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What Does It Mean to Be ‘Real’ Online When You Can Never Fully Log Off?

Religion and philosophy professor Chris Stedman talks ‘IRL,’ his timely new book that attempts to define the ways in which life on the internet can be both well-lived and authentic

Chris Stedman didn’t expect his new book on curating digital authenticity to be released during a pandemic when we’re all forced to be online. But it sure does help prove to readers (and his publisher) that he knows what the hell he’s talking about. 

The author of Faitheist and professor of philosophy and religion at Augsburg University in Minnesota is what he’d diagnose as extremely online. In fact, the first people he came out to as gay years ago were strangers online. And today, Twitter is his digital lunch table where he’s turned professional acquaintances into close friends. That said, it can still be hard for him to know how much of his true self to put out for display online. Will, for example, his boss and former flames judge him for tweeting puns about containing multitubes, like an esophagus and a trachea? 

It’s probably for all these reasons that Stedman’s second book, IRL, is such a sensitive, intelligent look at his ongoing journey to finding realness and purpose online. 

I recently spoke to Stedman about IRL and how the internet exposes our inherent contradictions as well as why Queer Instagram and Twitter must come to terms with our families seeing our thirst traps and what makes those eye-rolling “just log off” tweets so annoying. 

When did you start writing and researching IRL?

I started working on what became the book in 2016. Faitheist came out eight years ago. This sounds very dramatic, but there were moments when I thought I might not do another book. After Faitheist, I had a lot of people asking when’s the next book? But unless I have something I actually want to say, why take up space?

Then, in 2016 — and this is very cliché — my long-term relationship and my job ended. They had been huge pieces of my identity. Going through all this change, I suddenly found myself wanting to write again. All that early material was emotional purging, and none of it ended up making it into the book. I write in order to figure out what I think about things. That’s journaling, basically. When I knew this was becoming a book is when I was talking to people about it, and they were similarly trying to figure out how to show up online in a way that felt real to them.

What’s it like writing about the internet given that it’s changed so much since 2016 when you started writing?

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s really difficult to write about something that’s always changing. Everyone around you wants the book to be something that can last, and I’m fortunate that Faitheist has had a very long life. At the end of IRL, I don’t say, “Here’s how to have a more gratifying and meaningful life online.” It requires a kind of practice of stepping back to get perspective and being honest with yourself. I do think books that say, “Here are 10 steps to having a more genuine online presence,” those are going to age really fast because the internet’s always changing. My hope is this is a tool that someone can use to reflect along with me on their own life.

When you publish a book like this, you’re perceived as an expert on the internet. But people are online in so many different ways. Your experience is very different from radicalized users on Reddit or teens on TikTok. How do you address this?

It’s a great question. With my first book, I very much was an expert on the subject. Religion was what I studied in school. With this book, I tried to talk to lots of different people whose experience with the internet was different from mine. I also say at the beginning of the book that I’m very much not an expert. In a very real way, none of us are experts on the internet because it’s so new. We’re all trying to figure out in real time how to do this well and how to do it better. I think that not being an expert at something has a value to offer, too. Most of us aren’t experts on the internet, yet we still have to live on the internet. 

I talk in the book about my experience of being forced by my mom to go out for a sport in high school and choosing cross country with the idea that I was so bad at running that there’s no way I’d make the team. Of course, I didn’t realize cross country is a sport where everyone makes the team.

Before cross country, I mostly stuck to the things that I was naturally pretty good at or an expert at. I learned from cross country doing something that you’re not good at or don’t understand very well teaches you things about yourself that you can’t learn otherwise.

I grew up on the internet, and it seems to scare older people that I’ve known who they are on Twitter for nearly 10 years. You get into this — our personas online are largely public and accessible by anyone. 

One of the biggest challenges the internet presents in being human is for all of human history we’ve always been multiple selves. The person I am with my mom is different from the person I am in this conversation. It’s not that one of those people is more real and one of them is less real. It’s that what makes us real is that we’ve always been a composite of these different selves. But online we have to somehow be a self that can be seen by all of those different people. 

On the one hand, that presents real challenges of the publicness of the selves that we construct and share. But on the other, it presents an opportunity. When I started working on this book, I was more pessimistic about the internet, specifically how the internet impacts our understanding of what it means to be a person. I came out feeling a little more optimistic because what I think the internet offers us is an opportunity to deconstruct some of these false ideas. We’ve always been multiple selves, but we’ve always had this idea that there’s this true self. What the internet shows us is that we’ve always been contradictory. We have two choices when confronted with that truth. We can either resist it, and we see this online with the self-construction that happens that I’ve done, too, where you try and reduce yourself down to the safest version of yourself. Or you can sort of go the opposite direction and just embrace the chaos. That’s what I’m trying to do now. The internet gives us an opportunity to do that. It just comes down to whether or not we accept that.

