As a self-publishing and budding author, Garrett Robinson spent much of the past year building an online community of fans, bookworms and readers. Though he started out slow, his online presence procured enough of a following that he now writes books full-time.
“Now, when I meet fans and readers in real life, a large portion of our discussion normally revolves around our online interaction,” Robinson said. “I'll be out at a party or an event and run into someone who's just read my latest book, and who then went on to ‘like’ me on Facebook and subscribe to my blog.
“Invariably they'll want to talk to me about the topics I discuss,” he said. “I've had hourlong conversations about it from people who I didn't know at all until they found me online.”
Robinson’s online life is blending into his offline world, something not uncommon in today’s digital age, experts say. The Pew Research Center said in a study that in 2012 about 85 percent of Americans 18 and older use the Internet, while 95 percent of Americans ages 12 to 17 are online. This is a jump from the 46 percent of people who used in the Internet in 2000, according to the study.
No longer is the Internet merely a destination. Rather, it’s just another piece of everyday life, experts say. With social media's continued evolution and growth, experts say both the digital world and reality are beginning to blend together.
Alex Juhasz, a media studies professor at Pitzer College, said “most of the time we’re in some kind of blended reality, where digital culture is affecting and in conversation with and influencing our daily lives.”
But the blending of offline and online worlds isn’t without its challenges.
Real-world relationships online
Everyone’s online experience is different, said Rebecca Hains, associate professor of communications at Salem State University. Some primarily use it for research, while others go online primary for entertainment or communication, such as with social media, she said.
“But we have to remember it’s not the same for everybody,” Hains said. “There’s so much complexity there.”
Most people use online technology as glue for relationships that already exist in the physical world, said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Boston University. Users can arrange hangouts and get-togethers, or “talk to Grandma in a new way,” she said. With video applications — like Skype or Google Hangout — and picture messaging, people can see each other on a whim, Rutledge said, which develops more quality relationships. It creates closeness and intimacy with people, she said.
And the abundance of social media applications — like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest — gives people a wide range of options of how to connect with their friends and families, Rutledge said. The Pew Research Center recently published a study that said 72 percent of online adults use social media, which is up from the 67 percent from 2012 and only 8 percent in 2005.
“It makes people feel so connected,” she said.
Rutledge said the lines separating online and offline experiences have been blurred. The two worlds “are very fluid,” she said.
Blurring creates challenges
Juhasz said it’s hard to distinguish between what she called “lived reality” (real life) and “the online experience” (digital life). The worlds have meshed together to create the “blended reality,” where people are always being touched by media information and it’s infecting or augmenting their lived realities, Juhasz said.
She said it’s impossible to be completely in the digital space, since a person’s physical body will remain in the lived reality. Conversely, a person can live mostly in the “lived reality,” like if they “lived in a cabin the woods,” Juhasz said.
“Mostly we’re in the blended experience,” she said.
An example of the blended experience is seen when people quickly check their smartphone when they need quick information or directions, Juhasz said. A 2012 Google study showed 90 percent of people use multiple screens and devices at once to accomplish different tasks. For example, when watching TV, 75 percent of people are accessing media through another device, like a smartphone, the study said.
But living in a blended reality has its downsides, Juhasz said. The moments “when we can contemplate, think and deal with nature are less and less common,” she said. “We’re in a new form of human experience.”
Rutledge said learning how to use the Internet is comparable to learning to drive a car. “Once you’re on the Internet, it’s a public space,” she said. People should be cautious about what they put online and who they share their online worlds with, Rutledge said. Understanding what can happen in the digital world will help you better in the lived reality, she said.
“We need to make sure people understand what it means to be a good digital citizen,” Rutledge said.
Many youngsters are learning how to be “digital citizens,” Rutledge said. She said parents try to teach their kids about the Internet and allow them to use it because many of the tools available online are for creating things. “And kids love to make things,” Rutledge said.
Most teens and young people are using the Internet for social media, according to Pew, which reported in a 2011 survey that 80 percent of those ages 12 to 17 use the Internet for social media.
But the heavy amount of social media use brings about another problem, Hains said.
“I think where I have the greatest concern about the blurring between online and offline is bullying in schools,” she said.
She said if a student was bullied in school, “the bullying stayed at school and the home was a haven.” But now bullying has migrated into the digital world, and it’s something few teachers and educators can do anything about, Hains said.
“We haven’t, as a society, caught up to that yet,” she said.
Technology evolving now
Hains said dealing with the long-term effects of technology’s growth is the next step for society. She said people will eventually have to understand that the talks, arguments and moments they have online will have an impact on their everyday life. Your offline and online lives affect each other simultaneously, she said.
“We reached the next stage in our communications evolution,” Hains said.
And there’s no going back, Juhasz said. Products we buy — like coats, cars and comestibles — will soon have digital information, she said. This is already happening by Google developing cars that drive themselves, as the computers inside the vehicle can speak to each other and don’t need human help, Juhasz said.
“That’s not even the future,” she said. “That’s now.”
But not everyone will be accepting of these changes.
“You might see a backlash from people looking to completely unplug,” Juhasz said. She said that many of these “changes in our culture [are] changes about what it means to be human. We shouldn’t just accept these changes: we need to think critically about them.”