'IRL' Author Says It's OK That We're Spending So Much Of Our Lives Online

Dec 7, 2020
Originally published on December 7, 2020 1:14 pm

How much of your life did you live online this year?

Maybe it's your entire work life. Maybe much of your family time has been on Zoom. Perhaps you're even gearing up for a FaceTime Christmas or New Year's Eve. The question is, are these interactions any less real than if they were happening "in real life"?

Chris Stedman, author of the new book IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives, started thinking about this before the pandemic began.

"I spent the last few years really wrestling with this sort of central question of what it means to be real in a time when so much of our life now happens in spaces that we have absorbed the idea that they're less real," he told NPR.

A few years ago, Stedman said, he had just gone through a bad breakup and then he got scabies. The problem was that he felt he couldn't tell anyone. He'd curated his social media feeds to make it look like his life was perfect, like he was always happy and handsome and having fun. But at that moment, he decided enough was enough. He took a selfie — in which he sort of looks like a heartbroken man with scabies — and put it on Instagram where everyone could see it.

Interview Highlights

Stedman on his breaking point and subsequent journey

That really felt like the first moment when I actually showed everyone else in my life, anyone who didn't see me in person, a little bit of what was going on and where I was at. What's funny is I look at it now, and it's first of all, it's not really a bad picture. But what was notable to me about it was that it felt so stark and it felt so sort of out of place from the rest of my sort of digital output. You know, I wanted to understand why it felt so difficult to me to share that photo.

On our multiple selves

For all of human history, we have always been multiple selves. The person I am in this conversation with you right now is different from the person I am when I'm just talking crap with my best friends or when I'm hanging out with my mom. You know, these are all sort of slightly different versions of me. But I think when we are confronted with that reality, sometimes the way that we respond to that is by saying, well, one of those is my sort of true self and the rest are all kind of fake or different versions of myself that I'm putting on for others. But the reality is, who we are is not one true self and a bunch of other fake selves, but rather a composite of many selves. And the Internet, I think, gives us a chance to see these things in ourselves, the things that we're often less comfortable with.

On online trolls and vulnerability

Very early on in my career, I got a lot of very negative attention from people who didn't agree with some of my ideas and for years was very personally attacked. I think my reaction to that really was to withdraw. And I think that's a big part of why I presented a very sort of safe self on the Internet for years. But what I realized is that that actually really didn't protect me, because even though I maybe felt like I was safe from trolls, I was safe from people being really critical of me, I also was not feeling like myself online. I think that in order to feel like ourselves, we have to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is a risk, right? It's a risk that we'll get hurt. But that risk exists in every other part of our life.

On coming out and finding community online

Coming out online became a way of finding a sense of community at a time when I desperately needed one, when I was very isolated as a young, queer person in a community where I didn't see any other queer people around me. I write about it in IRL, in the context of talking about my love of maps as a kid. I grew up in a community that felt small to me in all kinds of ways. And I loved atlases as a kid because they helped me place myself in a much broader world. I could read all about countries that I had never been to, communities that I had no connection to, and see that there was so much else in the world beyond just my one town. And the Internet functioned very similarly to me at a time when I saw no other LGBT people around me. I could log on to the Internet and find other people, see that the world was so much broader than what I knew.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

How much of your life did you live online this year? Maybe it's your entire work life. Maybe most of your family time has been on Zoom. The question is, are these interactions any less real than if they were happening IRL? Chris Stedman actually started thinking about this before the pandemic.

CHRIS STEDMAN: I spent the last few years really wrestling with this sort of central question of what it means to be real in a time when so much of our life now happens in spaces that we have absorbed the idea that they are less real.

KING: He wrote a book called "IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, And Belonging In Our Digital Lives." A few years ago, Chris Stedman was a mess. He'd just gone through a bad breakup, and then he got scabies. The problem was he couldn't tell anyone. He'd curated his social media feeds to make it look like his life was perfect, like he was always happy and handsome and having fun. But at that moment, he said enough. He took a selfie in which he sort of looks like a heartbroken man with scabies, and he put it on Instagram where everyone could see it.

STEDMAN: That really felt like the first moment when I actually showed everyone else in my life, anyone who didn't see me in person, a little bit of what was going on and where I was at. What's funny is I look at it now and it's - first of all, it's not really a bad picture. But...

KING: (Laughter).

