What is the real world?

What is the real world?

I recently returned from backpacking in the rainforest with my dad. For five days, we were miles and miles from the nearest paved road or cell tower. Near the end of the trip, I told my dad wasn't sure if I wanted to return to "the real world," but he insisted that the real world was actually out in that forest. This thought brought me great comfort. Quite honestly, it’s the kind of thought that makes me want to consider leaving the Internet and only build face-to-face communities.

But then I went immediately from that real world to Portland, OR to attend XOXO, a conference celebrating Internet culture and creativity. There, I reflected on the "realness" of the Internet world, filled with lots of people from lots of backgrounds, who every so often make magic happen. Folks like Stacy HornJonny Sun, the creators of Glitch are just a few examples from the 1980s to today.

The contrast between the natural world and the Internet world lead me to ask, What is the real world? 

As a teen, I discovered an online music forum where I found a deep community. It was love at first sign-on. Online, I was able to play with new identities and separate them from my high school identity (which is actually healthy for teensand doesn't make me any less authentic of a human being, thankyouverymuch). I found my voice and a sense of safety in a chaotic, unstable adolescence. It was a whole world unto itself, no less legitimate than the natural world. 

Who is to tell me that anything we created or felt back then - no matter how long or short it lasted - was any less real than what we find in nature? 

Yes, we still need face-to-face connection. And the Internet has largely failed us because what's been created on it often leaves us feeling empty, not "enough", wanting more. We can practice moderation and balance, but for-profit companies building many of the social spaces online today have stacked the cards against us in this regard.

This isn't a failing of online community and the Internet as a whole. It's a failing of the creators who have come before and had the power to build what we now see as the Internet world. But the online world isn't going anywhere. We just have to build something better (safer, more valuable, less selfish, informed by psychological research about mental health, less addictive) than what came before.

So what is the real world? We get to decide and create our own. Perhaps any real world is just a place where we can go to express our identities, either in whole or part. There's conflict there, and messiness, mistakes, experiments, and failed attempts. That's what makes it real: we keep trying despite all odds, and we find some connection there, no matter how long it lasts.

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