FEBRUARY 28, 2021
CHRIS STEDMAN IS an expert in many fields — but, like the rest of us, he is a novice on the internet. His latest book, IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging In Our Digital Lives, is an exploration of what it means to be “real” when so many of our daily activities have moved to the digital realm, where the line between the real and the unreal is uniquely blurry. As we all know, we can be any number of different people on the internet: the person we are, the person we want to be, all the good and bad iterations in between. In IRL, Stedman makes a compelling argument for embracing our uncertainty about using the internet as a tool to better understand our online and offline lives, challenging our sense that these realms are really so different after all. A balm of thoughtfulness for the digital age, the book reminds us that leaning into our online discomfort rather than brushing past it can be freeing and enlightening.
IRL is also an exploration of queerness, though it does not explicitly set out to be so. Stedman uses his queerness as a frame for thinking through the benefits of being an amateur. Queerness interrogates seemingly solid boundaries — between the real and unreal, the expert and the amateur, the known and the unknown, the self and its others — and it’s with this mindset that he approaches the borders of our digital lives. I caught up with Stedman via Zoom recently to discuss the book’s queer lens, digital archives, and undefinable community. The interview below has been edited for clarity.
Author photo by James Napoli.
MATT WILLE: I really related to IRL as someone who is queer and online all the time. Was queerness central to the project or was that something that happened along the way?
CHRIS STEDMAN: It totally happened along the way. It really wasn’t until I was turning it into the publisher that I was like, Oh, wow, this is a very queer book. And I think I had a moment where I was like, Is that okay? Even though it’s a very personal book, my hope was that it could be useful for a broad range of people. And so I did have this moment of wondering: Is this book too queer?
But I think that queer people have something very particular to offer the conversation about how we live online, because growing up queer you grow up in a world where you’re having to think a lot about the public self versus the private self — all of the questions that swirl around what it means to be real and what it means to share your true self.
So I think it’s actually not just okay that the book is really queer. I think it had to be, in order to tackle the central question of the book. I open IRL by talking about a drag show. Drag as an art form is about shining a light on what “realness” even is, what it means. I think that is ultimately why the book is so queer. Because not only is that the lens that I consider everything through as a queer person — I also think that it’s just the absolute right entry point for thinking about these kinds of questions.
IRL also explores how the internet is a perfect place for curating an image and how that’s a reason queer people are drawn to the internet: because we can be who we want there/in digital space. Was your working definition of “realness” related to that sense of curation?
Yeah, absolutely. I think the internet shines a light on our conventions of realness: what it means to be a person and to share one’s self with others. And then we can decide what we do about those conventions.
In 2016, when I started what would eventually become the book, my life changed significantly — all these things that I thought defined who I was as a person, so many of the things that I would share online, ended or changed in a short amount of time. And I found myself feeling like a lot of what I was experiencing was stuff I couldn’t necessarily bring to my digital presentation, because I had spent so many years curating this public self that was really laser-focused on my professional work. It felt like it would be disruptive to bring anything else to it. I came to recognize that, of course, this image curation is something that we’ve always done. We’ve always made efforts to share particular expressions of ourselves. And we’ve always been different selves in different spaces. But online, we can feel like we have to be a single self for every possible audience.
What often happens as a result is that, online, we simplify who we are. We present only what feels safe enough for all the different audiences in our lives, and even imagined audiences that we have yet to meet. We feel quite constrained by that, though — and so, in order to make it feel more tenable, we have this idea that, well, the internet’s not really “real life.” But of course, we all know that that’s not actually true — we spend a lot of our days on the internet, especially this year, and we use it for increasingly important and central things.
We can either respond to the tension of having to be a self for multiple audiences online by simplifying ourselves and presenting the safest, most acceptable version of ourselves, or we can embrace the chaos. I think that, for me, embracing the chaos is central to the journey that I’ve taken as a queer person to accept myself.
What has felt ultimately most fulfilling is using this opportunity, this gift of queerness, to actually shatter some of the norms I inherited as a child, like this idea that I’m supposed to be a single, coherent self. And that’s where I think the internet makes this curation that we’ve always done more obvious to us. Our digital presentation can function like drag, which shines a light on the conventions of gender in order to disrupt gender norms.
