I got onto the internet at a very young age. My father, a software developer, would hand down no-longer-sufficient computers to my brothers and I. We always had the highest speed internet despite living in the countryside. And so, as I grew older and more inclined towards anxiety, I spent more and more time online and less IRL.
My first haunt on the internet was FictionAlley.org, a Harry Potter fan community. I remember joining their chatroom as “red dragon”, a name that I was convinced was edgy and adult because it came from a novel that I probably shouldn’t have read at that age, but did anyway. From there I got to Livejournal, to other forums, some of which I ran (shoutout to anyone who somehow remembers Hogwarts: The Next Generation).
I found my way to MUDs (text based MMOs, the early precursors to games like World of Warcraft), and spent vast amounts of time playing them – I have characters that were logged in for over a literal year of playtime. I made friends on the internet that I retain to this day, including some of my closest and dearest friends.
And, all the time, I referred to my offline life as ‘IRL’ – because it’s what you did.
In many of the roleplaying communities I was part of, this made a bit more sense. After all, I was spending that time pretending to be someone else. But in the roleplaying community, people are still, generally, held responsible for the things they choose to roleplay.
This is not the case with existing on the internet in general – definitely not now, and not really then either.
Because even for people who aren’t part of roleplaying communities, offline is referred to as IRL – in real life – and online is deemed separate from that. Your online life, therefore, is not real. I’ve always accepted this terminology, but more and more, I’m starting to doubt it.
I’m not the first person to do this, either.
More and more you see people posting on social media about the term IRL, and how much of a problem it is – often in the context of people who are abusive on the internet. And that’s obviously a huge part of the concern I have, but actually, my deeper worry is a lot more pervasive.
Because what I worry about more is that by separating our online lives and offline lives, we don’t just dehumanise online lives – we devalue them.
Five years ago this year, I started a volunteer job which totally changed my life. It taught me to work hard, to persevere, manage and complete projects, and introduced me to some incredible people including the woman who inspired me to publish a novel and the woman who is my closest friend.
And that job? Is entirely online.
I’ve met some of the people I work with in person, but the vast majority of our interactions are digital. I talk to them every day, almost without exception. Together we’ve been through tough times and brilliant times and everything inbetween. We’ve created incredible things and changed the lives of others too.
That is what we are devaluing when we separate it from so-called “real life”.
Yes, the internet can be a terrible place. Yes, people are addicted to social media in a way that is worrying – and I truly mean addicted. There are ways that the internet is changing our society that are awful.
But there is so much that the internet does that is absolutely incredible, and that is what I fear the loss of more than anything. It’s all connected, too – the value we place upon our online lives is linked to those internet abusers. Because if we all valued our online lives as much as our offline ones, if we saw them as the same thing, that dehumanisation would be much less possible.
So that’s why I’m going to try and stop using the term IRL. It’s going to take a while – it’s hard to take words out of your vocabulary when you’ve used them for so long. But I think it’s important to.
I want us to value every part of our lives – pixelated or not.