Pushing Back on the Rhetoric of “Real” Life

Metaphors are an important part of how we talk about media. Metaphors put emerging media into historical context; they make people feel comfortable with the new by linking it to the old. And we encounter them all the time in our interactions with media of various types. The Windows operating system is a metaphor and so is the desktop, which was a white-collar, male metaphor (Selfe and Selfe 486-87). A program like Instagram is filled with design metaphors. After all, the filter button does not actually involve any real filters. Rather, the word “filter” metaphorically helps people contextualize newer practices within older photography practices. 

This article addresses two examples of metaphors that I argue play a significant role in how people understand the digital:1 the phrase “in real life” (which is the main focus of this piece) and “cloud computing” (which I use to help build my argument). As discussed below, the phrases have roots in much of the formative early Internet theory and the metaphor of “cyberspace. The phrases are also prevalent across academic and public discourse, with more studies than I can count using phrases like “in real life” (IRL) to delineate the offline from the online. In public discourse, the phrase shapes a significant amount of conversation, with IRL occupying a prominent place in the online vernacular. 

My argument is that we need to critique these phrases and push back against the separation of the digital and physical through rhetorical choices like “in real life” and popular metaphors like “cloud computing.” I frame this article as a polemic because, while the consequences of a phrase like “in real life” may at first seem innocuous, such language has major consequences that rhetorical scholars should lead the way in pushing back against. Consequently, this is not an empirical study or an attempt to uncover new evidence; rather, I advocate for an increased attention to the language we use both as rhetorical scholars and teachers. To make that case, I first briefly delve into the intellectual history of this framing, which can be traced at least as far back as the early days of Internet theory.  I then explore the consequences of the metaphors of “real life” and “the cloud” by showing how they can subtly encourage people to ignore the embodied impacts of everything from online bullying to online relationship maintenance because online interactions are positioned as less real. Likewise, the cloud metaphor can implicitly lessen people’s understanding of the environmental impact of the Internet or the importance of geography in online regulation because of the ethereality of the metaphor. As I explore later through these two examples, the metaphors we use matter, and we have a role to play in shaping the language people use to talk about online life. 

Cyberspace and the Roots of IRL

Much of the early research on the Internet framed the online as opposed to the physical world (Frith 8). That framing is not surprising considering the dominant metaphor of the online was often “cyberspace,” which worked in oppositional terms: there was physical space and cyberspace. The two operated in separate spheres with little relation to one another. The divide was positioned so starkly in some 1990s scholarship that media scholar Nicholas Negroponte famously saw the future as a battle between the “world of atoms” and the “world of bits,” and he argued that the world of bits was winning: “We will socialize in digital neighborhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role” (Negroponte 6).

The opposition of the digital and physical had far-reaching consequences in social thought.  In philosophy, people wrote of the Internet as a space of minds disconnected from bodies (Biocca and Levy), a view critiqued by Katherine Hayles’s work on posthuman science fiction imaginaries. For example, in an analysis of one such piece of futurism by Hans Moravec, Hayles asks, “How . . . was it possible for someone of Moravec’s obvious intelligence to believe the mind could be separated from the body?” (1). And her critique could be applied to a wide range of thought surrounding the early Internet. Paul Virilio—somewhat sarcastically—posited that people might spend so much time online that they stop having sex in the physical world (104-05). In geography, scholars wrote about the “death of cities” because people could interact online and would no longer have to collocate in dense urban spaces (Kolko 73). Those predictions were wrong, and we now have higher urbanization rates than at any point in history and (most) people have not stopped having sex. In addition, as Nancy Baym points out, the social sciences and humanities often celebrated the Internet’s potential to lessen racism and sexism because people could go online and assume whatever identity they wanted (36-40). Of course, racism and sexism were just reproduced online in new ways (Kolko et al.). Almost thirty years after the birth of the World Wide Web, what we actually ended up with was Gamergate (Trice 1-5) and Donald Trump. 

