Is This Real Life? In Defense of Our Virtual Connections

Brass Tack Thinking - Is This Real Life?It’s important for me to say something emphatically and as clearly as I can.

This IS real life.

Or a facet of it, anyway. One that is very much alive. Communications that happen on Twitter or Skype or Facebook or blogs or whatever are every bit as real as a conversation you might have over the phone or email.

Is there an increased ability for disingenuous sorts to use those conversation mechanisms for subterfuge? Sure. That’s not a new concept, either. The jackasses adapt to the tools at their disposal, and the availability of more and faster tools doesn’t and never will change human nature.

But for heaven’s sake, I’m so weary of seeing people chastise others to “get offline and experience real life” or some such. (The irony, of course, is that these folks often do so using the very social networks they’re disparaging, but hey).

Way back when, we used letters to keep in touch with people that weren’t geographically near, like my Gramma did with her husband during WWII. Then it was the phone (remember the advent of three-way calling?), email, and things like IRC. AOL took chat mainstream, and the internet populated with more and more tools to keep in touch, to communicate, to talk to one another when physical proximity wasn’t possible.

We were okay with the analog stuff to which we’d spent many decades adapting, but we still haven’t wrapped our heads around the virtual side of things, it seems.

Understand this:

Human relationships have many facets. When they’re real, they’re not real because of the things we use to cultivate them. They’re real because the human bond is there, the connection that extends beyond the means. No tool, website, or thingamajig can take that away, and none can replace it entirely. When it happens, that bond between people – either personal or professional – is as real and genuine as the individuals themselves.

Some of that bonding can and will happen outside the realm of sharing the same square footage. It always has. Distance has never prevented humans from growing close to one another (and by some adages, it can bring them closer still). Now we’re tossing out all kinds of shiny new ways to bridge the distance, yet somehow we think they’re changing the very fabric of our desire to be close to other people. And that’s just not so.

Face time is irreplaceable, because humans respond to things like voice and body language in a visceral way. We’re very tuned to those unspoken things and they can be important in forging a lasting bond between people. And I’m all for turning off the phone and the computer to enjoy those in-person times to their fullest.

But relationships are complex and intricate, not linear. Electronic communication can be a very dynamic and legitimate part of them. And when we find people we love, care about, believe in or are interested by, those connections are not defined by the vehicle. They transcend them.

Personally, I’ve found some of the most important people in my life thanks to the web, and it’s the same thing that keeps us connected when we can’t be together. If you can’t or haven’t found that, I’d submit that you’re not looking hard enough. And the rest of us would appreciate it if you’d stop your self-important assertions that “real life” stops at the keyboard simply because you don’t understand, or because you’re not willing to.

I’m not sure what my concrete takeaway is for this little rant, but I hope that if you’re one of those people questioning the value of relationships developed online, you’ll open your mind and find a few people who can explain to you what it’s meant to them. And if you’re one of those who have experienced this, share your experiences with others and explain how much the electronic world has helped you shape your offline one.

I think it matters. It does to me, anyway. You?

A special tip of the hat to @daviddentist, whose hysterical video inspired the title for today’s post.

image credit: the Comic Shop

  • Joey Strawn

    Beautiful. Simply beautiful. Mitch Joel had a similar post about the IRL acronym and I agreed with him then and agree with you 100% now. I’ve seen REAL growth in my personal and business life because of relationships that have been built on nothing more than Twitter. Connections have been made and some of the biggest achievements I’ve seen this year have been facilitated by and celebrated on virtual communication channels.

    Thanks for taking a real stand and putting your voice out there on this issue. Again, it was beautifully written.

    • http://twitter.com/oline73 George Haines

      I agree. I am a teacher and when people find out about what goes on in my class, they usually ask “How did you do that?”
      The word Twitter is usually in the explanation. Whether it is someone I bring in to my class to chat with my kids or another class that my kids collab with, or even just a new educational tool that we use by ourselves in the class, so much of what we do stems from the connected lifestyle I live.
      People who think Twitter is silly can keep watching Everybody Loves Raymond reruns, I’d rather connect with teachers in India for a project with my 7th grade bloggers.

      Thanks for writing this and putting words to my feelings!

  • http://flashfree.wordpress.com Liz Scherer

    Amber, the IRL comment will die its natural death as we gain more and more connections via the interwebz. In fact, it’s already being replaced with “face to face.” But as much as I value some of the friendships and relationships I’ve gained virtually, I also feel the occasional need to unplug and be in the moment. Whether we call it “real” or “virtual,” it’s become our reality. And yet, for many, it is an excuse not to participate in the face time with other folks. At the end of the day, this virtual extension of our lives needs to balanced. Everything in moderation. Thanks for a great post.

