Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 50 seconds

Because Virtual is also Real: What’s Authenticity Anyway?

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 50 seconds

Irvin Yalom reminds us of the complexity of human beings. Since categorization allows us “neither [to] identify nor nurture the parts, the vital parts, of the other that transcends category” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185). In life, as in research, we often use categorization to support our analysis, but we should never forget that this categorization is constructed and even imposed, and there is much more that lies beyond it, and we must realize that “the other is never fully knowable” (Yalom, 1989, p. 185′ the book is called Love’s Executioner)

We all have multiple personalities that  evolve (I have such postmodern sensibilities but this seems like a fact to me). Take ur own self and ur own identity and tell me that life and experiences don’t change who you are…they do, right? Sometimes in fundamental ways, sometimes not. The birth of a child, the involvement in a human tragedy, the inspiration from a trabsformative book, the encounter with a wise stranger, the struggle with illness, the involvement in scandal, the loss of a loved one, the attention from admirers, the harassment from haters – all these things influence who we are and how we behave.

When we know someone we have never met in physical space we tend to doubt that we truly “know” them. I am starting to realize this makes absolutely no sense at all.

When we know someone f2f, we could spend years, several hours a week or even many hours in a day, and still not know everything about them. Or we may think we know them, and something can happen…and their reaction can be completely different from what we expected. Heck, our own reactions aren’t always what we expect them to be. Who knew I wouldn’t cry the day my dad died? I didn’t. And knowing that, I wasn’t able to predict how I would react when another loved one died.

Knowing someone online is slightly different but no less real.

In a way, we have some control over which aspects of ourselves we share online. In that sense, we get to know someone online on their own terms, somewhat, by behaviors they make observable, rather than behavior we observe more “naturally”. However, I wouldn’t create a dichotomy here. Because we do this f2f, too. Just like we behave differently at work than we do at a family dinner and at a party…so behave differently on Facebook than on Twitter than on email.

So there’s this. There’s the joy I felt in meeting people I had known online for quite some time. And they were all the same or pleasantly more than I expected, never less. But if any of them behave differently from what we expect, it’s not because we don’t know them well just because we know them virtually. It’s because we as humans never truly know the whole of another person or understand the history of all that has influenced them in their lives.

We can know someone more or less. We can know a lot about their behavior or a little about their motives and values. We can know more or less about someone, but we never truly know them absolutely. I am not even sure we know ourselves absolutely. Who knew?

Thanks to Simon Ensor, Alan Levine, Stephanie Loomis, Helen DeWaard for keeping these ideas running thru my head long enough to write this

25 thoughts on “Because Virtual is also Real: What’s Authenticity Anyway?

  1. Thank you, Maha, for putting into words thoughts that so often stream through my mind as I engage digitally and otherwise. Who knows me? And what do they know about me, of me? And what matters to me? To them? in that exchange. More than I or we perhaps realize or are willing to admit, we rely on feelings, emotions to determine what is real, appropriate, worthwhile.

  2. Hi Maha — I found this post just now, thanks to @edifiedlistener (thanks Sherri). It’s particularly lovely to read after our meeting at #altc a couple of weeks ago. As you say above, the real and the virtual simply interweave. Our meeting (joyful as it was!) was not fundamentally different to or “other than” our many online interactions. It was *as* complex, and contextual, and simply another strand to our relationship.

    Perhaps like you both, I also feel it’s very important that we have these discussions about digital and networked identities with our students, so that they too can reflect on what it means “to be” – online, offline, in the world. In higher education we typically help students do this with respect to disciplinary knowledge & practice, e.g. learning to be a software engineer, learning to be a historian, etc., but that is no longer enough.

    One source which I’ve drawn from in my own research, and shared with students, is the Foresight “Future Identities” report (2013). It a wonderfully succinct summary of some of these issues, great for prompting discussion:

    “In the early years of widespread internet usage, there were concerns that the internet diminished β€˜real’ identity, and prevented face-to-face human socialisation, with online identities being seen as very different from those in the offline β€˜real’ world… As people have become accustomed to switching seamlessly between the internet and the physical world, they have begun to use social media to pursue friendships, continue conversations, and make arrangements in a way which dissolves the divide between online and offline…”

    And the final sentence is a great summary:

    “The internet does not produce a new kind of identity, but has instead been instrumental in raising awareness that identities were more multiple, culturally contingent and contextual than had previously been fully appreciated.”