STEDMAN: ...What's - what was notable to me about it was that it felt so stark. And it felt so sort of out of place from the rest of my sort of digital output. You know, I wanted to understand why it felt so difficult to me to share that photo.

KING: Did your friends have any kind of reaction? Did anyone say, oh, my God, man, you look terrible?

STEDMAN: (Laughter) Yes, I did.

KING: They did. OK. OK. So people were, quote-unquote, "real with you."

STEDMAN: I definitely got some texts from a couple people.

KING: (Laughter).

STEDMAN: I also mention in the book at that time in my life 'cause I - you know, right after my scabies diagnosis, it was - you know, I went to such a dark place that I really was sort of a little less active online. And I mention in the book my sister texting me one day worried, saying, you know, are you OK? What's going on? You haven't tweeted.

(LAUGHTER)

STEDMAN: And - but I do think the selfie thing reveals something, which is that I don't think anyone else thinks as much about our online presentation as we do. For all of human history, we have always been multiple selves, right? The person I am in this conversation with you right now is different from the person I am when I'm just talking with my best friends or when I'm hanging out with my mom. You know, these are all sort of slightly different versions of me.

But I think when we are confronted with that reality, sometimes the way that we respond to that is by saying, well, one of those is my sort of true self, and the rest are all kind of fake or different versions of myself that I'm putting on for others. But the reality is, who we are is not one true self and a bunch of other fake selves, but rather a composite of many selves. And the Internet, I think, gives us a chance to see these things in ourselves, the things that we're often less comfortable with.

KING: I'm very curious, though, how you deal with outright meanness. You - you're presenting, like, a fairly optimistic view of living right online. But how do you deal with people who are just outright jerks online?

STEDMAN: Yeah.

KING: And there are many, many of them who seem to feel like that's OK 'cause it's a digital space, not real life.

STEDMAN: Right. Well, that's just it. I mean, you know, I very early on in my career got a lot of very negative attention from people who didn't agree with some of my ideas and for years was very personally attacked. People went after my mom. It was so strange to me. And so I think my reaction to that really was to withdraw. And I think that's a big part of why I presented a very sort of safe self on the Internet for years.

But what I realized is that that actually really didn't protect me because even though I maybe felt like I was safe from trolls, I was safe from people being really critical of me, I also was not feeling like myself online. And the Internet is this huge part of our world now, and I want the Internet to feel like a space where I can be myself. And I don't want to feel like I need to keep myself completely guarded in order to be able to be online. I think that in order to feel like ourselves, we have to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is a risk, right? It's a risk that we'll get hurt. But that risk exists in every other part of our life.

KING: Yeah.

STEDMAN: When I, you know, open myself up to someone, whether it's a family member, someone I'm dating, you know, there's a risk that they'll reject me. There's a risk that they'll hurt me. There's a risk they'll be cruel to me. But the answer isn't to just wall myself off and give them the sort of safest version of myself that I can, and I think that that's true online.

KING: Talk to me about coming out. You write that you first came out to strangers online. That's a very, very personal thing to share with strangers. But in some ways, I sort of get the impression that it was easier for you to tell strangers that you were gay than it was to tell people who you - your parents, for example.

STEDMAN: Yeah, yeah. So, I mean, I came out first to digital strangers in part because it felt so much safer. If I came out to someone online and it went poorly, I could close out of the window and, you know - but if I came out to my mom and that went poorly, well, that would have, you know, many other consequences. And so coming out online became a way of finding a sense of community at a time when I desperately needed one, when I was very isolated as a young, queer person in a community where I didn't see any other queer people around me.

I write about it in "IRL" in this - in the context of talking about my love of maps as a kid because, you know, when I was a kid, I grew up in a community where - a community that felt small to me in all kinds of ways. And I loved atlases as a kid because they helped me place myself in a much broader world. I could, you know, read all about countries that I had never been to, communities that I had no connection to and see that there was so much else in the world beyond just my one town. And the Internet functioned very similarly to me. At a time when I saw no other LGBT people around me, I could log on to the Internet and find other people, see that the world was so much broader than what I knew.

KING: Chris Stedman, author of the new book "IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, And Belonging In Our Digital Lives."

Chris, thanks so much for taking the time. This was great.

KING: Thanks for having me. I really appreciated it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL LIFE")

JOAN AS A POLICE WOMAN: (Singing) 'Cause I'm real life... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.