Why study the Internet?

Oftentimes, when I tell people about my current research projects, I am met with dismissive laughs or am questioned about why what I’m doing is actually important. Of course, these are important questions to consider. Even for academic work that is highly theoretical, many people think it is very important that there is at least some road-map to real world applicability. So when I talk about my work on understanding meme genres and how they work, or my ongoing study of “finsta” accounts by young adults, it’s not uncommon for people to respond with a bit of interest, but then the inevitable question “but how does this matter in the real world?”

Alright, fair enough. I’ve gotten so entrenched in the work that I’m doing that sometimes I do have to remind myself that everyone else does not have the same perspective–for both people within academia (even within the field) as well as those who are not. So while those lines of questioning do become somewhat annoying, I do still see the value in asking me about those, and have spent some time recently trying to really pinpoint why I believe there is value in studying the Internet, and our communicative actions in online settings.

The virtual world is FAAARRR OUUTT, man…

As I was thinking about this issue, I realized that a lot of people who ask my about my work tend to differentiate between “the Internet” and “the real world.” Indeed, a lot of writing about the Internet has positioned it in this way. When you first bought a modem and dialed into the Internet for the first time, it wasn’t just you sitting at your computer and connecting to other computers, you were entering cyberspace. Whoa! And this type of discourse has continued, especially in the 21st century with our new-found obsession with VR technology and the ability to enter into those virtual world more immersively.

However, I take a different stance. I believe that fully compartmentalizing the “real world” and the “online world” from one another has hindered the ability to fully consider and understand the ways in which they are operating. Sure, VR and AR tech exists. And in a simpler sense, yes the advent of online communication technology has enabled us to move beyond the physical limits of space and achieve a greater degree of global connectedness. But this so-called online space (or virtual worlds, as some call it), are still situated within the physical world. In one sense, this is true because the literal hardware that makes that technology possible exists in physical space. Some of the things that Google offers are really incredible, but may only be possible in part thanks to an enormous data center in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. But in another sense, the two worlds (physical and online) are intertwined due to the fact that the people who create those online spaces have done so in the image of the physical world. By that I mean that the Internet hasn’t necessarily provided us escape from the tensions, conflicts, and other problems of human interaction; it has merely provided a new venue for them to unfold.

There is not as large a difference between the online world and the physical world as most people would like to think. The two spaces are closely intertwined, and just because something started online does not mean that it won’t have profound and lasting impacts on actual physical world events. This is why it’s so important to me that I study the Internet–because it is still real life, and increasingly it is the place where much of our real lives are taking place.

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