Essays

What Divide? A Personal Meditation on the Online vs. IRL Debate

by Ben Valentine on September 13, 2012

Pandora as experienced on the World Wide Web in Iceland.

Pandora doesn’t work here in Iceland. Nor does Netflix. The country doesn’t allow either, so my friends and I have all been swapping music and movies instead of streaming them. My friend who gave me the songs I am listening to right now got them through the Bittorrent hub Piratebay. I’m listening to London music from a Philly girl while living in a farmhouse in southern Iceland, all because the internet is slightly less global than I thought. It’s a strange world.

I was only given a couple of albums. Great music, I am listening to it now, out of small white earbuds (no, not iPod earbuds you snob, some cheaper knock off by Sony). There is someone sleeping in the next room so I have to be quiet, but I rarely write without background music. I will leave her to the sounds of the wind and rain of Iceland.

Google image search for ‘Artist’.

I am in Iceland because I am an ‘artist.’ I Google image-searched “artist” and it made me really debate ever using that term again, but of course that search might reveal different results on your own computer. I am here for an artist residency. Although I do identify as an artist, I am also a blogger and curator (for the money, unlike the art). While in Iceland, I have been writing a little for Hyperallergic, but I just submitted an article to Idiom Mag as well, a publication that I have written for once.

Obama on Reddit, poor grammar and all.

Although I am in Iceland, I am still a citizen of the United States, and of the internet. I was just watching President Obama do an Ask Me Anything (AMA) Q&A session on Reddit while listening to the London band SBTRKT. There is a lamb outside my window making a weird noise. Obama’s Reddit chat made me think of FDR’s Fireside Chats and our desire to connect with one another. FDR used radio and conversational English, not traditional for political speeches. Was Obama going on Reddit a radical move? Was he connecting to the American public on their own turf, on an equal playing field? Is leaving the podium of the powerful to be amongst the people a sign of real change? Is being on Reddit actually being with the people? During the Reddit AMA, someone corrected Barack Obama’s grammar. In a way it was the most real I had ever seen Obama; it was beautiful.

My abs are really sore. Everyone in Iceland goes to the local geothermal heated pools almost daily and I have been swimming laps for the first time in my life, trying to be like the locals. On top of that, a friend shared this video on my Facebook of an Australian telling the Dalai Lama a stupid joke… about the Dalai Lama ordering pizza. I can’t describe why it is so funny to me, but watching someone meet one of the most important religious figures alive and deciding to share with that figure a stupid joke about themselves is truly hilarious to me. Swimming in the pools and this video have both made my stomach hurt today.

Or was getting on Reddit not radical at all? Is using Reddit once, on the heels of an election, just Obama’s logical progression in campaign marketing to get votes after his last social media-filled election on the backs of Facebook and Twitter? All we were left from that election (which elicited unprecedented voter turn out) were empty catch phrases like, “Hope” and “Yes We Can.” Did anything change besides how he moved us to vote? It seems that Facebook’s viral nature of likes and shares and Twitter’s similar functions have translated well into our political landscape. Obama is a viral president that we love and share but maybe don’t know why we do so. Obama is a Carly Rae Jepsen meme.

I came to Iceland for the northern lights, puffins, and quiet time to work on writing and art. I got all of that. But the internet kept me from being present in the place, or maybe kept me present to my work as a blogger and kept me connected. I didn’t photograph the northern lights, so did they really happen?

Where is the line between IRL and the internet? What is the line between connecting to citizens because you merely need their votes and connecting with them to involve them in the political process? Where is the line between connecting in the physical world and connecting online? Does a Facebook-style thumbs up to Obama really mean anything, on Facebook or otherwise? We shared his slogan and got little reward except feeling like we were part of a club, which felt good enough for awhile. I don’t know the answers. Obama has my vote already, although the H-O-P-E from the last campaign has mostly disappeared for me. He really hasn’t been bad.

Mr. Obama came all the way down, crossing the IRL gap to the internet to hang out with us online. Or maybe there is no line — he came over to the majority and stepped closer to us, all 245 million internet users in the US. That is almost 80% of the population. That is IRL and online America. Check this out:

54% of the online U.S. population, are now active users on Facebook (out of 850 million monthly active users globally). They also spend an average of seven hours there a month, 14 times the amount of time people spend on average on the most popular news sites. And the number of Twitter users grew 32% last year to around 24 million active users in the U.S

Ooh, my music just changed, but you can’t hear it; you’re probably listening to another band, another soundscape entirely artificial to your immediate landscape. For me, it’s an Icelandic band now, Samaris. I will hyperlink to their SoundCloud for you. Here you go. What are you listening to? Add me on Facebook, shoot me an email. Better yet, if you see me walking around, tell me what music you’re liking now, share it with me. I saw Samaris in Reykjavik live, IRL, two Fridays ago, I am really liking them.