I think a lot about the digital archive I’m creating for myself on the internet, records of past selves. Queerness, at least in the traditional sense of academic queerness, is very future-forward, reaching for utopia. Does the internet hold us back from that? Or can we see it as a tool to maybe evaluate past versions of ourselves?
I think that there is another way to respond to feeling “cringe” about our past selves. In IRL, I talk about an old tattoo that represented the way I saw the world when I got it, not how I see it now. Instead of covering it up, I went back to it years later and added more detail — the detail that in some ways I lacked at that point in my life, or was unable or afraid to acknowledge. I think, like a tattoo, our digital archive gives us a chance to recognize the convention that the person we are is somehow the same person we’ve always been, rather than an unfolding self that is always evolving and changing.
Do we reject past versions of ourselves as failures? Or do we use that information as a way of understanding where we’ve been and where we’re going? Instead of feeling trapped by them, I think we can use these permanent records that we’re creating in real time online as a way to embrace and recognize the fact that we’re all changing at all times. That we’re all works in progress.
The future focus that we see so much in queerness, which I think you’re so right about — it’s very understandable. I spend one of the chapters of IRL talking about the queer impulse to look for this better future at all times. It’s why, rightfully, we see a lot of people in queer spaces being like, “You need to know your history.” Only looking forward gets us into a lot of trouble. But we shouldn’t lock ourselves into the past, either. If we use our digital archive to help ourselves and one another become more aware of where we’ve been in order to chart out where we need to go — I think that there’s real value in that.
I think the thing about internet community, in general, is just that, so much of it can feel less “real,” even when the relationships that we form there are lasting. You talk about this in the book, but I wonder about your thoughts on how we can define those friendships, which, at least in my experience, do seem to be more prevalent in the queer community.
I think that one of the real gifts the internet gives us is all these different ways it calls into question what’s real and what’s not. This is a great example of that. Because we’re shifting so much of our lives to the internet, we have to consider these questions like: What is friendship? What does it mean to be in a relationship?
Any time conventions are shattered, some people look at the new as illegitimate. And queerness is convention-shattering. Being queer and being in queer spaces has been so expansive for me, in terms of my understanding of what friendship can look like, what relationships can look like, what love can look like. People often look at the friendships that are forged online, the communities that are established online, and they see them as less real, as fleeting, or as escapism in some ways. But if they’re escapist, it’s because it’s an escape from a world that is restrictive. And fleeting doesn’t have to mean insignificant.
Sociologists talk about the difference between “close ties” and “weak ties.” Close ties are like our best friends, maybe family — people who, regardless of circumstance, we’re going to keep up with. But that’s only a small percentage of our relationships. The rest of our relationships fall into the category of weak ties. Someone who maybe you meet once — maybe you’re traveling and you have this great chat with someone over Grindr, and then you exchange numbers and you save each other in your phones, whatever, but then you’ll never see that person again, because you never go back to that city. But maybe you follow each other on Instagram, and this person continues to be in your life in some way for a long time. Sociologists suggest that close ties tend to share a lot of our worldview, for many obvious reasons, whereas weak ties are much more likely to bring things onto our radar that differ from the information that we might encounter just on our own.
The internet gives us a chance to recognize that we can find significance in relationships of all sorts, even if they might, on the surface or according to a conventional understanding, look less significant. Again, I think that’s a fundamentally queer concept.
Do you think that there’s any danger in getting lost in the curated feed and then translating that back into the real world? In particular, I’m thinking of feeling very comfortable in an online queer space and then logging off and feeling lost.
I do think that it is important to consider how what you’re consuming online translates into the life you’re living in every area. Last summer, in the wake of the uprising after George Floyd’s murder, there were all these conversations online about what perspectives we’re getting: Who are you following? What voices are you hearing? How do their perspectives translate into the way you live online and off? I’m really glad that those conversations happened. I think some people did take important stock of the relationship between how they live online and how they live offline.
At the same time, IRL ultimately builds to what I think is the biggest stumbling block to feeling more fully human, more fully ourselves, online. Though the internet functions like it’s a public space, it’s actually not — it’s private space. The platforms that we use to express ourselves, to learn more about the world around us, to connect with others, and forge really meaningful relationships, are ultimately run by private companies, and their priority is making money. And so they’re going to move us in directions that make them money, not in directions that make us feel less split between the lives we lead offline and on.
You wrote IRL before the pandemic, and the internet has really changed, as has our relationship to it. If you were writing the book now, what would you want to explore? What would you push?
