Crossing the Digital Line

I went and saw a movie (Yes Man – it was good) tonight for the first time in a long time.  The Dark Knight (also good) was the last, and before that Spiderman 3 (decent) and then Return of the King (good again), but I can't say for sure.  Lots of reasons to not go: kids, long legs, attention deficit – let's go ride bikes! – disorder, general dislike of staring at a non-interactive screen, etc.

And actually, now that I've written that, I realize I just went and saw Role Models (decent) last week.  I am an idiot.  Though in my defense, it was at the Bagdad and the food stuck in my mind more than the movie.  But whatever, the topic at hand has relatively little to do with movies.

Rather, it's about crossing the digital line, the distinction between real life and digital life.  The Internet (which, as we all know, is a series of tubes) is great for a number of reasons: virtually limitless information sharing, easy communication without regard for physical location, ability to easily adapt a persona that isn't the real you (IRC, WoW, blog/twitter, …), etc.  The Internet is also a bane of existence for various reasons, and not coincidentally, they're exactly the same reasons it's great.  Everyone with an Internet presence has to cross back and forth between their real self and their online persona (or personas) all the time.

I've gone to great lengths to ensure the Internet projection of myself is consistent with my real self as much as possible.  Not a complete projection, of course, but containing as little as possible that the real me wouldn't do.  As you would expect, the technical aspects of my life are better suited to my Internet persona and so they get the lion's share of the "airtime" online.  Notable exceptions include a relative absence of profanity and dirty humor online and a relative absence of personal/life details.  I don't know if that's a "normal" scenario, and I'm not going to speculate, but it's certainly not an all-encompassing scenario.

What strikes me as remarkably interesting is that every significant digital relationship I participate in either started as a meatspace relationship or has had a non-trivial meatspace component.  This isn't surprising, necessarily, as people aren't very interesting online because the ability to communicate is so constrained, but it never the less seems interesting that meatspace remains important.  Since you're still reading, let me ask favor: if you know me or have met me in real life, what surprised you when you met the other version of me?

One particular aspect of this dichotomy is going to a development conference or two each year and swilling beer with all kinds of fellow developers that I usually interact with only via email, blogs and Twitter.  While technical topics are always on the table with a bunch of geeks, discussion is usually of a non-technical nature (e.g., pie fights).  This is always one of the highlights of the year.  Again, not really that surprising, but it's interesting that it's so vital to the day-to-day technical interaction with these people.  Having experienced the real person lends shadowing and depth to the digital projection that simply can't be created any other way.

One specific example, sorry Sean.  Sean was on the ANSI C++ Standards Committee (or something like) that some conference he told the story of one of their dinners where they ordered by committee.  Seriously.  They actually discussed until they had, as a group, decided what the combined order would be for the group.  14 people or something like that.  Obviously this has nothing to do with anything technical, but everything to do with the interaction amongst this group of people.  And the fact that Sean was in this situation validated so many perceptions I had of him (that were also validated other ways, of course), about the way he does things.  He once accused me of accusing him of being tactful.  But I stand by my "accusation", because while he takes no shit, I think he's quite tactful about it, and that perfectly meshes with how you'd have to be to function on a committee like that.  Not that there is a causal relationship there, but certainly interplay, and it's fascinating to see it materialized both ways.

I always feel … weird … crossing over that line for myself, but find it perfectly natural for others to do it.  Perhaps some sort of paranoia that the Internet-mandated schizophrenia will migrate from the digital border into my head and become real.  Perhaps just a simple issue with vastly different media (the world, the internet) and trying to communicate consistently between them.  Who knows.

And the actual impetus of this post was that I went to the movie tonight with a friend whom I only knew online.  We "met" on Twitter (thanks places search!) and learned more through blogs.  I was planning on going to the movie by myself, but on a whim shot off an invite via DM.  This all seemed perfectly natural, and then as I was heading out from the office it struck me as an absolutely insane course of events.  Not that any specific aspect of it seems all that odd, but as a whole…  I dunno.

One of these days I'll be one person in both realms.  Maybe.  At least when I choose to be.  In the meantime, I'll continue to be fascinated by the dichotomy, both in myself and in others.  Here's to me! And me!

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