I'm sick to death of hearing about "real life" as opposed to interactions taking place online. Take this article for instance, about why Japanese culture is so ubiquitous on the Web. A major premise of the article is that "people who often shun 'real-life' and adopt an online identity... fear typical Western conventions of being assertive and independent." A number of other generalizations are made that they "don't like to stand out, struggle to express themselves and internalize negative feelings." These people flock to the Internet because they desperately crave the escape it provides (often through outlandish fantasies put forth by Japanese people, seeking an escape from Japan's own cultural rigidity).
While this is of course true for some denizens of the Web (and the concurrently discussed concept of shared escapism from such disparate cultures is interesting), there are a number of things wrong with making generalized statements like this. First, they're insulting to people who spend time in Internet communities. We're characterized, as is often the case, as fearful escapists disconnected from reality who can't handle "real relationships". However, if that was the only problem here, I wouldn't waste my breath; the fact that something sucks doesn't make that thing untrue. In my opinion and experience, these statements are simply wrong.
The Internet is not some fantasy world, populated by pretend people (those are called video games). The people online are real people, a fact that seems to make no impact whatsoever on anyone who tells another to get "real" friends.
When I engage in conversation on an online forum, or on my Facebook feed, or Twitter, or yes, with people playing an online game, I am communicating with real individuals. They aren't computer generated, they aren't fictitious; on the other side of my monitor is another living, breathing human with all the complexities they would have if they sat across the table from me at Starbucks.
On "Faking It"
"But wait!" I hear you cry, "how do you know the person you're talking to is really who they say they are? They could be an old man or a preteen girl, and you'd never know the difference! They could be creeps!"
Okay, let's consider this for a moment.
First of all, there is voice chat, something becoming increasingly common among gamers. While someone could disguise their voice, most people wouldn't go to the trouble; they'd be far more likely to avoid the technology altogether.
Secondly, it's not terribly difficult for someone accustomed to spending time online to sniff out nefarious intent; the Internet has its own versions of suspicious unmarked vans and seedy neighborhoods. You wouldn't trust some creepy stranger offering you candy in an alley, and you wouldn't trust Amanda Bigboobs on your favorite forum, whose mic is "broken" and who wants to meet you for steamy fun times at her place tomorrow at noon.
Should extra care be exercised in a situation where everyone has anonymity? Certainly. There are creeps out there, and the Web is prime hunting ground. But the notion that every other person you meet online is a predator lying about their age and sex is ludicrist.
"Okay," you're thinking, "but they could still be presenting a false image of themselves. Someone's 'Facebook life' is probably way more glamorous than their real life."
This could certainly be true, especially if that life looks like it's made up of unicorn rides and bubblegum parades. However, consider the businessman who looks one way to his coworkers, another to his friends on Friday night, and totally different again to fellow churchgoers on Sunday morning. For good or ill, people wear masks all the time. On the Internet, as anywhere else in life, we are all as honest as we choose to be.
On the flipside, we need to activate our BS detectors to determine the honesty of those around us, in person or otherwise. It may be a little harder to tell when someone's lying online, but you may be surprised by just how little.
Is the Internet an escape from the pressures of "real life"? For some of us, I'm sure it is. People go clubbing and bar hopping for a similar escape; why is this considered "real" while online interaction isn't? You're considered to have a "real" social life if you sit in a loud room half drunk with a bunch of strangers, but if you spent the evening talking or playing games with friends over Skype or discussing shared interests on a forum, you're a recluse who's clearly not cut out for real social interaction.
Sewing groups, hiking clubs, writers groups: these are all ways to "escape" from the pressures of everyday life, yet no one talks of their social groups verses their "real lives".
The stigma is somewhat mitigated if you can at least claim to have been friends with the people in your online groups in the real world first, before circumstances forced you to continue your friendship online -- even then, however, I get the impression that it doesn't really count -- even when my conversations are deep and the interaction very real, indeed.
