What Qualifies as Real Connection?
There is an idea, a holdover from the early days of the internet, that we can’t seem to shake, and that’s the idea that online interactions aren’t “real” interactions. There is something inherently insincere about them, disingenuous and flitting. They aren’t tangible, they hold no real weight or social responsibility. Online friendships, networking, followers - we still insist on thinking of them as a kind of shadow show, mimicking actual connections.
It’s easy to see where this bias comes from. In the late 90s and early 2000s, online was still a place where anonymity was the norm instead of the exception. But it’s 2019, and it’s time we stop thinking of the digital world as one that exists separate from the “real” world.
Online dating apps are an easy, and seasonally appropriate, example of this. Ask anyone on the street what they think about Tinder, and they’ll immediately answer “hook up site.” The popular image of dating apps is a swiping factory where everyone is there to hit it and bounce. But 13% of dating app users get engaged or married to people they meet on apps, and that number is rising. According to that same survey, 52% of app users have never had a one night stand and 40% of guys are looking for a serious, long-term relationship. That’s actually slightly more prudish than the average in “real life” - 66% of Americans have had a one night stand. Dating on apps looks very similar to…just dating.
Yet somehow the stigma of dating apps is so strong, couples will come up with a cover story so they don’t have to tell their friends they met on Tinder.
That same Not Real stigma applies to friends made online, though thanks to the marketability of social media, it’s fading faster. An online friend is simply not a real friend, though you may interact with them far more than you do that girl you used to be on a softball team with six years ago. In the literary world, publishing in print is still considered more valid than publishing online, though online readership is reliably larger. Books are better in “real life” than on kindles, despite the huge amount of environmental waste that print publishing creates.
We need to catch up. Because while all these examples may seem silly or niche, they speak to a social disconnect that pigeonholes digital connections as inherently inferior. And since they are considered inferior, flawed, lacking the virtue of face to face, it becomes okay to treat them flippantly. That’s an outdated attitude that leads directly to your great aunt starting flame wars on FB.
Besides encouraging your relatives to be jerks, why does this bad attitude matter? When those of us who enjoy the luxury of being connected think of the internet as Not Real and morally inferior, it doesn’t seem as important to us to get everyone else connected. After all, why do poor people need more Facebook right? Isn’t a library good enough for filling out job apps, why do they need the internet at home too? But yet the same people who can’t see the value of daily internet accessibility all belong to their neighborhood Facebook group, and they get to hear about new development plans for the parking lot down the street. They are proud to be Instagram friends with all their favorite local shop owners. They follow the Twitter feeds of all their favorite politicians. They are connected to each other, and just like all of us, fail to see the other people in their community who aren’t connected. Modern connectivity leads to visibility. We are not gathering at the town well anymore, we are gathering online. You are not seen if you are not online.
The digital world IS the real world. It’s dating. It’s friendship. It’s access to social events and local news. It’s seeing the same doctor, but not having to pay for a hundred dollar cab ride to get there. Consequently, we need to treat the connections we make online with the same sincerity and gravity we do face-to-face interactions, and we should demand the option to be connected as a basic right of citizenship in our communities.
We should also stop Tinder-shaming our friends, unless they really deserve it.