Let me tell you, Reykjavik on a Friday night is insane. I should have gone out with my camera so I could show you now, so I could prove the capital’s craziness to you. Oh, I found some photos of it. Great. The music was great, but as the night wore on it got too crowded, and everyone was much too wasted. Pushing, breaking bottles, girls peeing in the street, and more; it was carnage. Kinda awesomely wild, kinda gross. Here is a video of Julian Assange dancing in Reykjavik, I found this video while in Iceland. I saw it on some artist’s Facebook wall, it was an interesting coincidence. I went to Reykjavik and read about Julian Assange, and all that came out of the two actions was that YouTube video.

Anyway, music. Although I, like almost everyone, love live music, the best way for me to enjoy music is alone with headphones — I can appreciate it more fully then, with less distractions. I went to the concert to see Samaris and they were great, but the random metal band that I didn’t know was actually better. They were great live, but only live. I did not request the metal band’s music after the show, nor would I share their music to anyone online. The live music was ephemeral, over. Samaris lives on much better on my computer.

I drove to Reykjavik in an old car. Lots of roads in Iceland are gravel; you could feel the bumps. They cut through vast and not-so-ancient lava flows now covered in moss — beautiful roads. We passed a lot of bikers, exploring Iceland at a slower pace. They obviously looked more like campers than city-, museum-, or concert-goers. Their experience of Iceland must have been entirely different from my month-long stay. I doubt they checked their Facebook half as much. I doubt they watched something occur over the internet that inspired them to write an article that was shared by @Wired, (which has crazy Klout). I bet they think I didn’t see Iceland at all. They believe in that line between IRL and the internet.

Me and Mykki Blanco hanging out on Facebook, in Iceland.

I am paranoid that those bikers think that I am online too much, that I need to stay present to “reality.” Like my job isn’t real life, like their bikes aren’t enabling a constructed experience of nature, like their flight to and bike ride around Iceland was totally natural. It is true though, I post to Facebook often, er, we post to Facebook often. But I did enjoy myself in Iceland! I saw the puffins, the northern lights, heard the music, and I picked berries. Look, I totally was here, in the dirt and woods, picking berries, look you slow bikers:

Picking blue berries in Iceland. Photographing them. Uploading the photo. Commenting on the photo.

Look, I saw the landscape, I soaked it in and then shared it with you. Look, enjoy Iceland with me:

Waterfall in Iceland, IRL.

Here it is on Facebook. I edited it to make the colors a little more appealing, or maybe to look more like I remember it, or maybe to lie to you all. Look, people commented on or liked it in three different states and one different country, all of whom are outside of Iceland:

Waterfall Online.

If I had not taken a photo would these experiences be less real? If I had spent more time picking berries instead of editing, posting, and commenting on the photos of me picking berries, would there be anything lost besides a little jam? I came to Iceland, shouldn’t I chose to be here? Why did a blogger go to another country to blog?

I like both online and real life, which is to say I like life, and experience it on many platforms. I want to gather as much as I can from both arenas. I don’t want to be that sad World of Warcraft player, peeing into empty Monster Energy bottles. I feel my best while walking or hiking. There is nothing greater than being physically close to someone you love or having a great conversation in person, but the internet has different interactions, different opportunities, and great potentials. I love it for its weirdness and its new horizons. I love that I saw Obama’s grammar get corrected and upvoted on Reddit. I love that there isn’t a line, and that it hasn’t been there in a long time. Living in the in-between is fun.

Obviously Photoshopped photo from a peak at Landmannalaugar.

Turkle is right, to a degree. We need to chose. Half attention is poor attention to more things. I want to show up for the world, to keep my sustained attention on one thing at a time, whichever side of this ridiculous line I choose. Sometimes I need SelfControl to help me with that; I have an addictive personality for sure. Excess comes easily to me, I chose to climb this mountain (above) as fast as I could, after spending a day online — I wanted to make sure that I really got IRL, that I liked it enough to feel it in my legs. I was in Iceland, after all. I also arranged my move to San Francisco while I was in Iceland. I need a place to sleep, after all. I also stayed up and wrote this post until 4 am in Iceland, just to share with you. I gotta eat, after all.

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  • http://www.chrismillerwebsite.wordpress.com/ ChristopherM

    Nice – that was gorgeous. Liked.

  • http://www.facebook.com/carlos.loaiza.10 Carlos Loaiza

    Read this post written by an American currently in Iceland, while in my room in Mexico, through a NY-based blog.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jenalee.harmon Jenalee Harmon

    All I read was, “Here is Iceland” and was immensely jealous, even without Netflix/pandora.

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