  • Aaron Schinke

    Love. Love. Love. People fear what they do not understand. Let’s just call it what it is. Fear and jealousy.

  • http://www.cc-chapman.com/ C.C. Chapman

    I have nothing to say except HELL YES because you know I share the same thoughts with you.

    Of course this post made me miss you even more. Safe travels. *hugs*

  • http://www.ann-sense.com/ Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR

    The thing is why do we feel like we have to defend our online connections? They are just as solid and often more so than real life relationships. Online relationships like in real life are what we make them. Thanks to social media I’ve been able to connect with great people I would have never met away from my computer. Those relationships have been so enriching and I’m truly thankful for them.

  • Whoiamnotwhatiam

    Amber, this is a great post. My friends that I have made online are irreplaceable and it hurts a little when others criticize their authenticity. These friends that I have chats with everyday about literacy, diversity, self-esteem, the future of Detroit are very engaged in my life. They support my growth as a business person, author and friend. Kudos to you for shedding light in a remarkable way about the value of online connections! :)

    Tara Michener
    http://www.taramichener.com

  • http://twitter.com/DaveBenjamin David Benjamin

    Just the other day I was having a conversation with my non-tech mother who asked, “Do you see people in real life or just talk with them on the computer?”

    Here’s the sad truth: I see and talk with more people in person in one month than she’ll connect with in a year. There’s still a lot of misunderstanding and misguided thinking when it comes to online activity.

    Looking at some of my best friends today, business partners, clients, and mentors (people like you, Brogan, Gary V, etc), my life is so much more complete in every way. I still have my long time friends who are not typically found online. I still talk with people on the phone, see people in person…I still do all the things I use to do, I just think I do them better, more efficiently, and I’m not looking to apologize to anyone.

    Awesome post Amber.

  • http://www.crossingmarketingandit.com Elmer

    This post is right on. I can’t fully express the value of knowing the great people I’ve met through Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Some I have met “IRL” and some I haven’t. Regardless, those connections are very real and very valuable to me. The only thing I can suggest to those who don’t understand is to get out there and see for yourself.

  • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

    There’s no question one can build awesome friendships and relationships virtually. I agree there are some very important people to me who I have met online. But there’s also no question that physical proximity strengthens ties. Most (not all) online relationships are ones of passive, weak ties. Out of sight, out of mind. (And a passing avatar on a Tweetdeck screen often isn’t enough to compensate.) Do my online connections matter less to me than people down the street? Some do, some don’t. But the critical need for human connection … yes, offline connection … will always prioritize strong tie, offline relationships over those that are not. It’s not a question of anyone “getting” it. It’s human nature.

    • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

      Is there a way to clone your comment and take it as my own? Well said, Mr. Falls.

    • Anonymous

      I couldn’t agree more. I’ve chatted with some amazing people on Twitter. Some relationships are inherently passive ties. As you put, “out of sight, out of mind”) But, I can tell you from personal experience, nothing is better than meeting that online friend face-to-face for the first time. It’s awesome.

  • http://rickcaffeinated.com Rick Stilwell

    I’m on board – have found over the years that online ties are just as if not more strong than handshakes. But I’ve found over the past year that meeting face-to-face, at least for me, raises the level of all the online relationships to something new. Saying HI to you at SoFresh Charlotte helped me think more of you AND of the people you interact with, with others I interact with, etc.

  • Anonymous

    I agree. Life is largely about relationships. Twitter, Facebook, SMS, Skype, and other tools enhance and enable the relationships in my life.

    It would be odd if the self-righteous “experience real life” comments went the other way. I can’t imagine interrupting someone’s F2F conversation and saying “Stop talking and go Skype each other…get a chatroom!” But maybe now I’ll try it…

  • http://twitter.com/milwaukeedesign Jeff Coon

    Well put Amber. I totally agree and have found this to be so true. We have built some very strong business and personal relationships via Twitter and LinkedIn Groups. We have gotten direct business from our online engagements – which proves that these tools can be effective for generating sales when done correctly. The collaborative nature of these social networks and the generous sharing of information has also helped us become smarter business people and more effective at doing our job!

  • http://twitter.com/lorimillerwhnt Lori Miller

    This discussion is just like all other discussions about social media — people getting distracted by the tools and forgetting about content and quality. The real question: what is the quality of our relationships? Forget online or offline, they have different nuances and depend entirely on how you use them, not because of any inherent strength or weakness. Of course face to face is important. But I tell ya, the coworker who insists to walking to my office for every little thing and shuns email is annoying beyond words.