I turned in the book in December 2019, and I was doing final edits early in the pandemic. And I remember a lot of people asking: Are you gonna change anything? But the pandemic felt so new that it was like, how do you even say anything at this point? As I was going through the final edits, though, I felt fortunate that the book did feel like it spoke to the moment without me trying to force it to. Because, if the internet is this lens through which we’re considering these age-old questions of “realness” — what it means to be real, what it means to be a person — then that’s an approach that we can bring to the internet even as our relationship to it changes and our online conditions shift. My hope is that the book can be a tool for people in their own reflection, not something overly prescriptive or too dependent on circumstance.
What I was thinking a lot about when reading IRL was our very human tendency to assume we know everything, and to assume that we know best how to use the tools that we have. In the last couple of decades, as the internet keeps changing, we keep assuming we know how to use it best.
I open the book with this defense of being an amateur. We would do ourselves a real service by embracing the fact that we’re not good at being human online yet.
There’s a tendency to speak about queer communities as if they’re utopic — that we all belong here — but I’ve witnessed a great deal of infighting in online queer communities. What do you think about that dichotomy?
The internet can be super freeing, but we can be freed up in both good and bad ways. A lot of the accountability that you get from being in community with people in the real world disappears online. When someone offends you or hurts your feelings online, you can just unfollow them. As much as social media frees us from the restraints of our old institutions in all kinds of ways that are really life-giving, we also need to think about what we’re losing, like accountability, and how to bring that into this new space.
As for the queer community piece of it: I think that a lot of queer people learn to be clever and cruel, first as survival technique, and then as a way of earning praise and validation. When I was a kid, my siblings were all very athletic. We would get into all kinds of scraps, and there was no way I was going to win on a physical level. So I learned how to fight back with my words. I learned how to say the most cutting thing that I could in order to survive. And being clever ultimately became a big part of how I understood myself as a person.
But recently, while watching the incredible show Veneno, I was reflecting on how so many of the characters say these, like, really playfully cruel or catty things to each other. One of the things I realized early on in writing IRL was how much I love getting playfully dragged on Twitter. But why? Why do I love that? I think it’s because the world demands perfection of all people, but especially queer people. And there’s something really liberating and relieving about saying, Fuck it, drag me, you know?
The internet can help us notice these tensions in ourselves more — the imperfections — and how to go about upending this expectation that we must be perfect. I think that’s the queerness about infighting and dragging. Queer people can fall into the same trappings that all people do, of cutting one another down. But I also think that there is something freeing to be found in this queer culture of saying you’re not all that.
All you have to do is watch one episode of Drag Race to understand the slight difference in the boundaries there. But we’re never really going to resolve those tensions.
Right, exactly. At the end of IRL I say: There aren’t answers. There’s just an approach to being online that tries to center paying more attention to what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what it reveals to you about yourself. And there are ways that the dragging that we engage in online can become so depersonalized, because we’ve told ourselves that what we’re doing online isn’t really “real.” So I can tell myself it’s okay to drag someone online unlovingly, because it doesn’t really count. And that’s different. Unless, you know, we’re dragging people in positions of power, people who are actively harming others. Then, by all means, drag away.
It’s complicated stuff. There aren’t easy answers. But that doesn’t mean we give up and shrug our shoulders and say, like, Well, whatever, I guess the internet doesn’t count. I roll my eyes at words like “intention,” but that is one place where we can begin to change our experience of the internet: by bringing more intention and awareness to what we’re doing online.
For me, it’s not as if I’ve transformed my experience of the internet and I now have this enlightened stance online. It’s a constant effort and practice on my part. I’m still an imperfect person who’s rude to people online sometimes, who still will delete a tweet if it doesn’t do numbers. But my old relationship to those imperfections was to dismiss them, because I told myself that life online wasn’t as real — Whatever, it doesn’t really count. Now, I’ll look at them and say, Isn’t that interesting? Why did I care so much about my tweet doing numbers? What does that say about what I believe makes me worthy?
Ultimately, I guess why this is such a queer book, probably, is because it’s a book of questions. Which I think is the queer experience of life. We have to question so much of what we’ve been told makes us real, whole, worthy. But we shouldn’t stop at sexuality. We should question every norm about what makes us real. I’m just trying to bring those kinds of questions to the silly things I tweet.