The divide between the digital and physical never truly existed. The digital never enabled people to escape their bodies online (Hayles 257), and, as researchers of infrastructure argued, the seemingly immaterial of the digital relied upon massive amounts of physical infrastructure to operate (Blum 1). But the divide has only become more tenuous in the last two decades. Sure, we had ample scholarship on “virtual worlds” like Second Life, but an arguably more consequential shift in how people interacted with digital information came with the rise of smartphones and other Internet-enabled mobile technologies. As Adriana de Souza e Silva put it in her theory of “hybrid space,” the digital and physical became increasingly merged through mobile interfaces (261). Or, to put it differently, “In a hybrid space, the physical location determines the information one receives, just as the location-based information influences how people move through and make decisions about their physical space” (Frith 23). The theory of space—whether digital or physical—as hybrid moves away from unrealistic dichotomies that ignore bodies, the vast physical infrastructure that enables the digital, and the ways experiences of the physical are influenced by what people see online (or vice versa). 

Of course, media scholarship and popular understandings of the Internet have progressed over the last two decades. “Cyberspace” is no longer the dominant metaphor for understanding online interactions. In fact, one barely hears “cyber” at all outside of security conferences or presidential debates. Fewer people now would explicitly argue for a clear separation between the digital and physical, and fewer people likely would argue that we face a future where people live their lives completely online—though with the supposed renaissance of virtual reality (VR) and popular movies like Ready Player One, those arguments might soon make a comeback. However, while the divide between the digital and the physical may not be as explicit as it once was, it subtly survives in the way many people talk about the Internet.

The Rhetoric of the Real

At this point in the history of the Internet, many people would not argue that what happens online is completely divorced from the physical world. That is maybe especially true within scholarship in computers and writing, which has a long history of pushing back on the idea that we can ever separate digital interactions from embodiment (Wysocki and Jasken). As Arola and Wysocki put it in the introduction to their edited collection about embodiment, “What any body is—and is able to do—cannot be disentangled from the media we use to consume and produce texts” (7). In addition, the links between embodiment and the digital—which involve an implicit push back on “in real life”—has been linked to disability studies in composition and questions of pedagogy (Cohn; Dolmage). And these concerns are not new to writing scholarship. For just three of many examples, back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Belcher analyzed how embodied cultural differences shaped Usenet interactions, Rickly discussed how gender affected online interactions, and Knadler talked about Black female subjectivities in web portfolios as a way to show links between the digital representation and the “real” body. But despite this scholarship, the use of the word “real” still seeps into popular discourse, and, as Jenae Cohn points out, “This long-established theory in our scholarship does not necessarily align with a student’s lived experience” (80). In other words, students Cohn studied often talked about the online as separate, leading Cohn to make “a call to encourage instructors to model the fluidity of virtual and embodied interactions to undergraduate writing students” (80).

Consequently, while computers and writing scholarship has often recognized the links between the digital and the body, a tendency to separate the two continues to be reflected in popular and academic (at least in disciplines outside of computers and writing) use of the word “real.” In popular discourse, “in real life” (IRL) is a phrase used again and again. For example, a quick Google search can uncover recent New York Times articles with titles like “Are You the Same Person Online as You Are in Real Life?” (Gilpin) and USA Today articles with titles like “When Should You Take It from Tinder into Real Life?” (Arciga). Both these examples are representative of a broader way people talk about the Internet and position the offline and the online as separate spheres. The first example talks about a performance of identity in almost Goffmanian terms but does so with the implication that the offline and the online can be parsed out as separate identities rather than as parts of a whole. The second rhetorically positions interactions through an app like Tinder as relatively unimportant until the interaction moves offline, at which point it finally becomes consequential. To be clear, these are only two examples, but they represent the way metaphors of “the real” continue to shape how people understand online interactions. In fact, the metaphor of “in real life” is so pervasive that  the phrase even earned its own Internet slang abbreviation: IRL. And, as Baym (174-80) points out, academic research still often uses the word “real” to describe what happens face-to-face as compared to what happens in digitally mediated environments (for example, Kothgassner et al.; Morina et al.). The phrase has traction and, even in 2020, that traction rhetorically lessens the importance of the online with significant consequences.

The positioning of the offline as “more real” fits within a long history of the denigration of various forms of mediated communication. As John Durham Peters argued, humans are constantly striving for a “direct” form of communication that bypasses the mediation of language (2). Without direct telepathic connection, however, face-to-face communication is supposedly the most direct means we have. Everything from letter writing to more recent digitally mediated forms of communication is often regarded as lesser and more impure. But Peters critiques the idea of one type of communication as direct and unmediated because all communication requires mediation, whether the mediation involves verbal language and bodies, images on Instagram, or text through SMS. There is no pure communication even if face-to-face is often viewed as the gold standard. 

