Digital life is real life

I get increasingly irritated by people who talk about the difference between digital lives and real lives. Tony Wang, the MD of Twitter UK even did it when responding to the furore about trolls and rape threats on Twitter. I think that attitude is part of the problem.

Digital tools are just that. They are aids to communication. Do we talk about our “telephone lives”? No we don’t. And that is because that particular technology (yes, the telephone is a technology too) has been around long enough to be taken for granted. The digital tools which we have not yet got used to using (and I include email which is in this category for some people) just haven’t bedded down yet, but they are incrementally taking over from other forms of communication. What we do with digital tools is a manifestation of what we do when we communicate face to face. The latter is what many call “real life”. But it is no less real than talking to someone on Facebook, where the people doing the communication are (in the main) real people. The tool is what brings them together.

So, why do I think people perpetuating the false divide between digital and real life are doing something damaging?

Well, I think it encourages the view that the digital arena is a different world where the rules of normal life don’t apply. And while it is an undeniable truth that digital tools give the trolls opportunities to hide behind anonymity, I believe that people who behave badly, consistently, online, are those who also behave badly when interacting face to face. But, there are those who make genuine mistakes, whether it be in tone, through insults, or posting inappropriate material, who have been lured into this kind of thing by the aura of difference. Often, they only make the mistake once if it is drawn to their attention or if the mistake has negative consequences for them.

The reality is that social media is just a set of communication channels. If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, you shouldn’t use digital tools to say it. But seeing digital as different leads some to forget the simple rules of life, including common courtesy. And the mainstream media is very happy to fan the flames of this kind of negative publicity as part of their campaign to protect themselves from social media’s ¬†power to divert its audience’s attention elsewhere.

And there are also those who see social media like a walled-garden community. They live their “digital lives” like a group of English ex-pats in Southern Spain, refusing to engage with the local culture and ordering teabags and marmite from home. These are the people who only see digital tools as being something you use when sat at a computer and wall these kinds of interactions off from the remainder of their lives. I suspect a lot of decision-makers are in this category, seeing the digital realm as being the world of spreadsheets and “reply-to-all” emails, rather than an enhancement to life which opens up a world of knowledge, entertainment and new contacts.

Smartphones and tablets are growing in popularity every day, and they are allowing people to be connected via digital tools wherever they are. This is not some kind of robotic world of connection to the digital brain, because the digital brain is all of us. The people we are connecting with are real people. Why do so many forget that?

7 thoughts on “Digital life is real life

  1. I’ve been on the ‘net since 96. In fact my very first use of the net was to help me with an issue I was having at the time that I couldn’t get help / support for very easily in ‘real life’, I got it in spades from the people I met in the chat rooms / message boards / mailing lists I used at the time. Some of them I still communicate with on a very regular basis. We either meet in chatrooms, FB, Twitter or at conferences, on holidays or just by popping round to people’s houses. (One of my active FB groups is a group of mums from the primary school my boys go to!).

    I’ve never seen the divide that other people do. Its a difficult one for me to understand and have much patience with (and increasingly so – hence my mutterings at the meeting we were both at recently…)

  2. I must admit that even I will say about doing something “in real life” – even though I agree with you about the danger of seeing them as different. I would hope that people find that when they meet me in person, I am the same person as they communicate with online. There is a difference in communicating with people when one can see them and see their reactions, and have the risk of a physical response.

  3. I’ve just returned from a visit to help a very small volunteer centre (4 staff) in a lovely part of Derbyshire (Ashbourne) to get more of an idea how digital tools can help their work. It was a good day with some breakthroughs, but also some very real barriers that fit in with your post John.

    They are open and receptive to digital tools, despite the CEO admitting she was a dinosaur (in tech terms), she wanted to see her organisation grow and there to not be a distinction between how they are face to face and how they are on-line. A new website is coming, they have a smartphone, are hoping to try Yammer to help staff across two offices see that digital encourages social interactions and both are real life. We made good progress.

    But the culture of small rural organisations and the way of life is the barrier. Here and with similar organisations I’ve worked with recently people were phoning in to the office for information, dropping by with cheques for events, eagerly anticipating the next (highly costly) glossy newsletter and even the staff only open their emails once a week. These are the people not (or barely) on line and with an audience like this it makes the case for the organisation to remove the digital / real life harder to justify. I see this all the time on my travels up and down the land.

    We ended positively. They know, to survive and to attract a wider audience and younger volunteers, they *have* to do more digitally and I guess for there to be no real difference between the two worlds.

    I think this where the face to face ‘Show and Tell’ sessions and the Social Media Surgeries can help, over a cup of tea it’s easier to see that the digital world is in fact real life anyway.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Mandy, Janet and Paul.

    One of the things that really gets me is when I spend a day showing people digital tools, they get all excited about them, and then they do nothing with them.

  5. This evening I took part in a Google+ Hangout while walking the dog in the woods. It was a brief intervention as my phone battery died. But, it was nevertheless an illustration of the ability to blend the digital and the offline

  6. Hi John, like this post a lot – especially this “…like a group of English ex-pats in Southern Spain, refusing to engage with the local culture and ordering teabags and marmite from home.” :-)
    It points to one possible mindset that reinforces the digital/real divide: fear of the unfamiliar and unknown. There’s a sense of us (the normal people who read newspapers, sit in meetings, attend conferences, throw barbecues) and them (strange pale-skinned computer monkeys only interacting through keyboards and posting random sub-cultural references all day). What they don’t realise is there is no us and them. We are all at the same meetings, conferences and BBQs, we are taking the same bus to work, sending our children to the same schools, supporting the same football/rugby teams.
    As long as real/digital is seen in them/us terms (reinforced by media stereotypes for the reasons you mention) then the uphill struggle continues, we need to shift the message to “Everyone Deserves Digital in their Lives” and make those still to come aboard realise that they’re missing out.

  7. Pingback: Are Digital Friends, Real Life Friends | Through Glass

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