Digital presence impacts ‘real’ world
Most of us would agree that we care about how we are perceived. We want to be heard and respected. This desire does not arise from mere vanity; we care what we do because we believe that it matters. This extends to what we do and say, or fail to say, when we’re on the internet.
Yet despite this concern, we do not take our internet selves seriously. The internet opens the potential for the exchange of ideas, experiences and sentiments on a great and unprecedented scale. With a little work, it could become a venue for radical interpersonal growth. But first we have to overcome its stigma as a socially dubious, marginal environment, and learn to take ourselves and others as seriously online as we do in person.
Our digital presence has a major impact on everyday social existence. Consider it in terms of numbers: On any given day, more people—dozens, even hundreds more—see our Facebook statuses, text messages, emails, postings and comments than they see what we do, hear what we say and respond to our actions in the flesh. Though we constantly try to distinguish between public and private life, that distinction breaks down when we go online.
If “private” is looking at myself in a mirror and “public” is looking others in the face, then cyberspace is a two-way mirror where we can’t see how many people—if any—are watching us from the other side. Because it is neither private nor public, we distinguish our time in front of a screen from “real life.” But those various users we encounter online are real people, and the internet is a real social space.
Still, the internet feels impersonal. Everything we see or write is mediated by a digital interface, which allows us to observe, ignore, react and judge it all with a spectatorial—even voyeuristic—detachment. Because of this distancing effect, the basic social boundaries asserted in everyday interactions are not explicitly imposed upon our digital contributions. The limits of acceptability are ambiguous and can be tested constantly.
As a result, the internet is often overflowing with things which have been pushed to the fringe of social life. It serves, among other things, as an outlet for our emotional and psychological detritus: vices, hyper-sexuality, repressions and secrets are disproportionately represented online. These otherwise potent and earnest outpourings, all lumped together in cyberspace, can end up looking like sheer nonsense and absurdity, loosely linked only by inane non-sequiturs.
Many would argue that, for this reason, the internet is not worth taking seriously as a social space, and should primarily remain a vehicle for silly—albeit entertaining—mental junk food. This assertion denies the possibility of opening up this new realm for the exchange of our loftiest ideas, feelings and aspirations. The internet is young, and we have yet to experience the full extent of its possible impact. It allows us to collapse the all-too-firm boundary between public and private life, which gives way to valuable new modes of expression.
Just as our actions affect those around us, the things that we see, say and do online affect the “real world.” Rather than conforming ourselves to conventional uses of the digital realm, we may seek to improve it, and so improve our whole, shared social environment. This is how we grow: together.