Understanding the Online/Offline "Divide"

This year I’m working on a monster of a project for the Fulbright National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For the project, I'll be assembling a group of Londoners, gathering their mobile geolocation information and their browser histories, then creating representations that provide insight into both.

The project leaks into many different fields (data/privacy, mapping, online/offline interactions, representation of information, understandings of urban spaces, and the interplay of qualitative and quantitative research, to name a few). It contains a lot of moving pieces that all present their own specific challenges.

But I’ve got the next nine months to think, talk, and write about those challenges. What I thought I’d use this post for is as a way to outline the place that I’m coming from for the project as a whole. Some of the underlying topics that inform the project have been swirling in my head for awhile now, and I've realized that since the way that I present the project on the National Geographic site isn’t necessarily commensurate with how I approach the topics in my mind, some explanation might be in order.

Here are the two defining tenets of my point of view, as informed by everything from well-established academic theories to dubiously-trustworthy anecdotal experience.

1.) Our online and offline lives are not separate and remote spheres. In my first post on the National Geographic website, I boldly proclaim that we are all “living a double life.”

The interesting thing about the discussion of online vs offline and physical vs digital is the fact that many people appear to see them as two opposite ends of a spectrum.

But this is a false duality. Our identities and actions bleed over into our online and offline habits. One affects the other, each is just as “real” as its counterpart. We are constantly-connected beings, so much so that even if you aren’t on Facebook, the logic of Facebook continues to stay with you (The idea that this isn’t the case, called digital dualism and coined by Nathan Jurgenson, has been written about by many and is further expanded here .

I often like to think about life as something that unfolds across various contexts. These contexts help determine and affect how we act when in conversation with different actors. (This is another well-established ideology in sociology and anthropology; see Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” for more.) All of the spaces that we inhabit can be thought of as contexts, and your behavior across them may vary. You act slightly different at a dinner with your parents than you do when hanging out with your friends on a Friday night, which is still different than the tone you might affect when posting something on Facebook (or should I say Ello?), which remains different than how you might be when commenting anonymously on Youtube videos. You are not any more “you” in any one of these contexts; they all highlight different aspects of you. These are all just different contexts that you exist in, and even though some unfold through mediums like screens and phones, they are no less real or impactful on your everyday life than those that happen in face-to-face interactions.

I like the context-approach to viewing our interactions because it accommodates for the fact that we do live across different media, both on and offline, and that’s perfectly okay. This fact is something that I think we need to more generally normalize across all of our interactions.

But like I said, I think that’s a hard thing for many people to wrap their minds around. I used to be an educator in my past life, and one thing I learned from that was to always start working/talking/teaching from the place that people are at. So that’s one thing I’m attempting to do with my project, particularly in the way that I talk about it on the National Geographic website. I want start from the idea that digital and physical are two different worlds in an attempt to convey (or test) how they aren’t. Hopefully, the end results of my project will show this in a clear and easy-to-understand manner.

2.) The browser space may not be metaphysically experienced the same as offline, physical space.

I mentioned that I like the context perspective because it makes it easier to conceive of how our interactions within online and offline sites can share characteristics. But even though I think all of the places we experience, both on and offline, come together and form one fluid existence, one of the most interesting things about my project for me is that the two modes I’m comparing are not necessarily equals in terms of how they are experienced.

Here’s what I mean: I’m collecting geolocation data and making maps that show how a small group of people experience the city of London. They travel around the city physically, and the locations they visit are stored in their phones, which is how I'm accessing them. This makes a lot of sense to most people who hear it.

I’m also collecting the same people’s browser data and looking at all the sites that they visit for the month. So the obvious response would be to think of these--physical location and browser locations--as two flips of the same coin. However, the experience of browsing the web may not be the same as the experience of wandering the city. The city is a clear and easily-understood space; the browser history is a space that is hard for us to think about, to understand. How much do you know about your browser history, and how much do you remember about it?

The way that we humans make sense of things is through narrative structures, and narrative structures work on principle by omission, or by leaving things out (RCA PhD student John Fass has more about this on his blog). But the browser history doesn’t afford us that luxury. Your locations are to maps as the websites you go to are to browser histories, except that maps have a clear geography to them, and browser histories don’t.

What I’m really grappling with is the task of spacializing a non-space, and the difficulties inherent in that. The way that I’m trying to deal with this is by thinking, in Latour-ian terms, about the connections between the two.

These are the theoretical issues that form the foundation of the project that I’m working on, and it’s at the crossroads of these two realizations that I think my project really becomes interesting. Over the course of the next several months, I’ll be diving into all different aspects of the project, particularly many of the things that I outlined in the second paragraph of this entry.

But as I mentioned, the thoughts outlined in this entry form, in some sense, a basis, so hopefully it’s worth taking the time to outline the perspectives.