I want to talk about why you turned down being vetted for an Obama White House appointment, which you felt would sanitize your online life.

It probably wasn’t a great career move. [Laughs] I got this idea that you really need to just be super coherent online. You need to have a particular identity and stick to that. But, of course, there were more pieces of me and more things I was interested in than just that. Saying no to that appointment was difficult because literally everyone I talked to about it was like I can’t believe you’re even considering not doing this. But it felt freeing because if I could say no to that, then all these other ways that I felt like I was supposed to be a certain kind of person online were very silly. 

Definitely, one big shift on the internet in the last 10 years is the idea of having a coherent brand. Now people aspire for something a little bit more chaotic. I cite in the book a piece by Taylor Lorenz about how influencers are trying to move more in the direction of authenticity. In a time where people feel life online is less real or fake, realness has become culturally and financially valuable.

To that point, what’s it like to release a book about trying to be authentic online in a pandemic where the only thing you can do is be online?

[Laughs] I reference in the book this line from Rising by Elizabeth Rush, which was my favorite book that I read last year. She references this line she found in an essay on Alzheimer’s. At the time, I was helping my mom take care of my stepdad who has Alzheimer’s. The line was, “Sometimes the key arrives before the lock.” 

I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot this year because these questions that I’ve been obsessed with over the last few years, like what it means to be a person online, have now become some of the defining questions of this moment. All the thinking, researching and interviewing that I’ve done over the last few years has helped me this year get used to having to live huge pieces of my life online — not by choice but by necessity.

My dad is someone who only uses Facebook and has the idea an online presence is less important than real life. But being online is probably going to become even more important. 

One thing this year has offered me is that I’ve had to go back to the drawing board a bit and ask myself what do I need in order to feel connected and like myself. How can I go about getting it in this new way? I understand the impulse to want to step away from the internet altogether. I’m not saying someone can’t or shouldn’t. In the final months of working on this book, I took a three-month social media break, which was horrible. The first few days, my friends pointed out I was texting them in meme format. But once I got over that initial hurdle, it was wonderful. I had all this extra time, and I was less anxious. All those things were true because I was basically on a retreat. 

When you go off on a meditation retreat, you feel more at peace because you’re totally disengaged from the world. If you want to be present and engaged in the world as it is right now, I don’t think you really have a choice about being online. We can very easily dispense with this idea that the internet or the lives that we lead are fake or less real. They are what we make of them. If life online makes us feel less real, it has everything to do with how we’re living online and not with the very fact of the internet itself.

I’m tired of people tweeting about how they’re done with social media. 

“Just log off.” [Laughs] When I was younger, logging on was an intentional act. I didn’t have the internet at home, so I’d have to bike to the library to use it for like 20 minutes at a time. I would step into the internet and step out of it. Now it’s integrated into all parts of my life. It’s like the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing I look at before I go to bed. Because of that, we do need to be intentional about taking those moments to step back. Not because life online is fake and we need to go live real life offline, but because we need the perspective that we get when we’re alone.

When you’re truly by yourself, that’s when you have to face certain questions about yourself and things you’ve been avoiding. It’s super easy in that first moment of loneliness or boredom to reach for your phone. I find that I need to take those moments to step back and get that perspective that I can then bring to life online. But if those moments of disconnection ever feel more peaceful, part of it’s just because I’m disengaged from other people’s realities. And that’s the more peaceful place to be.

I see parallels between the authenticity that I’m trying to have online in the pandemic with the community I was looking for digitally a decade ago when I was coming out as gay.

Yeah, there were a couple of moments where I was like, “Is this book too queer?” The ways that we curate identity and express ourselves online — there’s a lot to learn from the ways that queer people have navigated this. The very first people I ever came out to were strangers online. The very idea of being authentic or being myself, I can’t imagine disconnecting that from the internet. 

I spend a chapter exploring maps and parks. I just love maps. But maps are also this metaphor for the ways that we curate an online self. When a cartographer is making a map, they have to take this complex three-dimensional terrain and reduce it down to something that they can represent on a two-dimensional surface. That’s a process of reduction. You can’t show everything on the map, or the map would be the size of the actual territory itself. I came to recognize what guides the choices of what we represent and what we don’t aren’t neutral. They’re guided by the conventions and norms in cartography of the people who created the platforms for making maps and who’s paying for the maps. 

That’s interesting.

It’s easy to look at the ways that we represent ourselves as queer people online. They’re guided by conventions and norms that are often invisible to us and represent the interests of the people who create and run the platforms. While the internet has been a space where marginalized people like queer people can find each other and find community, it’s not surprising that oftentimes we feel like we’re being encouraged to curate a self based on values that aren’t necessarily always our own. There’s something that queer people can offer that’s instructive there because we’ve had to deconstruct the norms and conventions that have been imposed on us of what our lives are supposed to look like and what makes our lives meaningful and valuable.