Is the internet or reality more real?
April 21, 2012 8:00 PM   Subscribe

Help me bridge the gap between the world as it seems through the internet and media vs. the world I go about in every day.

I don't want to go into great detail describing the ways that there is a dysmorphic effect between the way the world seems to be according to its representation in the media and according to my perception of the people I go among on an everyday basis. But I sense a profound difference on matters of sex, relationships, and general norms, as well as expectations for what roadblocks to meet at particular ages. FWIW I live in Columbus, Ohio and I'm fairly introverted.

I don't know which is more distorted. Does the internet massively overrepresent and magnify the voices of fringe and/or largely urban communities that are highly specific and not mainstream/widespread, or is my perception of my surroundings overly innocent? Mainly I think the way to assess this is to see whether others generally think that the societal image presented by, for instance, AskMefi populations advice/answers, represents a substantially different worldview from that you encounter in everyday life? If this question is wholly unclear, just ask me for clarification.
posted by grokfest to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It would help to know what, exactly, you're talking about.

As someone who lives in New York and works in the media, the mainstream media always seems a little stodgy and warped towards.... something??? .... that doesn't entirely match my life. I tend to think of it as being geared toward "flyover country", but I'm not sure that's true. And I'm not sure if what you're talking about is what I'm talking about.

I also certainly would NOT consider Ask MeFi "The Media".

Another answer? I sometimes have to remind myself that the internet is full of nerds, and thus leans more towards the nerdy. For instance nobody I work with has ever seen Dr Who. And I have remind myself, "the internet is for nerds, and you sequester yourself within a nerdy subgroup even for the internet."

But again, I don't know what you're talking about. So I can't really answer your question.
posted by Sara C. at 8:06 PM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'll probably catch flack for this, but having moved from Boston to Cleveland to New York, you live in a pretty regressive state, especially for someone of the 'metafilter demographic'. Yes, I know there are decent coffee shops and brew pubs in Columbus and Cleveland, but my god are they rare and still half-full of yokels. My (typical fortune 1000 corporate) offices in Ohio were stunningly less diverse on almost any measure - national origin, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation or expression.

But that's just my experience with the actual people I met in the actual workplaces/social gatherings/etc in those areas. Where 'media representation' or 'the internet' factor into this is something that someone else will have to weigh in on.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 8:13 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The internet vastly amplifies the voice of the fringe. See: NBC's "Community."
posted by ronofthedead at 8:25 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is a good question and something I’ve wondered about myself. My sense is that the views and experiences of people heavily involved in any particular internet community aren’t reflective of most people’s everyday lives. If there’s a site that has say 500 active members from across the country who have very peculiar views and comment heavily and you spend all of your time there, you’ll get a very distorted sense of the world.

It’s a few years old now, but there was an interesting review in the New Yorker of several books by Cass Sunstein. Here’s a relevant section:
“The most striking power provided by emerging technologies,” [Sunstein] has written, is the “growing power of consumers to ‘filter’ what they see.” Many of the most popular Web sites are still those belonging to the major news channels and papers—CNN, the BBC, the New York Times. Increasingly, though, people are getting information from these sites in a customized form, by subscribing to e-mails and RSS feeds on their favorite topics and skipping subjects they find less congenial. Meanwhile, some of the fastest-growing sites are those which explicitly cater to their users’ ideologies. Left-leaning readers know, for example, that if they go to the Huffington Post or to AlterNet they will find stories that support their view of the world. Right-leaning readers know to go to the Drudge Report or to Newsmax to find stories that fit their preconceptions.”
I think internet communities are much more prone to selection bias than real life. If someone doesn’t like the advice that’s typically offered in Mefi relationship posts, they’ll probably just stop participating here. In real life if you don’t like the opinions of the people in your community, it’s harder to move away. Reading and participating in a variety of online forums is a good way to expose yourself to different viewpoints and experiences, but your local circumstances are the ones that are more “real.”
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 8:57 PM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

