The Online World IS the Real World

By Sean Ogle •  Updated: 02/21/10 •  4 min read

I was recently at the TEDx Bangkok conference, and one of the presenters kept referring to the “real world” and the “online world” as if they were separate things.  Listening to her talk it kind of hit me, that we have come so far that these are no longer separate worlds, and we should stop treating them as such.

These days nearly 50% of my waking hours are probably spent online.  Now that is kind of a sad realization, but when it all comes down to it, that’s the truth.  Due to this, I have a hard time believing that almost half of my time is spent in a “fake world” that doesn’t exist.  The fact of the matter is that, just about anything you can do in real life, you can do on the internet.  Sure it’s different, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Every single day friendships are made, business deals are crafted and relationships begin and end.  If I’ve spent three hours talking to someone via skype over the past few months, but haven’t sat down and had a beer with them in person, does that make them any less of a friend?  Does that mean we aren’t real friends?  I don’t believe so.

As the internet becomes more engrained in our day to day lives you will start to notice that the line between the “online world” and “real world” will get blurrier and blurrier.  The sooner you can embrace an online relationship as something that is very real, and here to stay, the sooner you can begin taking advantage of them.

In previous posts, you’ve heard me mention the virtues of being able to meet people who share similar interests.  A few days ago I experienced an excellent example of this.  Chris Guillebeau was in Bangkok for a couple of days over the weekend and helped to organize a meetup.  Around 20 people showed up, most of whom had never met in person, but each one had a very similar passion: travel.  We sat for hours talking about experiences and trips, and just about everyone could relate to each other in one way or another, regardless of the fact they had never met in person.

If being able to see someone in person or hear them speak is what constitutes a relationship, then what about the blind person that can never see who they are talking to, or the deaf person that can’t hear a word you are saying?  Does that mean they are incapable of having a “real” relationship?  Absolutely not.  The bottom line is, the person on the other side of the screen is in fact a real person, capable of all the same feelings and thoughts you experience.  Therefore those interactions are just as real as every other that you experience.

I think this debate stems from the fact that such a large percentage of the world grew up in a time where there was no internet.  The closest thing to it was having a relationship with a pen pal across the world.  So, when you spent decades of your life seeing things one way, it can become difficult to look at things from a different perspective.  Maybe it’s because I’ve had the internet for the better part of my life and have learned to embrace it and all that it means.  Because of the internet, you are reading this, I can support myself and  I certainly wouldn’t be in Thailand if it weren’t for the relationships that I formed via the web.

I think the internet is the most powerful tool in the world for conducting business and building relationships.  In 10 years, this will no longer be a valid discussion, because the idea of an online relationship will be even more widely accepted than it is now.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have a close friendship or business relationship that is strictly based through the web?  Do you think an online relationship is a real one?

If you enjoyed this post be sure to sign up for my email updates and RSS Feed! Also, check out more photos of the BKK Meetup.

Sean Ogle

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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28 comments on "The Online World IS the Real World"

  1. Diggy says:

    Hey Sean!
    Very true, more and more people are just making their living from the internet. I do it myself and spend hours a day online!

    I think that friendships online are very powerful and through blogging I have gotten to know and meet people that I otherwise would never have come in contact with.

    I remember when I was in high school that our teacher told us the internet was going to crash and would not be around 5 years from then. Imagine that had come true, how different would the world be without internet!!!

    Cheers 🙂

  2. Mary says:

    I think that online relationships with people are definitely real, and they become even more so when you meet. I have a couple close friends online that I haven’t met yet and even more that started out that way and are now “real” because we’ve met in the flesh. In some circumstances the online relationships can be stronger than ties you have to casual friends, since generally you are sharing a part of your life you are very passionate about and connecting over that.

  3. Heather Rae says:

    I think you bring up a valid point – I definitely think that friendships formed online are equally as important and ‘real’ as friendships formed offline. As I’ve met more and more people through blogging, twitter and other social networking, I’ve really come to see this. Often, when I meet someone online, we have an even stronger connection because we usually meet through having similar interests or experiences and we learn a lot through each other’s writing. Sometimes, I know more about my online friends than my offline friends. In time, I suspect – as you do – that this won’t even be a valid debate, just a normal way to make connections. Thanks for the post!