For many residents of the Internet, it's not an escape at all, but an extension of the rest of our lives. I move around a lot, and so I maintain many friendships primarily through Facebook. Those friendships change, but they aren't suddenly invalidated because we share cat pictures on Facebook instead of laughing about them in physical proximity at a café.
I have also made new friends online through shared interests which are not necessarily common or easily identifiable, or which lend themselves to introvert-type personalities. (How many writers or gamers or artists or fountain pen enthusiasts do you think I'd meet if I spent my time at, say, a "real" sports bar instead of in an online community designed to bring these people together?)
Many of these people I later meet, some of them I don't, but I nevertheless have very real relationships with them -- some are deep, some are superficial; some are short-lived, others are long-lasting; but all are real.
I make an effort to be as honest online as I am in person; and in person I try very hard not to wear any masks. (Safety Note: "honesty" doesn't mean blindly announcing personal data at every oportunity; I'm speaking of sameness of personality and character across multiple situations.)
On Introversion, Anonymity, and Equalization
What of the idea that Web denizens are a bunch of social pariahs? The Web certainly does offer benefits to the more shy or introverted among us. Much of the communication is asynchronous, giving time to weigh and consider responses and removing some of the pressure present in face-to-face interractions.
Not only introverts, but the physically handicapped or limited can find a degree of freedom by participating in Internet communities. Physically, it's a lot easier to participate in an online community than a physical one.
In addition, the anonymity can be enormously freeing; in many places online, one's gender, age, ethnicity, physical handicaps, or other components of appearance are not the first impression a stranger has of you. You are judged not by how you look, but by what you say -- and, as was just noted, you often have time to consider your conversations carefully.
I grant all these things and consider them wonderful equalizers, allowing the quiet, timid members of society, as well as those with physical limitations or who feel segregated for reasons of appearance or gender, much more opportunity to engage in society. This benefits them and allows them contribute to a shared culture and knowledge base, bettering us all.
Additionally, I fail to see how any of this makes interaction on the Internet less than "real," any more than interactions in different physical venues, with their various strengths and weaknesses and levels of appeal to varied personality types. Some people are very comfortable in clubs; others prefer the quiet atmosphere of a café or the openness of a park. Some people enjoy large groups; others can only open up around one or two people at a time. And for some of us, the Internet is a comfortable place to socialize.
If someone gains friends, confidence, and even prestige in an online community, how is this less valid than a similar accomplishment in a group of people sharing the same physical location?
In-Person vs. Internet
Please don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying that face-to-face interaction has no inherent value -- only explaining my belief that Internet interaction also has value, and that there is a great deal of overlap between the two. I have no desire to see the human race degenerate into the people in Wall-e, who didn't even notice the swimming pool they sat beside every day. Our "tiny glowing screens" can all too easily distract us from things happening around us in the physical world and prevent us from forming lasting bonds with people we would have otherwise.
It's important to put down our devices now and again and let ourselves be present where we are. No YouTube video can replace the experience of actually visiting a place, and there's nothing quite like looking into the eyes of another person while you're talking, or sharing a hug, or a handshake, or a kiss -- as anyone who's engaged in long-distance romance can attest.
But let's not make the mistake of belittling online interaction as less than real.
A Final Thought: On Bullying and Flaming
This perception of interaction on the Internet as somehow being less-than-real is no-doubt a contributor to another common trend online: that of people spewing hateful, unkind things without thought to the pain they may cause others. Called flaming, trolling, or just plain bullying, anyone who's spent any time online knows that many people tend to be a lot less kind online than they'd ever dream of being in person.
As a society (or rather, societies), it's important to stop perpetuating this idea that the Internet is a fantasy land of pretend relationships. The next logical step, whether conscious or unconscious, is to believe that your words and actions online don't matter.
The Internet is a part of "real life"; the people on the Internet are real, our relationships with them are real, and therefore, the Internet is as much "real life" as any physical place.