We live two lives, in two realities: physical and online

People no longer live one life, but many. Physical. On-line. With whom are we really communicating?

You may think that this is a silly topic, if you’re someone who hasn’t grown up on-line or thrown yourself into the world of the Internet and social media. But you would be mistaken – a significant proportion of the population, young and old now have two very distinct lives: physical and online.

As a parent or a friend, this means that you have to become savvy to how other people may have several different presenting selves or personas – each which is as real to them as the one they live in physical space.

In a world of symbols and representations, that is, the world of communication and the internet – there is no real distinction between the physical and cyber-reality. It is all symbols flowing through wires into your brain.

Let’s think about this for a second. You touch the stove and it feels hot, right? So you take your hand away quickly. Your pet saunters over and you grab it. It feels soft and warm in your arms. This all feels real, right?

Well, the answer is… sort of. The fact is that you are feeling emotions and sensations because your brain is processing the outside world as information. As Bishop Berkeley, a British philosopher implied, reality exists in the mind of the beholder.

So, what does this mean in terms of cyberspace vs physical-space? Well, the fact is, since our eyes and ear pull create nervous impulses that are translated in our brains as information, and if reality lives in the mind, it would seem that, for the mind, cyber-reality and physical reality are similar – two streams of information which blend and blur in the electric storm of the brain.

This PBS Frontline documentary lends significant insight into how teens are living in two parallel realities:

The young people seem to live in two separate realities with two very different moral codes. Parents are present in physical reality but neutered in virtual reality. Also, the interview demonstrate that the young people don’t really understand that what happens in cyber-reality can have consequences in physical reality. This must be terrifying for parents of children.

For PR pros, this is both an opportunity and moral hasard. As the relationship-builders for organizations and individuals, we have to be at the frontlines of understanding how people are building their identities on-line and what this means for the practice. How does one create and organizational “avatar” (an online identity) that interacts in cyber-reality in an ethical yet persuasive fashion?

To achieve this, PR pros have to become familiar not only with what is being said online, but also how it is being understood. Understanding leads to empathy, and empathy is at the core of PR practice.