Jasper, you understood what I was asking better than I could articulate. Thank you. Your answer pointed toward what I was thinking about and got me thinking further.
posted by grokfest at 9:30 PM on April 21, 2012

Especially this point:

I think internet communities are much more prone to selection bias than real life. If someone doesn’t like the advice that’s typically offered in Mefi relationship posts, they’ll probably just stop participating here.
posted by grokfest at 9:31 PM on April 21, 2012

I think the Internet is more real in that people talk about things that everyone thinks about, but no one talks about in real life. For example, things like peeing in the shower, forbidden crushes, and a lot more of the either unmentionable or totally daily/ordinary life things. (Can't think of a better example, but definitely things like how to avoid your family, drawing boundaries that can be uncomfortable to talk about in real life with most people)

It's not real in the sense that on fb or the "media," people are always dating, never a dull moment. I mean, people just don't post pictures of themselves filing taxes, commuting or opening the garage on facebook, right? But these type of activities take up a good part of our lives.

So I think the Internet is more real in exchanges and dialogues, such as Ask Mefi and other forums, but less real in social "profiles" such as OkCupid and facebook.
posted by ichomp at 9:38 PM on April 21, 2012

I definitely relate to your question; I've wondered this myself.
I kind of agree with These Premises; when I moved to Chicago I was delighted to find that the internet and real life complemented each other (although, of course, playing more of a role in telling me how boring I was compared to what other people were doing)...when I moved back to Virginia, it seemed like the interesting lives being portrayed on the internet were unattainable and "just out there," but in Chicago it all seemed within reach. It was amazing to me to be able to read about some famous band and then see that, oh hey, they'll be in town tomorrow! Or read about the 2008 election and, oh hey, let's go down to Grant Park cause Obama will be there!

Anyway, my point is it probably depends on where you live. The media isn't focused on suburban or rural or even Midwestern life, I think.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 9:52 PM on April 21, 2012

ichomp's spot on; there's always a filtering taking place; this is the reality of media culture.

Even the word media itself is a hint of this. It's the same word root as "mediated" and "medium", the meaning being "being inbetween two things" - medium's between easy and hard, for example, and can also be understood as describing a medium of transmission, as with radio or plague. With media as we know it today, it has the additional connotion of a conveyer, as well, the understanding being that all these videos, news reports, kittens images etc. are all mediated; hence, they're media.

It's said that information is the best currency; I'm thinking it's an item of merchandise, and the currency is our attention; point being, media today is incredibly dense, information-wise, and as a result, each individual media unit (a game, movie, television series etc.) becomes content-specialized. Think about it - how many times do you take Commander Shepard out behind a bush for a piss? You don't, 'cos it's not relevant.

This in turn creates an expectation of a sort of immediate relevance of all available impressions - a sort of cognitive tunnel vision, if you will, in which everything that occurs takes on much greater relevance than it actually warrants.

tl;dr There's a lot of random shit going on in the background, all the time. 90% of it doesn't relate to you directly whatsoever.
posted by DemographicLanguage at 9:57 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

It really depends where you live. I lived in Alabama for a while and moved from San Francisco for job-related reasons. A typical weekend for me in SF might've been something like: I'd go to the beach in the morning, then drive down the 1 through the farm areas and hit some farmer's markets for produce, grab lunch somewhere nice that I hadn't tried before around Half Moon Bay or further down, then mosey home in the afternoon stopping at shops and places that looked interesting. By contrast, I was complaining to one of the guys who lived in Alabama that there was nothing to do and he said, "Nothing to do? I know we've got a movie theater, and I know there's a couple bars and some restaurants. What else is there? That's what people do." It was like aliens from different planets trying to communicate. There was literally one book store in the town I lived in and it was full of books from Fox News personalities and things with titles like "Fighting the demons in your home: A Christian's guide to spiritual warfare."