  4. Well said Sean. I can honestly say that a huge amount of my friendships from the last 7 years have been formed online, but have grown into something much greater.
    Social networks such as Couchsurfing (most of my friends), Orkut (Brazilians) and twitter (you and nearly everyone else I know in Bangkok) have opened my world up to amazing possibilities, and Facebook has been great for maintaining these connections.

    The chances of meeting such like-minded individuals in some random party are way too small; I don’t know what I’d do without the Internet! And of course, it also puts bread on my table 😛

    I’m super glad I’ve gotten to meet you and the others here in Bangkok. It’s completely transformed my Thailand experience. Thanks so much. 🙂

    Another excellently written post!

  5. Sirius says:

    granted, the majority of online relationships are the equivalent of waving to your neighbor from across the street but never sitting down to have a talk… for years i’ve been friends with a buddy in japan whom i’ve never met live but have long, deep, drawn out conversations with via skype.

    as for the “real world”… we each choose our own reality.

  6. Kristin says:

    I’m so glad we’re not fake friends. It’d be really hard to drink beer in Bangkok if I wasn’t real. 🙂

  7. Elisa says:

    I believe that relationships and life in general can happen online. Without blogging and social media and various other things I would not have any other way. In fact, one of my closest friends lives in the other corner of the country, yet she and I talk for at least an hour on the weekend, email/chat/Tweet all week long and she’s like a lifeline for me. For that reason alone I’m indebted to the “online world.”

    The danger as well comes when you try to make 100% of your life the world that is online. For example, you may have met the people at your meetup because of the internet, but you still met up with them offline. I adore my friend, but I’m still flying out to see her in April. That being said, I think that the concept of genuine life online is such a hot issue lately because some individuals have found ways to manipulate the online world to a place that isn’t their true reality.

    It’s one thing if it’s the reality you are trying to create and the life you want to lead…but if you are somehow pretending to be one person online that is a definite departure from who you are “IRL” That’s when the distinction needs to be drawn.

  8. Well said, sir.

    It’s true, there really is no distinction anymore, just b/c the web world isn’t physical, doesn’t mean it’s not real.

    Can’t see electricity but if you put a fork in the socket while taking a shower, you’ll know it’s real.

  9. David Damron says:

    Hey Sean—

    I think the population that doesn’t see the blending happening degrades the value of the “online life/world” because they do not understand and are afraid of the change. For example, my mom puts down the bonds and relationships I build online. The main reason why is because she is traditional and hates change. The other reason is she doesn’t want to adapt. It is tough to adapt to anything but changing the way you connect with others is very difficult for many people to do.

    Good article…

    David Damron

  10. I totally agree Sean. There is no difference in the world that is online and the world that is “real”. It is important to remember not to replace the the “real”, face-to-face world with the online one entirely. I think some people use the online world to replace the real world and spend too much time there.

    I’ve made a goal of using the tools available online to help meet the people and do the things I do offline. The “fake” world will never be a replacement for the incredible things we can do in our “real” world.

  11. Katrina says:

    They are real, but they are different than relationships formed offline first. You also must consider how many of the relationships generated online stay online only, vs eventually going offline too.

  12. paurullan says:

    I fully agree and I feel more on the wave of Benny: the online world can give you lots of ways to complement the meat-world.
    I have forged most of my friendships online even that most of these people are my fellows from highschool or college!

  13. Hmmmm. I’m on the fence on this one. I believe that you can have real relationships online, and one of the things I love about the internet and blogging is that you can connect with people you’d have never met otherwise. At the same time, there’s a whole dimension of relationships that cannot occur online, including touch/hugs, being able to hear the intensity and emotion in a person’s voice and body language and being able to share meals, etc. I think (for me) online relationships take longer to get to the same level of intensity and trust for these reasons. On the other hand, how fun to meet an online friend face to face and deepen that connection.

  14. David Walsh says:

    So… you’re saying the woman I’ve gotten involved with on SecondLife qualifies as an actual affair? Oh man. I’m in trouble.

    Seriously though, you couldn’t be more right about this. The distinction has nothing to do with the context of meeting and getting to know someone, but rather the evolution of the relationship. I’d argue that an online-only interaction is simply a partially developed relationship, and can never satisfy everything you get when it enters a personal interaction. It’s real, but not fully realized.

    This is so similar to why online dating is so smart if you truly value yourself and your time. You’re qualifying someone at a base level before investing time to further the relationship. Business/social relationships should be no different.

