“In Real Life” shortened to IRL is a term that has become common on the internet to describe events that happen offline. “She’s one of my IRL friends,” is something you may read and not give a second thought to but if you value your community online you should stop using that phrase. It devalues your relationships and helps promote the idea that the bonds we form with our online friends aren’t as “real” or important as those that we can physically touch. I have replaced IRL with “in the wild” because IRL is ableist and judgmental.
The major difference between your online and offline interactions is that offline, you have less control over who you meet. You can’t control who you see walking down the street or the coffee shop. Whereas online, you can pick and choose your interactions in a variety of ways. You don’t have to go to every forum, you don’t have to respond to every message. Offline, it’s a jungle out there hence, in the wild.
There is this strange belief that what happens online is somehow less important than what happens in a face to face, physical setting. That somehow there’s a magical force field that keeps people from forming complex relationships with true feelings just because there are screens involved. Primarily it’s because the ubiquitous nature of digital communications has happened at lightning speed and humanity just hasn’t caught up to the change.
To be fair, it’s not a perfect medium for communication. Most of the nuances in our communication is nonverbal and that tends not to come off in a digital landscape but that’s not the largest problem in communication via digital means. The larger problem is that people simply don’t treat it as a way to really connect with people.
This is evident in the slew of reports like this one that indicate that people lead double lives online. That their online world is a perfect representation of what they think they should be instead of who they are. This idea that you “shouldn’t put your personal business on Facebook” leads to people creating online personas that share their names and faces but none of their hardships.
Which is, in a way, fair.
Our social media profiles are populated by close friends and causal acquaintances. Just like in the wild. You know a mix of people, some of which you will share the fact that you’re struggling with a medical issue or fears about the future but most of which you’ll just talk about your kids finishing the school year or vacation plans.
That doesn’t mean that what you see isn’t real life. It’s just the front facing portion of their life. Just like when you go to the grocery store and the cashier asks about your day, you don’t tell them you’re worried about the results of your HIV test even if that’s what’s currently on your mind. You tell your friends that. The problem isn’t that these front facing profiles exist, the problem comes when there isn’t an outlet for the reality.
It’s not that people lead a Pinterest perfect life, it’s that they don’t have an outlet for their everyday lives. Think of the perfect housewife who drinks or the prom queen with bulimia. People hiding who they are has been happening forever and is a function of being a social human. People need other people that they can relax around, friends that they can truly be themselves around. For some people, their friends exist online.
This happens for a variety of reasons. It happens because some people are incredibly introverted and just can’t deal with people for very long. It happens because someone may live in a place where not many people share their interests. It happens because someone may be disabled and simply cannot get out of the house much. Or they get out a lot and have people all over the planet they want to keep in communication with.
No matter what the reason for building these online friendships, they are real friendships. What happens online in the communities and forums that you find yourself in is your real life. The private messages where people confide in you or the groups where you may find yourself giving advice are real. The people on the other side of that screen are real. Your feelings for them and their feelings for you are real.
Not everyone you meet online is going to be your best friend. That’s true in the same way that not everyone you meet in the wild is going to be your best friend or even a good friend. It’s true that people lie and manipulate others online but it’s also true that they do that in the wild. People are going to be awful to other people no matter where you go. Whether it’s face to face or not. The internet didn’t make them that way, they are just that way.
By dismissing these relationships we are telling people that the feelings they feel don’t matter. We are falling into extremely ableist ideals because we are pushing a form of interaction that not everyone can participate in due to disability and limitations. We are ignoring the complex realities of many people and pushing everyone into the same box.
By saying that online relationships aren’t just as important we’re dismissing the needs of people who can’t be their true selves for safety reasons, we are telling them that it’s more important that they form unsafe connections with their neighbors than turning to a safe online community where they can be themselves.
By saying that they don’t matter you are telling the harrowed young mother that the group of people who talked her through her 3 AM feeding trouble and were there when she was in the deep pits of PPD are less important and meaningful than the friend she knows from work who hasn’t spoken to her since she had the baby.
The online world isn’t just geeks arguing over the more nuanced possibilities in their fandoms or teenagers sending each other snapchats. It is a varied and rich environment filled with all kinds of people. Some of them are silly and some of them are serious. Just like your everyday life.
The biggest indicator of whether an online relationship is real and meaningful is how you feel about it. If you go online and post with the idea that it doesn’t matter or that people who take the time to message you or comment don’t really care, then you will not form those bonds. This isn’t happening because your online interactions don’t matter, it’s because you don’t value them. You cannot build meaningful relationships if one half doesn’t care. This is true in the wild and it’s true online.
In short, if you want to make friends, you must first be a friend yourself.
I have online friends who have supported me through thick and thin. I have friends in the wild who have done the same. All of these people are my real friends. Everything that happens online and off is my real life. It all matters.