And it's not just lifestyle stuff. Remember all those "funny" Alabama political ads that went around a few elections back? (Or just Google them). I remember a couple, but the one I remember most is one attacking a candidate for saying everything in the Bible may not literally be true(!) and he even refused to condemn evolution(!!). I finally had to tell people to stop sending me links to those because I was seeing them constantly every commercial break and surrounded by people who would agree with those ads.

So yeah, one thing I think is that the media get tunnel vision of the area they live in (DC or New York) and what people care about there, the people they work around, and the issues they cover between channels, the way something in my industry might be A Big Deal to those of us that work in it and something nobody cares about to everyone else, only we don't have a national platform to cover that issue. Here I'm thinking of those New York Times articles that are like National Geographic safaris into the suburbs where they marvel about the low-priced houses and the fact that people aren't super-concerned about Manhattan real estate or what restaurants are in. Or in political reporting, you get those issues where Very Serious People All Agree only nobody I know on either side of the aisle agree with that consensus, but it's trumpeted as The Thing That Is Correct And All THe Serious People Agree.

Couple that with the fact that it's remarkably easy to immerse yourself in whatever communities and sites and newsfeeds you prefer and it shapes your entire world view. If you go to FreeRepublic/Democratic Underground or even things as far afield as the conspiracy-minded websites, you'll find people upset about these major issues in their community getting constant feedback on how terrible/exciting they are, only it's things you haven't heard of, but because they're immersed in it, they feel like it's this enormous deal and there's tremendous consensus on it because everyone they talk to agrees. Like I listen to Alex Jones every now and then for grins and The Government is setting up FEMA Camps and coming to take your guns away and they're on the move and you better get these supplies for the coming societal collapse, where the biggest thing I deal with on a day to day basis is deciding where to get lunch. But for that group/community, it's a very big deal.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:17 PM on April 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

My advice would be to hone your ability to read people in social situations; this'll let you more easily determine what's relevant and what's not.

The idea is that as you practice reading social situations, you build a baseline of experience. This baseline is - for myself at least - a very useful tool for determining what to pay attention to, basically, and what to discard.

The good news are that practicing this is easy; reading people requires people and a bit of patience, both of which can easily be found in abundance. Make a habit of taking your time to observe people around you; see what they do and how they go about it. What's the difference in attitude between a busy waiter and his bored patrons? How does a tired man walk compared to a boy? How does your mother look at you when you've made her dinner, compared to when you've broken her favorite vase?

You'll eventually pick up a common alphabet of cues of social context. Use them to determine what to think of the world around you.

tl;dr: Learn social skills; understand people better and thus, yourself.

There is one more thing, which I'm putting here rather than in the main body, because I am uncertain whether it is relevant for you. For many years I was convinced that any impression I received from the people around me was unreliable (due to some imagined hidden flaw somewhere, somehow, of which I was convinced existed but never questioned). As a result, I was incredibly social awkward, because I never knew what to think or do.

I say this because I shook that off of me partly by learning how to read people, and that since then I've found genuine friends everywhere. My point is, you must trust yourself and the people around you, as you trust your ability to read them. This trust is essential, and as your skill at reading grows, so will it.

That is the basis of self-confidence.
posted by DemographicLanguage at 10:48 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

MeFi does not substantially differ in tone or opinions from the people I surround myself with socially. The city around me, and the world around that, differs a fair bit, depending on how far afield I go. I know there are pockets of radically different opinions, as much next door to me in my building as on the next website over, but we select our friends as much as we do the things we read. I don't find the net much different from non-net culture anymore.

The medium, of course, imparts different emphasis, but this is true of any medium, and a lot of this is seen in other textual discourse (say, academic writing or journalism). Mass coercive effects of economics seem to have a slightly lower effect here, and the distance-mediation and relative pseudonymity mean people open up and speak their minds more honestly.

Maybe you need to get into a bit more of the seedy underbelly of Columbus?
posted by ead at 10:58 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience, Americans can be very insular. There are obviously lots of Americans who aren't, but we're generalizing here, so bear with me.

