Understanding Digital Dualism

“If you create the Internet as false, then you create the not-internet, which gets to be real.” So says sociologist and writer Nathan Jurgenson in a piece written last week by Kyle Chayka for Pacific Standard. Mr. Jurgenson introduced the term “digital dualism” in 2011 to describe the gaps that exist between how we depict ourselves online, and how we present ourselves when all the screens are turned off.

For the most part, we’ve become so accustomed to the online space that the personas we present retain at least some fragment of our real selves. Furthermore, it’s likely that we have contacts with whom we’ve never actually met face-to-face. With 71 percent of online adults having used Facebook in the past ten years, it’s not impossible to have a reasonably high number of “friends” whom we wouldn’t recognize on the street. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, just an interesting anthropological detail.

Where things get tricky is when the persona we put forth online is markedly different than our real life selves. A friend of mine is an avid gamer. As a random experiment, he switched the gender of his character to see what sort of reaction would take place. The female avatar’s level of play was not well received by other players (especially when he/she was winning), even though my friend’s game tactics were exactly the same as when he represented himself as a male character.

male and female avatars of an online game

Those who believe the online gaming world to be saturated with masochistic tendencies will not be surprised by the above account. That being said, there is a bigger issue at play. Digital dualism exists as a belief due to one’s personal assumption that online and offline worlds are separate, and thus distinct, realities. However, technology is now so engrained into our daily lives that the overlap between the virtual and physical worlds are indistinguishable, almost to the point where one is expected to reflect onto the other.

I believe this is why my friend was on the receiving end of so much anger, even beyond the rote “boys will be boys” stereotype that permeates online gaming. Maybe it was less about anger than betrayal; what they saw was not what they got, and this digital duality had a significant impact on their appreciation of my friend’s performance during the game encounter.

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