    Our relationships are not more or less because of the methods we choose. They simply are.

  • http://blog.esimplestudios.com Gabriele Maidecchi

    I am guilty of referring to “offline life” as “real world” sometimes but I am well aware of the misuse of the term. Human interactions are human interactions, wether they are made face to face or online, there’s no real difference as long as we keep the same standard in both situations.
    Unfortunately there are those behaving differently in the “two worlds”, something I never truly understood, in that case I see why the online world is considered something so detached.

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    Well said, Amber. I have a very conversation as the above w/ K-Dawg every so often. Can you build really really strong relationship with someone online? Without a doubt. Do they all turn into a solid relationship? Of course not. But then again, that same thing holds true with all relationships – some work out, some don’t. The key is that, as you mention, the online stuff has allowed me to have relationships w/ folks that I likely would not have had otherwise (i.e, YOU!). That being said, those relationships after often strengthened after coffee, beer, gambling, and other face-to-face events.

    One thing that I’ve noticed is that a percentage (maybe 42%) of the folks I connect with online turn out to be duds when I finally meet them in person. Depending if you are a glass half empty or half full person, that hit rate could be a good thing or bad. I see it as pretty good. 58 out of every 100 online connections turn out to be worth it. Not too shabby.

    I tend to agree w/ what Jason Falls wrote in his comment, specifically that “Most (not all) online relationships are ones of passive, weak ties. Out of sight, out of mind.” Again, analyzing this comment from the “half-full” perspective tells me that it’s still worth it.

    That’s all. You can rant any time you want.

  • http://twitter.com/ajlovesya Allison Jones

    This is my first time commenting and I just had to thank you for this beautifully written piece. In the past three years that I have been blogging about social justice careers for young people I have met amazing people that I honestly feel privileged to know.

    And it really irritates me, and is sometimes hurtful, when people assume that my relationships arent real or are brought on by some kind of inability to make “real friends.” Quite the contrary: I have been supported and encouraged by a large number of people online. Also, I find that people’s attitudes/behaviors online mirror their behaviors in person so there is really nothing fake about the relationships I build.

    Thanks again for your insight.

  • http://www.annbevans.com/ Ann Bevans

    Nice post, Amber.

    I met my husband online during the paleolithic days of the internet (before we had eHarmony). He signed my guestbook (remember those?).

    My best friend and Creative Director popped into my life via Yahoo Messenger three years ago. And I’m so grateful to have reconnected with a dozen people from my past that I never would have found without social media.

    Virtual friendships will never replace having a cup of coffee with someone you love – my trip to London to meet up with the aforementioned C.D. was epic!) but we should never dismiss such a useful medium as “not real enough.”

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    One more thing that this post reminded me of…

    When I was growing up, her mother (my grandmother) lived in Israel. Yup. 6,000+ miles away. My mom did an incredible job making sure that my sister and I had a strong relationship with her. How did she do that? Well, considering that it was the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, we did it the traditional way – phone, handwritten (and then typed) letters, trips to Israel (my first plane trip was when I was 6 months old). My grandmother moved back to the United States in the late 1990s. She passed away a few years ago. Just the other day, I found an album that she made for me. It was an entire book of emails that we sent back and forth when I was in college. She printed out emails! (Who does that?). As you can imagine, I was bawling while reading the emails. But that’s not the point.

    As technology changes, we find new ways to communicate – to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones.

    My mother has a great relationship with my sister’s 4 children. She lives 60 miles from them so they do a ton of face-to-face. For good or bad, her 5th grandchild (our 9 month old daughter, Eva) lives 2,000 miles away. While it’s not as far as Israel, it does mean that she doesn’t see Eva as often as she’d like to. My mom has made it a point to see us at least 4x a year. I love her for that as it’s important to us that she has a great relationship with our daughter. How do we keep in touch? Not letters (Eva can’t write) & not the phone (Eva can’t talk). We post pictures on Costo Photo Center. We send pictures and video via our iPhones. We use SKYPE! Again, as technology changes, we find new ways to communicate. I think my mom is kinda bummed that Eva doesn’t send her cards or write letters. I’ve tried to explain to her that technology is changing and that in many ways, how we communicate today is BETTER. I’m not sure I’ve sold her (yet) but I do know that she loves the pictures, videos, and Skype.

    • http://www.jasonmkey.com Jason mKey

      Thnx for the story DJ. What a great footnote to this post

  • http://socialthreat.com Davezilla

    This is slightly askew to your topic Amber, but it ultimately relates. In 1988 I had a conversation with an artist. He was an oil painter and I had recently switched to drawing using only Adobe Illustrator.

    HIM: “Did you draw that woman?”

