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Is this real?

By Jessie Christensen

I don’t pay any attention to football, college or otherwise, and hadn’t heard of Manti Te’o until his “fake girlfriend” story hit the news last year. I found his story oddly fascinating, and a quick internet search turned up a number of articles about similar online scams. The interesting thing to me is that so many people lie on the internet for no other reason than boredom, loneliness, and curiosity about how other people will react to them. There usually isn’t any kind of tangible physical gain for the perpetrators, and often there isn’t a tangible loss for the victims. However, it almost seems worse to me to be stealing things like trust and intimacy, rather than money, from people.

These types of stories make me a little uncomfortable too because they bring to the surface the feelings I have underlying many of my internet interactions: is this a “real” event? We are sharing ideas and writing intimately about ourselves, and my mind and heart have been profoundly affected by interactions I have had with people online over the years. On the one hand, you could argue that it wouldn’t matter whether I’ve interacted with people who are authentically who they claimed to be. When I am debating ideas about literature or commiserating about parenting with another person online, does the content matter more than the person who is presenting it? On the other hand, in an online environment, identity and authority seem to matter even more than in other situations because they are the only cues we can rely on in our interactions. I have also seen too many cases of harm being done by words that were carelessly typed by someone who forgot that a real person was sitting there reading them.

During the last nine years since I started blogging, the internet has gradually become more and more a part of my life. I spend a lot of time writing here and on my personal blog, reading and commenting on blogs, and doing stuff on Facebook. I am hesitant to fully condemn the internet as being ‘not real’ or as merely being a time-suck that is killing my brain cells. For nearly nine years I have written a personal blog that has been a way to hone my writing skills and to share a part of myself with my family and friends. I love being part of this blog, which has published writing by dozens of talented women and serves as a community for LDS women. Through blogging and Facebook I have also connected with a community of people who have some connection to being LDS and gay, and are trying to navigate that whole mess of contradictions. Facebook has allowed me to stay in touch with good friends from various points in my life. Many of the interactions I have had in these settings, though taking place online, have been very real. They had a significant impact on my life and on the lives of everyone involved.

I think one thing that has made my internet experiences more real and more valuable is the fact that I try to temper them with lived, non-virtual interactions with the people involved. When I started using Facebook I created my own personal policy of not adding anyone as a ‘friend’ unless they were someone that I knew in person and had interacted with at some point in my life. I don’t generally add friends of friends or even people from my ward or from work that I don’t really know well. Most of the blogs I read right now and comment on belong to friends that I do occasionally see in person. I get together with staff from Segullah in person whenever I can, and I try to go to conferences and other events so I can meet people there too. In a time when more and more of our discussion is taking place online, these kinds of conferences and casual get-togethers are even more important. They help us remember that we are dealing with real people, not just words on a screen. They remind us that, while the life of the mind is great and that virtual connection is valuable, there is nothing quite like the type of real-time discussion you can get with a group of people gathered around a table in one room.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet some people I usually only work with virtually. It felt good to spend a little time putting faces to names, to hear their actual voices, and to have a casual chat. Now when I need to send them emails, I can picture them on the other end reading my words and it feels more like a conversation. I wish I could sit down with all of you who are reading this and have a nice chat. We could talk about the parts of our lives that don’t make it online, as well as the parts that do. And maybe we would eat pie; I can’t serve you pie through the blog. Until then, we’ll just have to keep typing away and do our best to remember that every screen name has some kind of human being on the other end.

How do you balance on-line and in-person relationships? What positive experiences have you had through using the internet to connect to others?

About Jessie Christensen

Jessie served a mission in Spain and graduated from BYU with bachelor's degrees in Spanish Translation and English, as well as a master's in Spanish Literature. She currently works full-time at a university library and nurtures her three children, one cat, and a fluctuating number of fish. She relaxes by reading, baking, canning fruit, and putting together jigsaw puzzles.

