Mounting a Critique of Online Identity, in Person

Physically co-present with the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson during a break from his battle to dismantle the artificial barrier we’ve raised between life online and in the outside world.
By Kyle Chayka,
(Illustration: Andrea Danti/Shutterstock)

When I recently met the young sociologist, researcher, and writer Nathan Jurgenson, it was at a Brooklyn coffee shop halfway between our two apartments. It turned out we lived just several blocks from each other and had frequented the same local haunts for years, but we only knew each other on the Internet—Twitter, specifically, where we are both perhaps too active. We run into each other there more often than in our neighborhood, at any rate.

There’s a certain ritual to be observed when meeting someone who might qualify as an “Internet friend” for the first time. You check their most recent updates on social media. You Google them, then page over to Google Images, where, if the person works in any kind of public capacity, there are at least a handful of images of their face. You study them, analyzing the different angles and variations of haircut, the better to identify them in person. Then you try to find them in a crowded cafe.

Crossing the physical-virtual gap is something of an obsession for Jurgenson, who in a 2011 blog post coined the term “digital dualism” to describe the artificial barrier we’ve raised between life online and in the outside world. In this particular case, Jurgenson wasn’t hard to spot. He was wearing an all-black hoodie-and-jeans ensemble that’s part New York, part goth, and part cyberpunk, a common uniform among a certain set of pro-Internet revolutionaries.

“When you open a book you don’t say you’re going to jack in to text-world, but we do that for the Internet.”

But it was still a little awkward to meet, even for two people very comfortable on the Internet. We had a close familiarity, but seemingly no real basis or excuse for it. “It’s the basic weirdness of when a Twitter handle turns into a body,” Jurgenson says.

By naming the phenomenon of digital dualism, Jurgenson’s aim was to critique the perception that relationships carried out online were any different or less authentic than off. “Digitality is just part of the everyday world, it touches everything and everything touches it,” he says. “I wanted a term for what that new reality was.”

A Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, Jurgenson is also a contributing editor at the online intellectual journal the New Inquiry, a co-founder of the Theorizing the Web conference with his colleague PJ Rey, and a researcher for Snapchat, a company that found an affinity with his critiques of permanence on the Internet. Through these channels and more, Jurgenson is doing his best to make sure digital dualism vanishes. But it’s an uphill fight.

In part this is an old debate—questioning the authenticity of the Internet has been a popular pastime since psychologist John Suler’s pioneering digital book The Psychology of Cyberspace came together in the late 1990s. “Who are you in cyberspace? Am I the same John Suler I am in-person or someone a bit different?” he mused in 2002. But what has changed in the intervening time is the extent to which the Internet connects everyone—not just a niche, professional audience. Facebook launched in 2004; by 2014, 71 percent of adults on the Internet used it.

We live our lives online by default, even when we’re offline, because the Internet is now a prominent, if not the dominant, medium through which we interact with our fellow human beings. “We’re not looking at a screen, but this conversation has everything to do with the Internet,” Jurgenson said as we sat at a table. “It’s going to end up on the Internet, we’re talking about the Internet, we’re online right now. It’s embedded into our own brains.”

Denying the omnipresence of the Internet can be appealing. By tagging online interactions as somehow inauthentic, authenticity becomes simple. “If you create the Internet as false, then you create the not-internet, which gets to be real,” Jurgenson says. “You put away your phone and you’re a real person.”

The argument implicit in digital dualism is that it’s not as simple as that. Still, accepting that we live in a hybrid reality and dealing with our relationships accordingly is difficult. Digital dualism is a linguistic critique—by naming a syndrome, Jurgenson hopes to bring attention to it and break it down. But language also pales in dealing with the problem.

We’re now comfortable being online—it’s a nigh universal experience. But what then to call the increasingly rare state of being face-to-face without the Internet? IRL seems too derived from the Web itself. AFK used to mean away from keyboard, back when we were tied to keyboards some of the time. Physically co-present is another clunky option. “Every time we try to come up with a word for this it starts to come apart so fast,” Jurgenson says. Perhaps the difficulty speaks to the porousness of the divide: it’s not a binary. “When you open a book you don’t say you’re going to jack in to text-world, but we do that for the Internet.”

It comes down to the Internet being made—apologies to Soylent Green—of people rather than technology. “When we see someone on the phone we should think, oh that person’s probably talking to another person,” Jurgenson says. “It’s not a Tamagotchi.”

As my meeting with the sociologist demonstrated, the Internet doesn’t so much revolutionize our social networks as it activates connections that might have already existed but need some impetus to spark. Twitter is our neighborhood; our online social networks have become our physical ones. What’s left is to recognize this new state of affairs and acclimate. Perhaps then our online relationships will go offline more smoothly.

“We’ve covered ourselves in all these Christmas lights. Every time we try to move along we realize how badly our own thoughts about social media are tangled,” Jurgenson says. “We need to start fresh. Those biases hold us back.”

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.