An awful lot of the Internet as Americans know it is populated by other Americans. As was mentioned above, Internet communities lend themselves to filtering. The combination magnifies the effect.

That said, if you look in different places on the Web, you can find communities that reflect astonishingly diverse slices of world culture.

By it's very nature, though, the Internet excludes those who are distant from technology. It can't represent the lives of people it doesn't interact with.

Honestly, I think the best way to grapple with the disconnect is to actively seek out diversity in your online and real life communities. Travel, if you can afford to.
posted by bardophile at 11:56 PM on April 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

or is my perception of my surroundings overly innocent?

Well, there is probably some of this at play as well. I mean, Ask is very left leaning, largely agnostic, cool with pot and sees poly as a viable relationship model. If you look around you, you will not see those values reflected in most US populations. But, people lead lives that are not at all what they seem, or what you assume them to be. I was recently having a conversation with a suburban middle class conservative friend who told me with huge delight about the dinner party she and her husband went to with the boring middle aged couple across the street who put the kids to bed and nonchalantly offered their guests a joint.

Genghis and I are very boring, average people in a very typical small city. None of our friends are particularly aware that neither my husband nor I places a high value on monogamy - not because we're closeted or embarrassed but because it's really fucking tedious to hear people go on about their fabulous "lifestyle" so we never do. On the other hand, he is a die hard elitist atheist, and people assume I must be, too (or how else could I live with him?) They are shocked to find out that I'm not. We hold some pretty radical opinions few people around us would know we hold because nobody ever asks. We have pasts that are so much more exciting than our presents, but values and world views that have not changed one bit.

I operate in the expectation that life is actually much more like an episode of Weeds than most people suspect.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:52 AM on April 22, 2012

"Does the internet massively overrepresent and magnify the voices of fringe and/or largely urban communities that are highly specific and not mainstream/widespread, or is my perception of my surroundings overly innocent?"

I read this last night and have been thinking about it today, and I think both are probably true. The internet DOES let people who are outside the norm -- any norm -- find each other and, lacking offline venues for socialization, they socialize more on the net. You are also likely to visit those sites you find congenial and avoid those you find uncongenial, so you're more likely to see things you agree with amplified.

On the other hand, your real-life interactions tend to be circumscribed as well; you tend to interact more with people who are "like you" in various ways -- they share your religion (if you socialize through church), or your politics (you're in a union, or in the Tea Party, or whatever), or you all have advanced degrees (your work), or you all have kids ages 5-12 (kids' school, kid sports, etc.), or you're all of the same socioeconomic status (your neighborhood) ... most people tend to develop a group of friends who are very, very like them in some ways, but different in others (you all have kids the same age, but you're the outlier in politics; or you all have advanced degrees from great schools, but you're the only Christian evangelical; whatever), and sometimes this can create a sense of isolation or dissonance when you're the only X that you regularly socialize with.

What's interesting to me is that people who are very involved in small communities for a long time can lose sight of how small and unknown those communities are in the wider society. For example (and not citing to particular comments because I don't want to call anybody out), in a transgendered thread here on metafilter a while ago, someone used the term "cisgendered" and someone else asked, "What on earth is that?" and the first person was very affronted and insisted it was a clear word with a widely-known meaning and, even if not, obviously cis- is the opposite of trans- in Latin so everyone can figure it out. (And then it devolved into bickering over the prefix "cis-".) This is the part that was interesting, w/r/t your question: I thought that was a rather stunning set of assumptions by the first person, who, despite being apparently active in transgendered acceptance issues, talks so exclusively to people who are familiar with the transgendered that "cisgendered" is widely known and they had lost sight of the fact that it's a strange new word to most people. (And I consider myself pretty well-educated but I had no idea cis- was the opposite of trans- before it came up in the context of cis- and trans- gendering.)