6 thoughts on “Is this real?”

  1. No, this is not real.

    In the process of writing, we must edit: leave out, rearrange, interpret. All writing– even so-called "non-fiction" and news reporting is, to a greater or lesser extent, trafficking in falsehood.

    So is virtually all entertainment: theater, film, TV, magic shows (especially magic shows), gambling, singing and dancing.

    Being is real. Being together is more real. One of the great benefits of having a spouse was having someone who could occasionally say, "No, dear. Reality is over this way."

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  2. Easily the most positive "internet experience" I have had was the support of people who only knew me through the bloggernacle when my wife died. I was moved that people who I have never met, may never meet, and who only knew me through my occasional comments would reach out they way they did. I continue to be grateful that what was so very real to me was also real to them.

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  3. I remember when your wife died, CS Eric, and what you wrote about her in different places both before and after. Even though I don't think I have ever interacted with you online except for offering condolences and prayers, you and your wife still have had a real impact on my life, even now, every time I see you post anywhere.

    I also had a chance to meet Jessie, one time, very briefly, about 6 years ago. Just because I knew then that you actually were a real person, and that people in my ward knew you, didn't make you any more real to me than reading your blog, your Facebook page, and what you'd written here.

    I do edit what I write. But I also leave ever so much when I'm interacting with someone in real life. For me, deep friendships take a long time to build and I need online communication to have that time. Without it, I would have no real friends at all because move all the time.

    People I met years ago in real life remain friends as I play Scrabble with them and email them articles I know they'll like. Women I only know from message boards whose children die in tragic accidents consume my thoughts. I need to talk to LDS expat mothers who are working through the same sorts of things I am, and I certainly don't have a previous, well-established, IRL relationship with any woman like that.

    So yes, I do think this is real.

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  4. Whether we're writing or telling stories in real life, we edit and spin and emphasize the parts of our narrative that we want to convey, and omit things that we'd like to suppress. In real life as well as in virtual life, we are who we are…whether we are kind and as honest as possible or if we intentionally deceive, lie or beguile others…our words and our thoughts and our deeds define us. All we can do is try to make them as true and good and kind and Christlike as possible. And lean on the holy ghost to warn us when we are faced with individuals whose desires and intents are not in our best interest.

    The majority of my closest real life friends are thus because of either the virtual start, or continuation of what would have been the natural end of a friendship because of changes in proximity. If we didn't have the internet, the annual Christmas card would hardly be enough to maintain a "real" friendship. I'm grateful for the people who routinely bless my life because of the love and connection we share online that bleeds over periodically (as possible) into real face-to-face interaction.

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  5. Some of us – many of us who blog – are better at expressing ourselves in writing than in person. I've lived thousands of miles away from my mom for many years, and she's commented that she knows me better through the things I write on my blog than from our phone conversations. Online/social media platforms give us the opportunity to express thoughts and address topics that may not come up in "real life" conversation. I DEFINITELY think that in-person interaction is important, but I see tremendous value in online communication.

    I keep seeing announcements that blogging is dead or dying. So much of blogging has become commercialized, and that has really turned me off to a lot of blogs. The blogs I continue to read faithfully are the ones in which people open themselves up (at least to a degree) and talk about subjects that are close to the heart. Could some of these people be total frauds, just making it up? Possibly. But I find truth and understanding in the things they write, which I value.

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  6. In the early months after my husband's death, I was too shattered for most face-to-face interactions. It was through online communities that I discovered how "normal" my reactions were to the onslaught of grief-induced physical and emotional upheaval. While most (though thankfully not all) well-meaning IRL people urged me to dry my tears and smile (Oh, if I had a dollar for every time someone said, "He wouldn't want you to be sad, dear" …), it was largely via my virtual relationships with other widows and widowers that I learned how to smile again through and with my tears. I've since met some of those online acquaintances–carefully, and in public!–and I now count some of them among my closest friends.

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