Yesterday I was reflecting on my days in elementary school, back when I only had one life. It was a simple time. I got up at 6:30 every morning, ate my Cheerios and headed to school. During recess I chatted with friends about things like my new dance class and an upcoming adventure to the local water park. Lunchtime brought a peanut butter sandwich and a good ol game of dodgeball. At night I would grab a book and stay up far past my bedtime, earnestly believing my parents didn’t notice because I cleverly jumped up and turned off the light when I heard them approach my door. And when I did decide to go to bed, I’d throw the book on my desk, set my alarm clock, and proceed to conk out. My social life consisted of people I met through school and extracurriculars, and pretty much centered on events like sleepovers and dinners at fun restaurants.
Not so much anymore. These days, I have many lives. Not in a “Cool, I’m a superhero” way, but in a virtual way. Have you ever heard the phrase “IRL?” It’s used to signify “In Real Life.” As in, in that life you lead when you are at physical locations actively engaging with other human beings. The life you are a part of when you go play football at the park or grab dinner with your friends. Well of course, you say, that’s clearly what you mean when you say “life,” why bother adding the “IR?” You have to add the IR, my friends, because it just isn’t so obvious anymore what people mean when they talk about their “lives.” I guarantee that you also have more than one life. Perhaps your other lives are focused on Zynga, or Twitter, or a WordPress blog like this one. Regardless of your where you do it, you’re building up your identity in two very different spheres. I can no longer describe my day simply by discussing physical activities and my accompanying reactions. If I were to rattle off my day’s activities, they would now include things like adding pictures to my Facebook profile or writing comments on a friend’s blog. If I were in elementary school now, it’s very possible I’d start my day by checking Facebook (yes, despite the age restrictions). At lunch I might use my phone to show a friend a new Justin Bieber fan site I happened to find. And at night, before I went to bed, it’s very likely I’d play a few rounds of an internet-based game to show off my stylish avatar.
The fact that we even have to distinguish whether something happened IRL or IVL to begin with is pretty amazing. Did you “meet” your new girlfriend online or in person? Is your “friend” Jacob an actual friend you hang out with frequently, or someone who you chat with through Facebook who has similar interests? And do you actually own a cow, or are you just addicted to Farmville? The virtual world is an interesting one, and one we still barely have begun to explore. Every profile you have online is essentially a snapshot of who you are, but it’s also an edited image of who you want to be. I have plenty of Facebook friends who will share very bizarre and often unflattering information as their statuses, but will quickly untag any photo that isn’t 100% perfect.
Having to explain whether something happened IRL or IVL is making us reconsider how we frame relationships, how we build connections, and how we evaluate what is important to us throughout our lives. It’s also changing how we interact with commerce: there are now companies that make their profit entirely from selling virtual goods and fake prizes. And these days, kids on the playground are just as likely to talk about a water park as they are to talk about what someone else did online. It’s a crazy world we live in… and it’s only going to get crazier as the virtual world expands.
For a fun take on the idea of real vs. virtual reality, check out this ad for an opera based on social media. This made me laugh out loud. In public.