Is This IRL?

…is this just fantasy? Now that song is stuck in your head.

I recently read Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang’s In Real Life and I loved it. This graphic novel deals with the issues of sexism, online relationships, economics, and 3rd world exploitation—all wrapped up in an easy-to-digest story for young adults. Wang’s artwork perfectly captures the whimsical and vibrant world of MMOs. I often found myself torn between pausing to appreciate the artwork and reading onward. I can’t praise it enough; no matter your age, you’ll take away something from this book.

Personally, I can’t stop thinking about its namesake. In Real Life is the perfect title for this story because it demonstrates how our online in-game actions affect us in real life, or “IRL.” This phrase is ubiquitous on the web, especially in online games, social media, and forums. We use it to differentiate between online and offline lives. This phase seems convenient and innocuous, but is it fair to designate the analog world as “real life”?

What does that mean to be online?


Before we have a digital existential crisis, let’s examine “IRL” and its uses.

In some cases, “IRL” is useful for distinguishing reality and fantasy. In MMOs, for example, players role-play as characters and act according to the game’s context. Because players assume their characters’ identities in the game, they say “IRL” to talk about their offline identity with little confusion. In other words, it allows players to separate fantasy (the game) from reality (life outside of the game). But players can slip out of character unexpectedly, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

Sometimes players attack other players with personal insults and derogatory comments, a behavior commonly labeled online harassment. Although these attacks occur in-game, it leaves victims feeling upset or even threatened. Despite role-playing as characters in a digital landscape, our feelings are always “real life.” We just happen to sit behind a keyboard.

Unlike MMOs, it’s misleading to say “IRL” in social media and other venues where we portray ourselves online. Although it signifies a separation between the analog world and the digital world, discourse still takes place in real life. To imply that online discourse is not real may prevent people from thinking about the real consequences of their speech and actions.

If we hurt somebody online, we hurt somebody IRL. We could even hurt ourselves—ask Justine Sacco.

It’s too easy to overlook humanity on the internet. Our thoughts and feelings are broken down into text in a single context with open interpretation. Even now, my words are just a voice inside your head. This voice not be actively speaking to you in person, but I am still speaking to you. You’re interpreting my words with real thoughts. This is a real message. This is real life.

This rambling sounds like a call for political correctness. It’s not. The phrase “IRL” is already part of our lexicon and can be very useful in certain contexts. This post is a a call to shift our way of perceiving the world, both analog and digital. We should be as conscientious online as we are in person.

Perhaps Freddy Mercury was a prophet. On the web, there’s no escape from reality.

Freddy Mercury Memorial

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