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?