    The major issue, and the reason I could NEVER be content with online-only relationships, is that I constantly realize many people craft personas that don’t match who they are. You realize that when you meet someone who is nothing like the perspective of themselves they present to the world.

    You are still only who you are when you’re sitting across the table from another human being.

  15. Great insight Sean,

    As you mentioned, the differentiation between real and online is probably only because we are in a transition period. In the future, these types of distinctions will likely be silly.

    I think the same can be said for work. How many different names have we conjured up for work; remote work, telework, work shifting, working from home, flex work, location independence, etc. Work is not defined by location. In a decade or so all of these terms will fade from existence and we will all just be working again.

    I often wonder what was it like when the telephone was invented. Did companies differentiate themselves by those that used telephones and those that didn’t? “I work for one of those new Telephone Enabled Corporations.”

  16. BrdTrpp says:

    True True man. What’s the difference between the real people I meet everyday and the “Internet relationships” I have daily? Nothing besides where I “see” them. In 10 years no one will even think that there is a difference between an internet contact and a “real life” contact. Online dating and online coaching are the best examples of this topic.

    Thanks for the post.

  17. You are so right, Sean.

    And the online relations don’t have to be across the globe either. I have formed three excellent relationships via internet with people that live in the same city as I do. One turned into a shared business venture, one into a casual friendship, and the third one has become a very close friend. I met all three because of internet.

    Great post.


  18. Earl says:

    This morning I received an email from a girl I met 9 years ago while traveling in India. We actually spent only 10 minutes together at the time but have stayed in touch ever since. And I can honestly say that this person is one of my closest friends in my life. We haven’t seen each other since that 10 minute encounter but we have been able to build a strong friendship over the years thanks to the internet. And there is no doubt in my mind that this isn’t a real relationship.

    I agree with you completely that that there is no longer a distinction between the two worlds.

  19. Hey Sean, it was great to meet you and I totally agree with you. For me it’s all about community in whatever work or life area I move in. I have always sought out community and never distinguished what brought it about. As time goes on more people I meet are online, although the distinction blurs when you start to include skype, it’s online and personal at the same time. I love meeting people face to face and I seek to do that whenever I can, hence going to the meet-up in Singapore, but that only cements what is happening elsewhere. We all create personas online and, if we are authentic, face to face only deepens the knowledge and understanding of each other. Let’s move to the point where we don’t distinguish any more.

  20. Sean, did you hook up with the woman who you have your hands all over??

    Sounds like one big boondoggle of fun! Cherish it forever!

    1. Sean says:

      @FS Actually I have no idea who that is. David and I hopped on Cody and then she hopped on me to take the photo. Very entertaining night…but most of them are in this city!!

  21. Adrienne says:

    I think online relationships are real… but they’re just not the same as when you are meeting someone in person.

    It looks like you guys had fun meeting up in Thailand. Wish I were there!

  22. It has been “the real world” for quite a while. Hell I have good friends who have been married for over a decade after meeting on a local BBS*.

    I’ve used it as a tool to expand just about every horizon there has ever been in my life. I have met some of my closest friends. I have found, landed and created jobs. And I am currently in a relationship with someone I initially met online (not a dating service, we just just randomly met on a community site).

    I’m glad that it is becoming more widely-accepted as such, because it has made for some awkward conversations through the years. I don’t so much mind the stereotyping, but it got old at times.

    *-picture dialing into someone’s local computer that only about 12 people at a time could be logged into chatting or reading stuff. For those who only know the web.

  23. Kirsty says:

    Hey Sean,

    Wow that was an interesting read and something I haven’t really thought about. I am guilty of separating the two by calling refering to ‘Internetland’ when discussing stuff I do and friends I make online. But they are one in the same.

    The division might go back to the earlier days where there was a stigma attached to friends made online. It was seens as the domain for geeks only and many people were a bit embarrassed to call friends made online, ‘real’ friends.

    Because I work online and spend a lot of my time in ‘Internetland’, this is my real world as well and the lines are certainly blurring. The net is a great way of keeping in touch with all of your friends, whether you make them online or offline doesn’t really matter anymore.

    Nice post.

  24. Dude, you gotta follow up on that girl who jumped on you man! lol

  25. johnny says:

    so true

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