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.

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  1. As people process on-line information, conspiracy theories et al, the challenges facing PR are mounting. We are all developing BS censors in our brains,- when we hear something for the first time whether we believe it or not depends on the take our internet world receives it, ulterior motives are exposed, cynicism laid bare for us all to see.

    For the sophisticated internet user of today nothing less than the truth will do and the the only tool PR has left is total honesty. We are beginning to notice this as those who preside over failure are saying “sorry” more and more and less inclined to lie or spin their way out of trouble. Companies that compare their performance and their weaknesses openly are perceived as “honest Injuns” and people to do business with and l fear for PR pros who fail to adapt to the brave new world.

  2. I dislike the tone of the documentary above – what it says to me is “generational conflict” not “kids going wild with no parental supervision! Apocalypse!” which is, I think, the kind of message it is trying to get across. It’s this kind of attitude that had me grounded for months for no good reason – I didn’t even throw crazy parties or anything 😛

    The internet is in fact an extension of reality, it is a way to learn about life as the professor from harvard(?) says in the video. Instead of trying to fight it and freaking out over losing “control” over their kids (I think *that* is the problem – control issues), parents should teach kids to use it wisely.

    As for companies and online identities – the best thing about the internet is, like Colin says, the need to be honest (transparent almost) because consumers don’t only have access to one source of info about a company, but several. And fake reviews are glaringly obvious.

    There is also great potential for smaller organizations and individuals to profit monetarily using the internet, because their creating an online “profile” that interacts with users seems (to me) more geniuine than, lets say, a fortune 500 company creating an FB page and posting updates. I also think the product is becoming more important than presentation on the internet – I’d rather buy a cheaper X from an unknown company that hasn’t invested billions in advertising campaigns, than pay extra for the sake of dealing with a brand name and a pretty website.

  3. I agree with you on the tone, Areej. I find these apocalyptic documentaries depressing. Really what matters most in a world of symbols, such as the Internet, is master of what you want to communicate.

    I have a feeling we are entering a new Age of Rhetoric and I am really excited about it.

    As for honesty – in my PR practice, it has always been central. Every time you tell a lie in PR, you have make it true for the rest of your organization’s life. That gets exhausting and complicated. It leads to many little errors which usually finish with catastrophe.

    Thanks for the comments, Colin and Areej!

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