I am not arguing that face-to-face communication does not have advantages (and potentially disadvantages) compared to digitally mediated communication. What I am arguing is that face-to-face is no more or less real than various forms of digitally mediated communication. The rhetorical framing of IRL vs. everything else creates a hierarchy of interaction and communication that is theoretically misleading and often damaging for multiple reasons. For one, positioning the online as less real is key to much trolling culture online. People behave in ways they never would in face-to-face contexts because their actions seem devoid of consequences and detached from the real (Moore et al. 861-62). In fact, research on online anonymity has long shown how some people dissociate with their online actions, almost as if someone else is performing them, and they often do not recognize the consequences of what they post (Christopherson). But, as ample examples have shown, the consequences of what people do online are very real. A rape threat through Twitter is real. Revenge porn posted online is real. Posting pictures of strangers online has real consequences (Cagle 72). It’s all real. 

IRL is the most obvious linguistic framing of the digital as somehow less real, but the idea also survives in major metaphors of technology. Maybe the most notable is “cloud computing.” Cloud computing is a metaphor that positions the digital as ethereal, as intangible as the clouds floating above us. It metaphorically implies that digital data is just out there somewhere, stored on this thing we call the Internet. But in the most basic terms, cloud computing involves storing data in one place rather than another. A file may not be stored on your computer, but it exists somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is a server farm in North Carolina or maybe a server farm in Europe. Regardless, cloud computing, just like IRL, is language that dematerializes the digital. It metaphorically makes the digital less real through the cloud imagery that imagines data existing without physical infrastructure. The metaphor is another example of what IRL shows even more starkly: the language people still use has roots in early framings of the Internet and shifts the way we understand the digital in consequential—often negative—ways.

The Real and its Discontents

The consequences of our language choices are significant. Take a concept like “slacktivism” that falsely dichotomizes online action from “real organizing” to get stuff done. In reality, the relationship between offline and online activism is far more complicated because it is all part of a complicated assemblage of interactions (Tufekci 17-18). And that is just one of many examples. A breakup through Facebook Messenger hurts a physical body. An external tenure letter I compose digitally and send through e-mail may determine where someone physically lives. It’s all real life. 

And while a metaphor like cloud computing may not be as stark in opposing the physical to the digital, the dematerialization of the digital in the language we use has consequences. The data is stored somewhere, often in server farms that use massive amounts of energy. The data relies upon fiber and other cables to get from one place to another, and the physical infrastructures that enable access are far from evenly distributed (Halegoua and Lingel 4635). And to go one step further, the laws determining what corporations and governments can do with data are partially determined by geography (Vlajin); in one particularly stark example, Google floated the idea of building a “Google Navy” of ships to store data to avoid national regulations (Jaeger et al. n.p.). There is no “cloud” out there with our data; the rhetoric matters. 

This article is a call to interrogate the seemingly mundane terms we use when we talk about online life. The fact that we create hierarchies that oppose the digital to the physical or dematerialize the digital through language is a subtle yet important framing we can push back on in our research and teaching. After all, why would we even study the digital if we did not think it was “real”? And as scholars and teachers of language, we can pursue advocacy to make these subtle metaphorical choices visible. For example, digital media courses could include a section on infrastructural literacies that teaches students about the materiality of cloud computing and discusses topics like energy use and national regulations. The courses can engage with students’ use of the word “real” in their writing and discussions to help them think through how the digital and the physical combine to form what we think of as real. Cohn’s work on digital literacy narratives in the classroom is an excellent example of how we can do so. As she points out, by helping students think through the reality of the digital through assignments and discussion, we can “help students to become active participants, rather than passive decriers, of the technology that will likely be a part of their reading, writing, and working lives in years to come” (93). After all, whether an interaction happens online or in person, it is real. Looking forward, we can play a role in critiquing and reshaping the metaphors that impact how people understand our world. 


  1. I am consciously using “digital” rather than “virtual.” The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they potentially mean very different things. The digital is just that: digital. The virtual, however, wades into philosophical debates and has a much more varied meaning, often being opposed to the actual rather than the physical. Or, as Brian Massumi puts it, “Nothing is more destructive for the thinking of the virtual than equating it with the digital’’ (136). return

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Cover Image Credit: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRL_%E2%80%93_Online_Life_Is_Real_Life#/media/File:Firefox_IRL_Podcast.png

Keywords: IRL, cloud computing, cyberspace, metaphor, social media