An Open Letter:
Please stop using the term “Real World”
The terms “real world” and “real life” are used to ascribe the term “real” to a physical world within the context of opposition to a digital world. This creates a dichotomy that assumes the pejorative “non-real” or “less-than-real” title for digital space. Experiences that exist through a screen may seem detached due to the level of mediation, but they are just as real as anything else.
Take for example the increases in online bullying. In studies published by Common Sense Media (2018)[i] and Pediatrics (2018)[ii], the increase in social media usage by teenagers and an increase in suicidal ideation or attempts show a correlation. While it is easy to see the connection and understand that social media usage is making teenagers more likely to engage in suicidal thoughts or actions, a more nuanced explanation is needed. Which social media platforms are risky? In what ways is social media being used? What specific parts of social media have the potential for behavior modification? The very idea that hateful speech, threats, or harassment are somehow less than real if they exist digitally is downplaying the experience of today’s adolescents and makes finding solutions to the problems more difficult.
Or, look at how the media covered the incidents that took place in Charlottesville in 2017. The numerous articles and interviews described the main difference between the alt-right movement and the KKK or Skinheads, by pointing out that the latter were organizations that “existed for the most part in the real world[iii].” Thinking about the alt-right communities that exist mostly online as less capable and less real than similar groups that have existed in a physical space, allowed for their growth as a movement to go largely undetected and out of public discourse until it was too late. In hindsight, we can observe the relationship between physical action and digital assembly are inextricably linked. It is now more important than ever for us to learn from our mistakes and realize that the language that we use fundamentally alters how we understand the relationship between digital and physical.
This isn’t a conservative or liberal issue. Notions of the “real world” are brought forth by individuals from across the spectrum in the arts, academia, the news, etc. A good example would be MIT professor Sherri Turkle’s books The Second Self (1984), and Reclaiming Conversation (2015). They warn of the dangers of the digital space and applaud the physical world. I am not arguing with the notion that the digital world can be dangerous. From data breaches to behavior modification, the digital world has many risks. What I am arguing is that the concepts of seeing the digital and physical worlds as separate spaces, as Turkle has proposed, does very little to alleviate problems and does more harm than good. After establishing a hierarchy of physical over digital, Turkle suggests a solution of turning off your phone or stepping away from your computer to regain a sort of utopian Thoreauian experience. This is a solution of abstinence. If experience in sex and drug education has shown us anything, it is that abstinence education is not only ineffective in preventing individuals from engaging in risky behavior, but also creates a population that is ill-informed about the ramifications of their decisions and are unable to safely navigate the dangerous space. An understanding that the digital world is a tool that exists within the physical world is the first step into solving the problems that the digital world creates. Solutions should exist in a better understanding of how the protocols of digital language alter the ways we think and behave. An understanding of such nature will lead to more thoughtfully design software, more nuanced research, and more autonomy in how the decisions we make online affect us.
It is for these reasons that I no longer will be using the term “real world,” and that I ask that we as a society put this phrase to rest. A language alteration of this nature will not make any real change overnight but could have a colossal impact upon our future. A world that accepts the realness of digital experience could make people think differently about the hateful and hurtful language that the anonymity of the Internet makes so effortless. It could allow us to pay more attention to things that we see and hear online, and understand how it translates to a physical space. It could lead to a public demand that we rewrite our laws on data security and create a public that is more inclined to question what sort of personal data is collected and how it is being used. It could change the questions we ask about how specific protocols affect our well being, and it could create a demand for more transparency and more thought from the designers and code writers that create the tools that we have come to rely on.
Beyond our understanding of digital and physical space, and beyond the language that we use to talk about it, this is an issue of combating binaries. Often when we are presented with a new idea, it is our default setting to try to understand it through touchstones of the world that we know. We see this in the language surrounding people who are gay/straight, female/male/non-binary, POC/white, American/non-American, Able-bodied/disabled, etc. It is easy to try to understand things in drastic binaries and neglect the uncertainty of existence that lies between the two. By asking you to stop using the term “real life,” I am not asking you to understand the Internet, the physical world, or how to navigate a space that contains both. I am actually asking you to do something much more difficult. I am asking that you be okay with not knowing. By admitting that you don’t have the answers and are unable to classify, quantify, or place an idea within a specific category, you allow yourself to ask questions about meaning and experience. It is a very difficult, and uncomfortable place to reside but is the sort of place we need to strive for. A change in the language that we use to understand the world around us is a good place to start.
[ii]Hospitalization for Suicide Ideation or Attempt: 2008–2015
Gregory Plemmons, Matthew Hall, Stephanie Doupnik, James Gay, Charlotte Brown, Whitney Browning, Robert Casey, Katherine Freundlich, David P. Johnson, Carrie Lind, Kris Rehm, Susan Thomas, Derek Williams
[iii]All Things Considered interview with Audie Cornish and George Hawley, August 15, 2017