50 years ago, Real Life didn’t exist. It didn’t need to. Everything that happened 50 years ago happened In Real Life.
No distinction between experiences that happened in the actual world versus those that happened in a virtual one could be drawn because the technology did not yet exist. Now, however, we’re frequently required to codify our experiences, to categorize our interactions—are they real or not quite real? Did something happen in real life or did it involve a computer? As the technology gets better, the line between the real and virtual worlds we inhabit becomes incredibly blurred.
The phrase “In Real Life” (IRL) first appeared in online games where the players had to distinguish between their own lives and the lives of their avatars. IRL, someone might be a mom or a student. But, in game, the person was a High Elf Wizard or Barbarian Shaman. Games like Ultima Online and Everquest—precursors to the extremely popular World of Warcraft—set the precedent for complete virtual immersion, where to remain competitive the gamer spent the majority of his or her waking hours in game. Here, the virtual world of dragon slaying, guild meet-ups, and exciting quests overtook the much more mundane real one, where you have scrape the ice off your windshield before driving to the grocery store.
The concept of In Real Life has expanded beyond the realm of video games. Now the idea is present in many conversations, even if the acronym “IRL” isn’t used. Our experiences are defined by the medium through which they’re communicated. And we have a tendency to give less credence to our virtual experiences even though they dominate our lives.
A friend was recently telling me about her relationship with a schlumpy dude. Each sentence was qualified by the medium of communication. “On Facebook he … but on Twitter … then over text … so when we finally met,” my friend said, “he seemed kind of normal. But yeh.” Although my friend wanted to give more weight to their in-person interactions, she wasn’t quite able to. How this dude behaved on Facebook, Twitter, and over text was more telling, in the long run, than how he behaved in real life.
This defies the past assumption that the person you are on Facebook, Twitter, or your blog is an avatar, just like in a videogame; except instead of being a High Elf Wizard or Cyborg Rogue, you’re a make-believe version of yourself—a projection, exaggeration, and misrepresentation that only partially implies who you are. Thoughts and feelings conveyed via Facebook, Twitter, or text message are generally given less weight than thoughts and feelings conveyed in-person, face-to-face. But with the so much of our lives now taking in this virtual world of social media and cellphone communiqués, where legitimate feelings are expressed through emoticons, where for years friendships are maintained solely through occasional emails and random comments posted to random photos, it’s necessary to ask: Are the lives we embody in this virtual world invented avatars—projections of ourselves as we’d liked to be seen—or are they who we truly are? Is Facebook you, in fact, the true you?
It’s nice to have a real life to fall back on, to think that what transpires on Facebook and Twitter and over text isn’t the true story, not deep down. If, on Facebook, you duke it out with your cousin about a topically salient political question and end up insulting your lovely aunt, that doesn’t count, that’s not you. Your raging Facebook self is a ridiculous, snappy, and ephemeral caricature; it’s a gross misrepresentation—not something that, as serious people, we should take seriously. Except this is no longer how we live. With the majority of our communications now being interfaced by this technology, the distinction between our virtual selves and our other, supposedly truer, “Real Life” selves is just something we cling to.