For years it’s been common to refer to IRL (in real life) as the alternative to online. Phrases such as “I’d love to meet IRL” were grounded in ages-old (in internet years) communications on forums and early bulletin boards. It’s used as much today as it was then, but I find myself using it less and less as a way of differentiating between online and offline.
Today our worlds are interconnected realisations of both on- and offline conversations, relationships and experiences. We carry the internet, and all our online friends (family, acquaintances, bullies), in our pockets everywhere we go. They are part of our offline existence too.
Think about it. When was the last time you left your phone at home (or lost it)? The realising it wasn’t with you was hard to take – who did you need to contact? What if something happened and they needed to reach you? How would you fill in time on the bus?
Those people who exist online are being brought with you into your offline experience every day. They are your IRL experience.
Sometimes you can be more honest with people online than you can offline. I think it’s because we can share things online through music, images and so on that you just can’t do offline. I can post a picture of my local mountains and add some text saying how incredible it is, and people will dwell on the image. They will comment. They will support my fascination. They are seeing it through my eyes, with my response in mind whereas if we were together on the trail and I said the same thing, they might be annoyed by a dragonfly, or be adjusting their sunglasses. They might agree with me, but they have their own experience too.
Not to mention the ongoing debate over who your ‘real’ friends are. After all, if you’ve never met them physically how can they be friends? Well, try telling that to the people I’ve never met physically but who supported me through the horrible experiences I have had over the last year. People who know me better than the people I live next door to and see every day.
Finally, the most important thing to remember is that many people (especially women) are finding their voices online. As we approach a new BlogHer, I’m reminded of the keynotes for BlogHer 2009 where signs were posted and the doors closed. “Please no photography in opening keynote” – because the women presenting were literally risking their lives to blog. The reality for all these women, and for others suffering domestic violence, homelessness, loss of a child, and so on, is that their only true connection to the world of people who might listen to them is through their online presence. Their IRL experience is a little (LOT) different to those of us driving a minivan trying to get to soccer and basketball at the same time. But online there is a real opportunity for those experiences to be shared, understood, and connections to be made.
IRL is complicated. We throw the acronym around liberally, but don’t pause enough to reflect on what it really means. For me, I believe IRL is a mix of both offline and online, and I’m finding it easier to make that distinction and lose the baggage of supposed importance each of them carries.