'IRL' author says it's OK that we're spending so much of our lives online

IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives by Chris Stedman
Broadleaf Books

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.