    Thanks Maha πŸ™‚

    1. Love this Catherine. BTW u found my post within an hour of its publication – it’s funny you say “I just found this” πŸ˜‰

  3. Now you see there is but one whole reality; the “real” / “virtual” as in your Yalom quote, our constructs. So why would me make distinctions is a question.

    I was talking to a “virtual” friend (I quote because it is becoming a term I don’t use much anymore) about knowing people like her, you, others here that I have never met much better than “real” people I see on a daily basis.

    The division just crumbles.

    1. Yes yes. When Simon asked me on the first day i met Rebecca f2f if she was a virtual buddy, my immediate response was “what’s a virtual buddy anyway? ” because she was just my buddy. Even before i ever met her even synchronously. The idea of et4buddy came to us before we ever had a sync convo. It’s about how far, how deeply we engage and what we go thru together, isn’t it? Like u and Claudia. Or u and many other ppl, really πŸ™‚ It’s how much quality time we spend and how much of ourselves we reveal or invest into these relationships that… In some ways… Have less tangible benefit except the intrinsic beauty of what it is (more so for me coz of cultural and geographic distance)

  4. We had a long conversation on the LINK Lab Slack about this. People tend to treat digital/online as “less” that F2F, when in reality its just a different (ever changing) set of affordances. In some ways, we can say that the Clark/Kozma debate has implications beyond student achievement. Do we believe that media changes the message, or that different modalities have varying affordances.

    A lot of what you say ties in with Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory – a theory that I have long advocated for inclusion in instructional design methods. SCT has been a foundation of many of my recent posts and evolution on dual-layer design. So all of that to say, I would agree with you that this almost seems a fact πŸ™‚

    1. Hey Matt – i just saw this comment and approved it. Dunno how i missed ot before. Will check out ur latest posts πŸ™‚

  5. This has created one of those parody songs in my head.

    Set to the tune of Tina Turner’s What’s love got to do with it?

    What’s authenticity got to do

    Got to do with it

    What’s authenticity

    But another face we put on

    What’s authenticity got to do

    Got to do with it

    Who needs a soul when a soul is fractured and broken

    This is my dark humor and sarcasm

  6. Interesting reflections Maha as I’m shortly going to email a ‘virtual’ someone in Sweden who I lost contact with more than 50 years ago. I’ve never met him or even spoken to him. We only communicated frequently by amateur radio in Morse code but we had much in common – I hope he remembers me!

    Inevitably F to F makes for the richest connection but the technology is catching up and now innovation like vconnecting is beginning to approach the ‘real’ thing. In any case we can still rely on the amazing human ability to construct deep connections almost regardless of the quality of the channel.

    1. Wow. Morse code. That’s a lot. But I also wanna say it’s not just the tech. I got close to many ppl via asynchronous text…so email for example. Sure, video and audio help but i got really close to someone like Bonnie Stewart without a/v

  7. I wrote letters to a friend for over 25 years that seamlessly slipped into email. My moving from California to Canada never really interrupted our friendship. At the core of knowing each other there must be something universal in humans that opens to each other that distance, or “class”, or experience, or whatever barrier of difference we imagine simply not there–unless we choose it.
    The alternate to this is an unfortunate breakdown of communication experienced with an oncologist I really liked. Due to a misunderstanding relayed and amplified to her by another doctor, all communication between us has ceased. Ironically, the only path that may remain open is through directly speaking to someone else to relay my message. Sadly, aside from the suggestion that I myself am an inadequate representation of myself, it’s become a reality that in person my needs for contact overwhelm me and make me incomprehensible except when I’m writing. (And even then it’s often questionable if I’m making sense.
    It’s odd that though each of us embodies the whole world we are so intent on controlling the conversation in a manner pleasing to us. Not comprehensible, pleasing little nothings.

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