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As We Lead Increasingly Online Lives, What Does It Mean To Be Human?

A conversation with 'IRL' author Chris Stedman on what social media can teach us about being real.

by James Napoli
October 19, 2020 | Our Future
A smiling man sits on a log and holds up a smart phone to take a selfie, online lives, rewire
Chris Stedman, author of 'IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives'  |  Credit: James Napoli

In June 2017, Chris Stedman found himself in a bad way.

He had just moved back home to Minnesota after enduring "a marathon of misery," which began with the dissolution of a long-term relationship, followed by the unexpected loss of a prestigious job at Yale and a traumatic run-in with bedbugs. 

Then came the scabies infestation.

Back home in the Twin Cities, alone in his late twenties, with no immediate career prospects and suffering from an itch so severe he could barely sleep, Stedman felt hopeless.

One morning he opened Instagram to share a "dispatch from the brink."

The post proved to be a turning point in Stedman's life. He had spent years cultivating his image online, developing a highly curated digital persona that felt at odds with his offline self.

But with this candid post, Stedman felt his "inauthentic" online presence merge with his offline "real" life in a new way.

The experience raised deep questions for Stedman: Why is there such a big gap between our online and offline selves? What does "real life" even mean in our increasingly digital world? And how might we learn to embrace social media as a means for becoming more fully human?

The search for answers to these questions led him to some unexpected places: an amateur night for drag queens, a tarot reading, a map library, an annual convention of furries.

Stedman, 33, now an adjunct professor of religion and philosophy at Augsburg University, shares what he learned during this multi-year journey in IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives.

The book is erudite yet highly readable, a deeply confessional memoir that mixes philosophy with pop culture and media studies.

Rewire spoke with Stedman about his experience writing the book, ways to be more mindful of our online lives, and the role of uncertainty in a digital world.

What inspired you to write a book about being human in a digital world?

First, I was in this period of immense tumult in my personal life. My long-term relationship ended, my job ended, my independent life far away from my family ended. 

All these things that I thought made me who I was and comprised my sense of self — the kinds of things I would share online — came to a screeching halt. And yet, I found myself continuing to post online as if it was business as usual. 

Portrait of a mustachioed man standing in a rose garden, online lives, rewire
"Digital life can offer things we can't experience offline — new ways of being human and connecting with other people."  |  Credit: James Napoli

I was feeling really split between my chaotic personal life and my digital output — or "brand," as some might call it. I wanted to investigate that tension in myself and in the world.

Then, professionally, I've worked as a humanist chaplain for the better part of a decade, helping people who fall outside of traditional religious categories make sense of their lives, find spaces where they can reflect and find a sense of belonging and community. 

I started working with sociologists to better understand the religiously unaffiliated, the "nones," which is the fastest-growing segment of the religious landscape. These people are leaving religion and other institutions where we have historically grappled with big questions of who we are and what our responsibility is to the world around us. 

Now, many of those people are moving this effort into the digital space. I wanted to understand what's happening in that transition and how it's shifting our understanding of what it means to be human. 

What's at stake with this massive shift to digital life?

The internet became such a big part of our lives so quickly that it kind of snuck up on us. 

Nobody lives today without some sort of tie to social media. Even if you're not an active user yourself, you live in a world where it touches so many different parts of our lives. And, for many of us, important pieces of how we understand who we are and how we forge connections with other people now happen online.

Because the internet is so new, and because we have this idea that digital life is this fake space that's less real than other parts of our lives, we don't reflect on our digital lives in the same way. 

For me, the internet has become this important space where I connect with the world and with people. Opting out of it altogether doesn't feel like an option if I want to be present in ways that have come to feel meaningful to me.

You left social media for three months to finish writing this book. Tell me about that experience.

At first, it was awful. I went through withdrawal. But once I pushed through, I felt more at ease. It's like going on a meditation retreat. You feel more connected to yourself, but you've also disengaged with the world.

When I was less mindful about how I was online, I was much more likely to go down rabbit holes. Now I'm more able to hit pause, step back, and return with a little perspective.

There's a lot of value in that, especially because the algorithms move us in the direction of wanting to keep clicking and scrolling, not taking that moment to check in with ourselves.

How can we be more mindful in building our lives online and in the ways we use social media?

One thing that has made a big difference for me has been trying to be intentional about stepping back more.

We live in this age of constant connection where, at the first feeling of discomfort or boredom, we can just grab our phone. We can so easily avoid these feelings, which tend to be the spaces where important questions about who we are and how we should be in the world arise.

It's going to look different for everybody — there's no blueprint for this. It's less about shortcuts and more about a regular practice of constantly checking in with ourselves, reflecting on what we're doing online and how it's affecting the way we understand ourselves.

Do you have a preference for digital experiences over analog? Or is it not even meaningful to distinguish between the two anymore?

Digital life is fundamentally different from analog life. We do ourselves a huge disservice when we pretend like they're exactly the same. 

Book cover for IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives, online lives, rewire
Credit: Courtesy of Broadleaf Books

So many of us have experienced that this year. When I'm Zooming with a friend and I would much rather be walking around a lake together, it feels disappointing.

One of the ways we can most improve our experience online is expectation management — not expecting a digital experience to exactly replicate an analog one. What that allows us to do is rather than holding digital life to standards that it can never live up to, and thus being perpetually disappointed, we can instead let it be its own kind of experience.

Digital life can offer things we can't experience offline — new ways of being human and connecting with other people.

Can you give an example?

I've had many relationships that have been exclusively digital — friends I've never met offline. I don't even know some of their actual names or what they look like. 

There were difficult moments when I was feeling really isolated and struggling, and this group of people kept me tethered to the world. I didn't have the energy to see people in person or reach out to people I knew offline. But the low barrier to access and the semi-anonymity of chatting with friends online allowed me to feel connected.

You write a lot about uncertainty in the book. Why is this concept so important in understanding our digital lives?

As human beings, we're hardwired to resist uncertainty and to seek out a sense of security. That manifests especially strongly online, when we seek certainty in our digital behaviors — we hit refresh a bunch of times once we've posted something to see if the likes are coming in. If they're not, we delete the post, because obviously people don't like it.

This year has been all about uncertainty. We don't know when the pandemic is going to end. We don't know what's going to happen with the election. 

The only certainty in life is that you will never be rid of uncertainty. If we use digital tools mindlessly, that desire to stamp out uncertainty will take on maladaptive forms.

I think we have an opportunity with our digital lives and with this immense moment of cultural transition to recognize that life is uncertain, and to see what we can actually gain from becoming more comfortable with that uncertainty.

What makes you optimistic that the internet and social media can help us become more fully human and provide us with a real sense of belonging?

When I started the project, I was more pessimistic. I wasn't feeling very real in my digital life.

Ultimately, the book has an optimistic tone because of this idea that the internet's newness is actually an asset. With all the challenges that this digital moment presents, it also gives us a chance to reapproach these age-old questions about who we are and what it means to be a human and to be real. It gives us unexpected ways of seeing ourselves from new vantage points.

This year is a great example. Because of the pandemic, we had to quickly move important pieces of our lives online. One part of that process is having to ask yourself, "What do I need in order to feel like myself and in order to feel connected as part of a community? How can I go about meeting those needs virtually? What is most important to me?"

Some of our greatest learning happens in times of transition and difficulty. I still have many days where I feel pessimistic about this moment, but I try to remember that out of those sorts of difficulties, we have opportunities to re-examine who we are. That's ultimately what helps us go deeper into understanding ourselves.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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