The Real World

Posted by

If there’s one acronym I hate, it’s this one: IRL.

IRL stands for: In Real Life. People talk a ton about what they’re doing online versus what they’re doing in the real world. People often talk about meeting-up in the real world once they’ve connected in places like Twitter or Facebook.

Let me ask you this: when you’re on Twitter or Facebook or Blogging are you not in the real world?

When you’re online, are you fake? Is your online avatar simply that: a representation of who you would like to be instead of who you really are? As the great philosopher, Popeye, used to say: "I yam what I yam." People will look at me sideways when I say that online social networks are the real world. They don’t buy it. They think that you can’t create and nurture a "real" relationship online. Anything "real" has to take place in the "physical" world. This is not clear to me. It’s confusing, and it often confuses me when I think about it. I am typing this Blog post right now in the real world. I am using real world emotions. I am using real words. I don’t consider any of this virtual. I don’t consider any of this fake or inauthentic.

All of this exists in the real world.

Take a look around you. The chair you’re sitting on. The screen you’re staring at. Look at the four walls. Look at the clothes you’re wearing. Think about these words. Let them sink in. Does any of this not feel real to you? It feels very real to me.

The words we use create the world we live in.

If we say that everything online is not "the real world," we are – to some extent – diminishing it, dismissing it and making it seem less substantive than it is. Does this Blog post hold less value to you because it’s not on a page stapled to other pages with similar articles and ads? Don’t get me wrong, pressing the flesh and meeting in our protein forms is critical. This is not about removing the human factor and the amazing collaboration that happens when we meet in person, but when you’re online, you’re still in the real world. When you’re online there is still a human factor and real collaboration does happen when individuals are not in the same room.

This is the real world. This is real life.


  1. Nice post, Mitch. Clay Shirky in Cognitive Surplus makes this point pretty clearly. The term cyberspace is quickly becoming obsolete as the line between digital and “IRL” becomes blurred. In fact, I always think it’s odd when people boast of their digital sabbaticals. The digital reality is inescapable.

  2. Perhaps it’s the acronym that needs adjusting. Chatting on twitter isn’t the same as having a face to face. The actual meeting is of greater significance. It takes effort. It takes two or more people wanting to connect on a deeper level. You’re right, it is all real life. But on twitter and other social media platforms, we’re doing it through a window. Face to face (F2F) removes the barrier and you get to see the real person, all their body language, all their real quirks, all the things that make them what they are day in and day out — not just a smiling avatar.

  3. Amen!
    But could that (juxtaposition of the online to the “real world”) come out of the anonymity that is almost synonymous with early-day social media (message boards, etc)?

  4. Though I completely agree that this “IRL” thing is silly and the connections we make online are real just as talking on the phone makes it real and writing a letter using the alphabet (just another technology) is real, there is a difference.
    Maybe it’s the expression that has to change. We need something else to say whether we are connecting in person or online.

  5. Agree, but my point is that if you’re having a conversation over coffee or chatting over Twitter, it’s still in the real world. It’s still real. One is not “less real” because it’s not taking place face to face. Is a phone conversation not happening in the real world?

  6. While I want to agree with you, I tend to agree with the theories of the great sociologist Erving Goffman – – who wrote extensively around front and backstage behavior.
    My point is that even in the “real world” we act differently depending on the situation and the medium. It’s true being on the phone is done in the real world, but I play on a rugby team, and the way people act on the field is widely different than the way they talk on the phone to their girl friend. It’s like they’re two different people.
    All of these interactions are done in the real world, but the medium and the context make them widely different. In this sense, twitter conversations will never be the same as a face-to-face interaction.

  7. Well said Mitch–and a personal pet peeve of mine too. I remember my first day of college one of my amazing profs lecturing the class about referring to the “real world” because we were doing real work to get us a job while we were there and if you don’t treat it as such you’re probably in trouble when you graduate. Stuck with me (and obviously WRT social media as well.

  8. I actually do use the term IRL, having grown up using services such as IRC and later, ICQ to socialise.
    But I do not do it to divide my social connections into what is real and what is fake. It is to define where the connection is. Another commenter raised the point that online is just as real as talking on the phone. This is true.
    But I would also say that connecting to someone via the phone, in letters, screencasting, in video and so is not the same as meeting in person. For me IRL is short hand for meeting in the flesh, and has no implicit judgment on the value of online verse offline conversation. But there is still a very interesting subject in that question though.
    Issues of anonymity aside (people can adopt another identity in the analog world too, look at the roads and sport), within the limitations of the media and constraints of context, people are the same from one format to another.
    The limitations of media and context do matter though. Online is bad at dealing with things like sarcasm and deadpan humor, and equally inadequate at separating contexts. The Facebook/Linkedin dichotomy is the exception, not the rule.
    The IRL divide you seem to be addressing Mitch, seems to come from a culturally assumed level unprofessional conduct implied in online interactions. The idea that online interactions have less value and are less meaningful than online ones is just wrong. The problem is that online it is easier for the sports fan, the gamer and the professional to mix out of a framing context.