    ME: “Yep. Do you like it?”

    HIM: “Well it’s technically good but … it’s not *real* art.”

    ME: “Yes, it is. How can you say that?”

    HIM: “Because digital is not real. That’s just a bunch of electrons floating around.”

    ME: “So are you.”

    HIM: “Hm. Good point.”

  • http://twitter.com/daviddentist daviddentist

    Amber, thanks for a great post and the shout out to David After Dentist.

    Obviously, we have benefited from this form of communication. We have had some wonderful experiences, met some cool people and even made a little money. This would have never happened if wasn’t for our virtual connections.

    I could write a blog post of my own on how this has affected our family. However, I will save that for another day. What I want to share now is how virtual connections have come to play a big roll in how my family is dealing with tragedy.

    My sister, Kristi Shores, was diagnosed with stomach cancer on Oct 29. We were devastated. The last few months have seen her condition worsen and we are enjoying what little time we do have left with her. Needless to say, it has been a very special Christmas.

    My whole family is into Facebook, even my 66 year old dad. We all turned to Facebook to communicate the news to family and friends. In fact, the majority of updates, news and wishes of support have been through Facebook and her blog (http://hopeforkristi.typepad.com/blog/)

    This has allowed people from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands to keep up with Kristi’s situation. We have even had two prayer vigils scheduled for her via Facebook.

    Yes, some of this would have happened without the virtual connections, However, I am convinced it wouldn’t have been to the degree it has been and less of a blessing to our family.

    As the outpouring of support for her and her family grew, we quickly realized we needed another way to communicate. While, the emails and phone calls were welcomed, it takes time to answer each one, which meant not answering them or spending less time with Kristi or dealing with her care. Neither was an option.

    We quickly setup a blog on Tumblr but switched to Typepad when Tumblr went dark. BTW, are they back on yet?

    The outpouring of love and support on the blog as been even more amazing. Just to know how many people care enough to take the time to visit the blog has brought much needed comfort. As of today, the blog gets about 600 page views per day and each post (her husband, Ryan, updates it daily) gets multiple comments. The 5 minutes it takes to post, replaces the hours of phone calls and email he would have had to do otherwise. As you can imagine, to him hours mean more than they normally do.

    While this has not made dealing with her illness any easier. Virtual communication has made it easier for us to update with each other, and for others to express their love and concern to Kristi and her family.

    The most important thing it has done is give us more time and TIME is what we need most of all right now.

    David DeVore
    David’s Dad and Kristi’s big brother
    @daviddentist

  • http://www.twistimage.com/blog Mitch Joel – Twist Image
  • http://www.thetrainingfactor.com/ Jonathan Saar

    Amber thank you for pouring your heart out on this topic. I love the timeline illustration that takes us through other tools we have used to keep connected to those we care about. I am super grateful for all of my virtual connections. When I have those individuals for the first time in person I have felt like I am seeing a long lost brother or sister. Unfortunately many have tarnished the image social media really should display. The main word is social and antisocial approaches just do not fit. Thanks for all your wonderful posts this year!

  • http://zachcole.com Zach Cole

    I couldn’t have said this any better. I think this is absolutely the truth. Sure, it’s nice to have face time with people, but online interactions are real and meaningful as well. It’s just a matter of the communication medium changing – that’s all.

  • http://twitter.com/shellyalcorn Shelly Alcorn, CAE

    You know, I just used the term “IRL” today in a Tweet and the very instant I sent it I wondered what the difference is anymore. You knocked this post out of the park. It IS real life. I’m going to retire that concept right now and vigorously defend “virtual” as “wholly legitimate.”

    Thanks so much for the post,

    Shelly

  • http://paulgailey.com Paul Gailey

    I’m glad as I read this now and nod away, that it is not the back end of 2006 when ‘predictions’ abounded that we would join others in Second Life. ahem….about the same time Twitter was knocked up.

  • http://ianmrountree.com Ian M Rountree

    Tomorrow, it’ll be a year since a very good friend of mine – who I only ever knew online and over the tenuous phone connection – passed away quite suddenly.

    I spent a week in ruins. Her husband – who I know very well, and have since we met on a chat twelve years ago – is still recovering, I’m sure. their two sons are too young to have long-term memory of her as well.

    If the connections we make online aren’t real… Nothing is.
    Here’s what I wrote last year. http://bit.ly/gTEdIK I’m going to call Dave tomorrow. It’s going to be very hard.

    Thank you, Amber. Not everyone has the clarity to speak about the gap perceived in “real life” versus “online” relationships.

