What's Wrong With the Phrase 'In Real Life'

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I confess to using the acronym IRL (in real life) on occasion to draw a distinction between my life online and my life offline -- the real one. But this has always seemed like a false distinction: My online life feels real: I have real conversations with friends, real emotions while looking at old pictures, and real laughs from funny videos or sites. What about this isn't real?

In the video below, Canadian social-media theorist Alexandra Samuel calls on us to give up this idea that what happens online is not "real." Rather, she says, "When you're online, you're often more real, more authentic, than you would be offline." If we take our online lives more seriously, and recognize that other people online are real too, we can build a more empathetic, thoughtful, and interesting Internet, she says.

The distinction isn't purely psychological. Samuel argues that collectively discounting our online experiences leaves them vulnerable to regulation and censorship. "If we are not prepared to acknowledge our online conversations as real, they can be shut down," she says.

Samuel's talk is a helpful check to the calls for quitting the harried, socially-networked life and spending more time being more "present" in unplugged quiet. The problem isn't the screen or the Internet connection; it's what we do with them. And there's no reason we can't be as present, or as real, when we're online as when we're off.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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