  9. While I do agree that communicating via Twitter & Facebook is definitely communicating “in real life”, I do tend to distinguish between “online” & “in person”. While I definitely “am what I am” whether on Facebook, Twitter or on my site, I find that many people do communicate differently online, showing a side of themselves that they don’t often show “in person”.
    Personally, I have often found new appreciation for the wit & insight of some acquaintances whom I now actually know & understand much better thanks to Facebook than I did when I only knew them “in person”. As a result, these acquaintances became people that I now enjoy exchanges with on a regular basis, definitely a deeper relationship than what was there before.
    Another angle to this is I have found that meeting people now is often a “Nice to meet you… in person”. Depending on the situation & how the connection was originally made, it’s occasionally followed by a hug because you actually do know each other even though you had not yet met “in person”. Of course, in some cases there can be issues of trust issues and “in person” will always be important. That being said, it doesn’t change that online is very much in real life.

  10. I knew you were a sailor man, the question remains if ‘I yam I’ were to add you to my facebook would you be able swim in the Abzu, or would you look at me sideways with a side of garlic directed at the yam, πŸ˜›
    the term is as unreal as the language it’s composed in. We use language online and offline. what is unreal? online and offline are both unreal, they’re of the same essence and we are the event horizon.

  11. It’s something I think about often when I read about people ranting and treating others like dirt simple because they don’t think to be in the “real world” anymore.
    If you behave online as you behave offline you will spare yourself a huge loads of problems, but they say Internet anonymity really is the source of the evil for many people.

  12. Awesome Mitch.
    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said this sort of thing just in a different way. Get over it people, there’s no difference between IRL and Digital. At least there SHOULD be no difference if you’d like your online presence to be successful πŸ™‚

  13. This post is a perfect example of why I’ll usually stop what I’m doing and read your posts when I notice a new one in my Reader. You bring passion, experience, and honesty to what you write and it’s very, very refreshing.
    When I first started out, I wasn’t familiar with the IRL acronym When I researched it and figured it out, I basically came to the same conclusion (although not as eloquently). I’ve never used the phrase and don’t plan on starting any time soon. I’ll say I’d like to meet people “face to face” or “out from behind the computer screen” but this life is VERY real to me and has led to very real relationships.
    I live a good portion of my life in “this world”, so I’d better believe it’s real.

  14. I agree with you but I also think you’re projecting your sincerity onto other people. Everything is real to you because it keeps the lights on in your company. There are many people who like the guise of digital life because they don’t understand that “real” and “digital” have blended. Eventually, they’ll be exposed for who they are but they prefer the comfort of hiding behind the screen.
    A quick glance at the rude answers that some people give to the questions posed on LinkedIn shows they have a certain confidence and arrogance that perhaps they would not have “IRL” or “F2F” – very sad.

  15. This is an interesting topic that’s been popping up lately. Many folks seem to look at social media as ‘technology thing’ and not ‘people thing.’ Businesses getting the true value out of social media understand it’s a human thing and treat it as if the people they’re engaging with on social networks (potential customers or partners) were sitting across from them in their place of business. It’s strange that so many would act and/or treat the two differently. Thanks for the insight here Mitch…

  16. Perhaps being online or involved with social media is too alien (or new) for those labeling it as not being in real life?
    Of course it’s real life; for the reasons you’ve mentioned. As we move forward these epithets should diminish due to the blending of the “online world” with the “real world.”

  17. I agree. I don’t know the term’s etymology, but the first time I used it was in MORPGs. In that context computer presences were actually non-real, but that term doesn’t make sense when computer presences are real (FB/Twitter). Too bad, IRL always makes me laugh cause I think about trolls.

  18. just as FB redefines “friend” for its own purpose, each manner of connecting will bring with it a different definition to similar terms. The lines are getting blurred with the gametization of what is considered “real”. Virtual should be currently reserved for what does not engage one human to another. Just a thought….

