Same, Same, But Different: Similarities and Differences Between our Online and Offline Lives

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I was having an online dialogue with my friend Mac Antigua about how being an active social media and technology user can change how we relate to the world, and can make us feel that we are always on stage. He directed me to an interesting post about digital classicism.

The whole exchange made me think a lot about how the line between our offline “real life” and our lives online is becoming more blurred. Is there even a need to make this distinction? Isn’t the way we conduct ourselves online just an extension of who we are offline? The answer to this is complex, but I think, nicely summed up in t-shirts that my husband Vivek and I saw all over Bangkok when we visited in 2003 – “Same, same, but different.” At the time, we were pretty puzzled by it but found ourselves constantly quoting it. Later, we found out it’s a common Thai-English phrase meaning just what it sounds like.

I feel like life online is just like this – same, same, but different. How we interact, how we create identity, how we feel special and understood online is the same, same but different from our offline life. Here are three examples of this:

1. What counts as clever.  In the offline world, being clever usually involves being quick-witted: having the fast comeback, thinking on your feet, etc,….But online, you have oodles of time to compose, rewrite, think about, and edit every comment you make. Self-presentation becomes a long-term process rather than a series of quick, face-to-face exchanges that “disappear” as soon as they have happened.  These disappearing impressions are what used to be the basis of our views about each other. Perhaps no more. That’s not to say that many of us don’t dash off the spontaneous tweet or post. It’s just that when we’re trying to be clever, we can take our time about it.

This is nice in some ways, because it has an equalizing effect and gives those of us who are shy or just not speedy thinkers time to express what we mean. This feels like a healthy slowing down. On the other hand, for young people growing up today, does this create less of challenge to their conversational skills? – and conversational skills are definitely learned and need to be practiced. Are kids going to be less able to carry on conversations that occur in real time than their counterparts a decade ago?

At the same time, does the knowledge that everything you post will be documented (forever) create a whole new set of pressures? These pressures are making some young people “drop out” of digital communities like Facebook: Just too much work and scrutiny. It’s nerve-wracking, trying to be clever.

2. It’s OK to brag. I’m actually not sure that it is OK to brag in online communities, but I see a lot more of it online than offline – even though I live in what is perhaps the bragging capital of the world, New York City. For example, when I first started tweeting, I was surprised that people were spending so much time retweeting posts that others made about them, or tooting their horn about something or other.  In the offline world, if someone started saying things like – “Oh, so and so just mentioned what an awesome researcher I am!” – multiple times a day, I would think they were disturbingly self-involved and ego-centric.

This seems to be an important difference between online and offline, because one of the purposes of the digital social network is to get yourself and your work “out there.”  So, perhaps this is exactly what people should be doing. Does this mean that social mores about bragging may be changing? The interesting thing to watch will be whether these tendencies trickle down into our offline lives.

3. Being cool. I’m no expert on cool, but it seems to me that how people are cool online is quite different than the traditional ways of being cool. Online, cool seems to be defined by the number of friends/followers/connections you have, as well as your sheer presence in terms of posts. It’s about how interesting a conduit of information and cutting edge ideas you are. Cool also is something you have time to work at since very little is spontaneous (see #1 above).

In contrast, few are being the strong, silent, aloof type, full of self-confidence and self-control (think James Dean). Instead, everyone seems to be shouting from the rooftops (or whatever the digital analogy would be) what they think and feel and see. It’s a very “look at me” world on-line, not a subtle world of understatement and innuendo. This is a world in which people live out loud, the louder the better.

Online heroes seem to act the same way as us regular folk in this regard – and maybe even worse because of what can be at times their oblivious self-importance. I once followed an actor on Twitter for all of 10 minutes before unfollowing him because the first tweet of his that I read was about the enormous bowel movement he just had. Seriously.

Of course, there is a lot of variability in how people behave online, but based on my observations, this non-James Dean way of being seems to be the norm. One reason for this shift in cool may be that online, tech-savvy geeks rule the world, so the definition of cool has altered to fit their goals and ways of being. Another may simply be a function of the technology. You can’t be strong and silent online because you would never post anything – and you therefore wouldn’t “exist.” One must be active and one must be taking a chance by putting oneself out there.

This breaking down of cool, in this sense, seems cool to me – when it’s not annoyingly self-involved.  And honestly, it is NEVER cool to tweet about your poo.