As we spend more of our time on social platforms, generating increasing numbers of stories, building connections and sharing content, it's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish where social media ends, and our real lives begin. That's not to suggest that social media is any way an escape from real life, but that it has begun to shift from the place where we share stories and content about our lives, to the place in which our lives are shaped overall.
Take for example the accusation that someone 'wastes' their time on Facebook or Twitter, becoming distracted from what's actually going on in the real world. Far from being a passive form of media consumption such as watching TV, spending time in social media is not a distraction or a waste of time, but it is in fact becoming more and more life itself.
A media for all
The distinction between social media and real life is becoming less clear because of the change in media ownership. Where we were once used to a top-down model, in which media was used to circulate the opinions of a privileged few, it has now changed to become accessible to all (access to technology permitting). In this respect it has come to be used much more as life itself, as opposed to a place in which we read about the lives and goings-on of others. It has become the place in which our own lives are constructed and circulated, and much less a place purely for passive consumption.
This is where the argument becomes more difficult. If social media is a place which is largely accessible and in which anyone can create 'stories' that are circulated to communities, at what point do these stories stop becoming pieces of content that are representations of our other, offline lives, and how much do these stories become life itself? The answer depends very much on how you choose to use social media.
Passive vs Active
The fact is that social media can become 'real life' if you allow it to, and if you use the capabilities of social technologies to the full extent. If you choose to, it can be used in much the same way as offline or traditional media where it is simply a place to consume content, with little interaction. Or, you can choose to use it in a different way, taking much more of an active role, not only in how content is produced, but the conversations around the content you create. If you take an active role, then it is hard to argue, as many do, that social media is purely a distraction from real life and a glorified waste of time.
How can one argue that your 'virtual world' is not your 'real world' , when it becomes a place in which you have built up valuable connections, in which you create and circulate content, respond to other content producers and use it in such a way that it permeates nearly every aspect of your day to day life, from the entertaining to the functional? In this respect, it is very much 'real life'.
The only problem, for some, is that it's a very different form of real life than we may be used to. For every person that argues that social media provides a new form for activism, increases access to information and democratises the modern world, there will be those who argue it is a distraction, where little 'real life' actions can take place and that it fundamentally destroys human connections, as we lose face to face interaction. It may be up for debate, but whether you choose to look at it as a positive development or a negative one, social media is unarguably becoming our real lives, and much less a place in which 'real life' is simply discussed.
There is of course a risk when it comes to thinking of social media as real life. And this is down to misunderstanding what the platforms can achieve. Take the concept of adding a twibbon to your Twitter avatar, or writing a particular status update to show support for a particular cause - be it personal or political. It is easy to think that this is the same as attending a rally, donating money or actual lobbying.
But the effort you put in will determine the result you effect. Is adding an icon to your social media profile the same as donating money or writing a letter to your local politician? The answer is no, because the effort required on the part of the user is minimal. Writing one status update has little effect because it actually doesn't mean much to me. It's not as if I have a limited amount of updates to make per day, or that just writing it alone means that it will get in front of the right people.
It is not the case that social media cannot be a form for actual, real-life activism, but rather that we need to develop our understanding of how this can work. We need to think seriously about how social media tools can be used to help shape fundamental, important aspects of modern life, such as inequalities, national censorship, natural disasters or political upheavals. Its potential and reach are more exciting than anything we have encountered before. But if we are to successfully argue that social technologies are a form of real life and not just a distraction from it, then we need to develop our understanding of the role it plays. So far, we have barely begun to tap into this.