  19. beats TV to be hoest, voice and video applications (instead of text) to use in such platforms are springing left and right, life also builds on complexity

  20. What I am doing now is typing on a computer keyboard and sharing with the world. But I am doing this In Real Life. Sure I’m overcoming geographical and physical boundaries, but I am not doing these actions in an alternate reality.
    Back in 1999, I read both *Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet* by Sherry Turkle and *Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace* by Janet H. Murray where they talked about people adopting personaes when online. Turkle referred to Judith Butler’s notion of *performativity* and other research on the splintered-self, indicating that the moment we interact with someone, we interact in different ways. We don’t talk to our boss the way we talk to our child, or to our parents the way we talk to our spouse. We adapt our methods of communication based on the person we communicate with, therefore why not to the medium? People speak differently then when they write. There are conversations we should not have in writing because they are emotional and there are things that need to be committed to writing as the spoken word can be elusive.
    The people who call online interactions *fake* and don’t consider it to be *in real life* are people who have not truly experienced what it is to interact online or build relationships with people we have not met face to face. To quote a passage from the summary of Turkle’s book: “Life on the Screen traces a set of boundary negotiations, telling the story of the changing impact of the computer on our psychological lives and our evolving ideas about minds, bodies, and machines. What is emerging, Turkle says, is a new sense of identity–as de-centered and multiple. She describes trends in computer design, in artificial intelligence, and in people’s experiences of virtual environments that confirm a dramatic shift in our notions of self, other, machine, and world. The computer emerges as an object that brings postmodernism down to earth.” (source:

  21. I guess the problem is, online offers so much possibility for instant flak and abuse (and brand destruction) that many people choose to limit what they say on Twitter, Facebook, etc, as opposed to friends in the bar.
    Would you call your boss a tosser in the public stream of Twitter or Facebook? Not if you have any sense and want to keep your job. But down the pub, you can lambast to your heart’s content and get some real steam off your chest.
    To me, that’s the IRL component – and it doesn’t need to tie into authenticity, or transparency, or any other social media buzzword. It just ties into common sense.
    Nice post, Mitch.

  22. I agree that the wording may be off, but I also think that your thinking about it a little too much. There is a difference in the experience and this is how people refer to that difference.
    It’s a matter of technology and soon with techs in video & mobile pushing forward, those experiences will start blending more and more (they already have a lot with real time social). However, communicating on Twitter & sitting with that same person and having coffee in a starbucks is still miles apart.
    I know where your getting at and I agree, but I don’t think it’s harmful to the world of online communication to say that it’s different than communicating in person. I would throw in all traditional media and Telephone in this pile too. Sure my iphone is real, but it’s the experience that’s different.

  23. Dude my parents need to read this. They think this virtual stuff is so crazy and artificial. Glad I’m not the only one that thinks Twitter and blogs are pretty “real” themselves!

  24. Consider the new lexicon the web has created Mitch. These acronyms or colloquialisms are part of the new lexicon we’re all creating that will become standard etiquette much like phone, telex, and faxes before it. I’ll concede it’s more prolific on the web but that’s because the channel is more expansive.
    If we don’t allow this evolution of everyday language you’ll continue to get the out-of-context problems everyone’s experienced trying to send an email to a colleague or a text msg to a girlfriend.
    Hey, even big media brands struggle with it
    Interesting to see if other brands find new ways to deal with these waves of protest that will one day be tsunami’s……I think us PR’s will be in business for a while yet.

  25. It also lends to the incorrect perception that we somehow have different behavior online. I treat people the same .way online as I would in person and yet that seems to be a novel idea to many.

  26. As someone who serves as co-editor and contributor to a well-established international blog with two people–one based in England, one in Austria–I very much like, respect and have come to “know” quite well despite not yet having “met in our protean” forms (your version of IRL, eh?), I can appreciate your sentiments regarding the power, possibilities and potency of online relationships.
    I think you might be getting a wee bit hung up on a conventional (and very recognized) initialism, though. We could attempt to say and write “ITF” (In The Flesh)…but it simply wouldn’t be recognized and encapsulate the intent, quickly and easily. Especially on Twitter. Cheers.

  27. Hi Mitch
    Now I really am confused…
    “Anything “real” has to take place in the “physical” world.”
    That’s what I used to believe, but perhaps I’m wrong.
    I am sitting on that real chait, I am typing real words and yet…..
    This reminds me of the old saying…
    “I used to be indecisive, but now… I’m not so sure.”
    Thanks for making me think.

  28. more nodding from me….we have moved on from those 2006 predictions of Second Life in the future.
    Blogging, tweeting, whatever is just talking and that does not go out of fashion.
    While we are here, can we remove the prefix of ‘digital’ and ‘new’ from ‘marketing’ and ‘media’?

Comments are closed.