Humberto Maturana says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that language creates reality, and I agree. It’s for that very reason that I have been actively looking for new language to talk about online experience over the last several years. This is new territory we are pioneering, and how we name and talk about it is important.
In common discourse, online experience is often differentiated from “real” life and described as “virtual”, which indicates something simulating life, but not quite real. Well, that isn’t accurate; what happens online is just as real as what happens when we aren’t online. Of course all online experience isn’t the same and plenty of what’s going on online now is superficial or worse, but that’s a topic for another day…
As someone who convenes and hosts online engagements where people learn and share at a very real, deep level, the current lexicon just doesn’t reflect my experience, much less work its creative magic and open the doors to what might be possible now.
When we use “real” as an adjective to define what happens when we aren’t online, we undermine and undervalue what can happen when we ARE online. “In person” is almost as bad in that it infers we are not present, not in our “personhood” when we are online.
The IS some good language to talk about the way of being together online that I foster and advocate for in my work – “connected”, the “intimate internet” (Thomas Huebl coined that term – one of my favorites), the “digital realm”, “online environment”, “online engagement”, or “online participation”, etc. but my question right now is about naming the experience when we are not online in language that recognizes that there is a difference but doesn’t privilege one over the other.
If we say “offline”, for example, it privileges the online online experience as much as “real life” privileges what happens when we AREN’T online. “Face-to-face” isn’t a great differentiator either these days, when so much online interaction is happening on video conferencing systems. “In the physical world”, besides being a bit of a mouthful, intimates an online disconnection from our bodies and environments. In user-generated virtual worlds like Second Life, “real life” is referred to as “meatspace”, which seems just a little too graphic, not to mention reductive.
The truth is we are always in our bodies, whether or not we are online. We are always whole beings, with bodies, emotions, minds and spirits, no matter where we are.
One slightly more sophisticated way of understanding online experience is to describe it as “mediated” and that certainly makes sense when we think of being online in places with a poor or spotty internet connection, when the technology has a profound effect on our experience, or when technology is in the forefront of a designed experience in some way.
But when technology works the way it’s supposed to (at least in my world) and recedes into the background as it enables our work, in many ways there is not that much difference. When we are online we are able to make real connections and have real conversations, feel things, and relate to each other as human beings, just like we do when we are not online.
Also, I’m not sure I can say a conversation or relationship is ever unmediated by something. So that differentiation doesn’t completely work either.
What I’m exploring right now is the idea that language itself is mediating our reality. In other words, following Maturana’s thought, that the language we are using now creates limitations in the way we approach and experience reality in online contexts.
And that’s a nice way to say it. A darker view would say that the current distinctions we’re using to talk about online and ______ merely reinforce the worst of what is happening online. The reification of a state of disconnection from our bodies and the environments we live within allows and may even encourage a similar disconnection from lived reality, causing some of us to disregard our own culpability and the humanity of those we are interacting with. Given current trends of the numbers and frequency of online activity, this will only grow in the future and may become a serious problem if it isn’t already.
Clearly I don’t have an answer, but I do have the question, and I would like to hear from others, particularly my colleagues in the realm of online hosting, about any thoughts or ideas you may have been exploring in this area. What language do you use, or think would work well to differentiate between online events held in cyberspace and those held in physical spaces?
Postnote: I started working on this piece several months ago, and just hadn’t yet posted it (too many thing on the “to do” list). During that time I have been experimenting with the term “onsite” to differentiate from “online” experience. The online environment can certainly have “sites” (what are websites after all, if not places in the online sphere?), but somehow it seems to work, and it does meet my criteria for not privileging one experience over the other. What do you think about the word “onsite” as a companion to/differentiator from “online” experience?