The internet is real. The internet exists in the world and it affects the rest of the world.
I’m a person all of the time. I don’t stop being a person when I log on, and neither do you. It matters how we treat each other, and it matters what kind of culture we build through online interactions.
Further, no one can opt out of being affected by the internet. The interactions that take place online impact the whole culture, not just those who are directly participating online. For instance, whether or not someone ever uses a smart phone or takes a selfie, if they spend any time in cities, they’re going to encounter others doing so — and if they go to events, they’re likely going to encounter backdrops made for that express purpose. There’s no way to opt out of being affected by the existence of selfies and selfie culture.
There’s also no way to opt out of the way the internet can be used to attack people. For instance, for over a decade, ratemyprofessors.com had a hotness rating, and female professors couldn’t opt out of being affected by the way that encouraged sexual harassment. Similarly, Monica Lewinsky and others who have faced internet-aided attacks could not have made them go away by logging out.
Online interaction is even being used as a form of warfare. Most notoriously, Russian intelligence agencies successfully used Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to interfere with the United States presidential election in 2016. Even if I logged off today and never touched a computer again, I could not opt out of being affected by the fact that Donald Trump became President of the United States in early 2017.
At the same time, marginalized people are also using the internet to build forms of power and solidarity that we didn’t have before. Before I found disability selfie culture online, the only images of people like me I’d ever seen were all illustrating tragic stories about our parents. Connecting with other disabled people online made it possible for me to realize that I could be fully human without being cured — and that I could be taken seriously without becoming normal.
Similarly, not everyone uses Twitter or hashtags, but everyone lives in a culture in which #BlackLivesMatter, #YesAllWomen, and #MeToo are uningnorable. Privileged people have lost some of their power to silence and isolate people — and marginalized people have gained a lot of power to find and support each other.
The internet is real, and the things we do online matter. We can make better choices when we remember that what we’re doing is real.