  • Anonymous

    Wow, Amber you hit the nail on the head with this post. I’ve had many many conversations about this very topic. Through Facebook, Twitter, Skype and so forth, it allows us to connect with people on a deeper level. Yes, some of those relationships may be shallow or not work out, but others very well do. Particularly, when those conversations bridge the gap between online and offline. I can’t tell you how amazing it is to meet a Twitter follower face-to-face after chatting with them online via Twitter and/or Skype for months, or years. Certainly, all of these relationships won’t hold up. Some people inevitably will not portray themselves accurately, but it sure is awesome when a solid relationship is formed.

    I think you summed it up best when you wrote, “They’re real because the human bond is there, the connection that extends beyond the means. No tool, website, or thingamajig can take that away, and none can replace it entirely.”

  • http://www.jasonmkey.com Jason mKey

    Thanks Amber. This post is the written translation of what I’ve said to many people over many different occasions.

  • http://www.brickmarketingsocial.com Nick Stamoulis

    The way life is has changed drastically, and so has the way we interact. My interactions personal and business have been some of the most rewarding. I see nothing wrong with this sort of interaction. In fact just yesterday I was talking with a friend about a couple who has only interacted via text, and that friend turned to me and said, “what they feel no need to speak over the phone” my answer was…anything goes these days, because what is socially acceptable has changed.

  • http://twitter.com/TMIFred Fred Abaroa

    Funny I released what may be a companion article yesturday http://bit.ly/f0SRkX

  • The Q

    “Personally, I’ve found some of the most important people in my life thanks to the web, and it’s the same thing that keeps us connected when we can’t be together.”

    I could not agree more!

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  • http://twitter.com/martinlieberman Martin Lieberman

    Right on. I’ve said for a while now that the people who don’t like Twitter are simply the people who don’t use it. (Like, *really* use it. Not just listening but actually engaging with other people.) I’ve met so many people this year thanks to Twitter who I would never have met otherwise. Hopefully people who think like you (and all us other commenters) will become the mainstream next year, not the exception to the rule.

    • http://www.thetrainingfactor.com/ Jonathan Saar

      Martin- I RT that :)

  • http://twitter.com/ed_han ed han

    Amber, this was well said indeed. I’ve had similar discussions more than a few times in the past half decade or so. Well done!

  • http://twitter.com/mediasres @mediasres

    I agree with much of what is claimed here about virtual or online communications being “real”, but…

    AN “When they’re real, they’re not real because of the things we use to cultivate them. They’re real because the human bond is there, the connection that extends beyond the means.”

    There is something else about what makes something “real” that is missing, or diminished in online communications. Something is Real in fact because of the way that it resists us. A rock is “real” because it resists our touch. People are real in how they resist us. Resistance is what makes us grow and respond. Online communications in their many forms are indeed “real” because there IS resistance “out there” but in many ways this resistance is quite different, much more subtle than it is in the meat world. The resistance mostly is a resistance to attention. Being paid attention to. It is not entirely the same thing. Also, in online media there are ways around resistances that simply are not available in the otherwise real world (for good or bad).

    To really appreciate and get the most out of online connections and communications, I believe the nature of their resistances (that which makes them VERY real) needs to be made more explicit.

  • Joyce Brayboy

    I enjoyed reading the ideas here. I most like when you said that relationships are complex. We are always trying to define something, but human connection is not easily boxed and labeled. Face-to-face interaction may provide the most powerful bond because it is physical, however, when you look at many of the benefits of relationships – insight to others’ perceptions, to self and to the world around you, the Internet is a safe medium for disclosure without fear of judgement.

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  • http://twitter.com/joeslaughter Joe Slaughter

    Thanks Amber. Very well put. I have many relationships & I feel like they are all of such varying types & at different depths, that Social Media relationships don’t give me a problem. To me, Social Media works just like real life. It’s just one more way to walk by, hear a comment or give one … and see if it needs to go any deeper. Some of those have then grown to reading blog posts, meeting the person at an event … and in some cases, actually becoming a local, “real life” (whatever that means now) friend where our families have had dinner together, we’ve even checked on their kids when we found out they weren’t feeling well …. Like “real life” meeting of people. And in some cases, I feel like I know much more about them than those who don’t connect “virtually.”

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  • http://juliaprior.weebly.com Julia Prior

    I just came across this post and I have to say I loved it! I often try to explain to people the value of the relationships I’ve found on Twitter, and deepened through using Skype to connect. People who aren’t involved with social media don’t quite get it, and you explain it quite nicely.

    • http://www.sohbetchat.gen.tr mirc

      mIRC, IRC chat.

    • http://www.sohbetchat.gen.tr mirc

      mIRC, IRC chat.

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