Similarly, I was at a meeting the other night where the participants were accused of "talking in jargon" and it was frustrating because that's just what things are called. But on the other hand, I recall that when I first started in that field, I constantly wished for a glossary because it's not exactly jargon, but a lot of stuff you wouldn't be familiar with if you were outside the field, and that could make some discussions impenetrable without some pre-education.

My state's been debating what's oh-so-cleverly called the "pole tax," which is a tax on strip clubs. Reading the (extremely heated!) articles about this, I've discovered there's a whole world of strip clubs, burlesque clubs, sex clubs, etc., going on that I had no idea even existed! And the differences among these places are hotly debated, and the pro and con people are deeply entrenched in their positions, and the whole debate seems amusingly bizarre to outsiders who didn't even realize that THAT nondescript bar in the unincorporated county was a strip club, and in fact millions of dollars are at stake, for state and local governments AND strip club owners AND strippers, and they all have different incentives and operate from different assumptions (and then there's the folks who oppose the whole thing entirely, for various reasons) ... I don't think I'm exactly naive, but I certainly never had any reason before now to pay much attention to strip clubs or their opponents. The people involved in the industry (pro or con) seem to have fairly distorted views of reality and massively overestimate the importance of strip clubs (both in singlehandedly propping up our national economy and in totally corrupting our youth, as various sides claim) ... but those of us who never thought about it before the "pole tax" seem to have pretty distorted views as well, where we didn't realize how much money they brought into tax coffers or how many people the industry employed or how passionately some people object to them.

Back when I lived in a city with two daily newspapers (as in, there were not only actual good newspapers, but TWO CHOICES), I used to take the one that had the opposite political view of mine, partly so I wouldn't get too entrenched in an echo chamber. (And really: while mass culture waxes and wanes, people have long had the opportunity to live in echo chambers of this sort, even before the internet. In fact, in some ways, moreso before the internet, where it was harder to become aware of things outside your worldview.) However, the internet has actually made that too annoying because of the drive to get advertising eyeballs by being as outrageous as possible.

Anyway, I think this is a common phenomenon, and I think it's wise to be aware of it so you don't go through life thinking that everyone knows what you know or likes what you like.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:35 PM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the additional thoughts. I thought about this as I was going to sleep last night (or rather early this morning) and came to a couple of conclusions that were addressed by some of these commenters:

One is that part of the reason this troubles me is that I don't feel like I have a strong enough sense of what people around me are like because I don't engage with them as fully as I'd like, being introverted and shy. When I replace internet-people and -conversation with real people to help fill that void, and then find it difficult to relate to many internet people or the supposed norms presented in forum conversations, for example, that can create a sense of hopelessness in being able to ever hope to engage more fully with a wider variety of actual people. (And before anyone asks, I do have a therapist with whom I discuss the issues hinted at here, including depression and social anxiety.)

But there is an additional simple curiosity about how widespread are the neuroses, anxieties, expectations, and other things hidden from everyday conversation but openly discussed online. I don't think that a consensus on that has been built here, but even if it had, I don't know that I'd be able to trust it anyway - it's a bit catch-22 to ask an online forum how representative it is of the wider non-internet society. Anyway, thanks for the insight.
posted by grokfest at 4:53 PM on April 22, 2012

But there is an additional simple curiosity about how widespread are the neuroses, anxieties, expectations, and other things hidden from everyday conversation but openly discussed online

It's hard to say, but I think it's less common than you see online (and on AskMe, where people, by the nature of the site, come here with problems). The online world has a habit of forming "communities", which tends to concentrate people of a certain temperament all in the same place.

In a snarkier moment, I once described the typical profile of a MeFite as "liberal non-theists with social anxiety who are alienated from their families." Obviously, most people in general don't fit that profile, and the people I know IRL generally don't fit that profile (in the case of those with social anxiety, by their nature you will run into them a lot less in your face-to-face social interactions).
posted by deanc at 5:46 PM on April 22, 2012

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