact with each other and find our communities. “To me, being ‘real’ is about being authentic,” says Kieran Bicheno, digital editor of Standard Media. “Having the choice of text, audio, visual or physical communication gives people far greater ability to be ‘real’ to themselves.”
Attending my weekly yoga classes isn’t the same now we’re not on premises, but my bedroom floor and my yoga mat create a great makeshift studio and seeing my fellow classmates’ videos as they practise beside me feels both peaceful and personal. These classes aren’t any less enjoyable or any less “real” than my regular in-studio classes. They’re just different. And I’m okay with that.
Rae White is a non-binary writer and poet. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth (UQP) won the 2017 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Their short story The Body Remembers won second prize in the 2019 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction. Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife Journal for non-binary creatives.