Introducing the Online-Offline Continuum (A Work in Progress)

I’ve recently noted various conversations and approaches that discuss the online/offline phenomenon. Some of the questions I’ve come across about the phenomenon concern naming it and articulating how it might shape and change the worlds we live in. Questions regarding how we articulate online/offline experience, interaction, and/or movement, and how we describe the “affirmation that the Web is not a separated sphere from our reality” rely heavily upon our ability to see outside of a phenomenon that is impossible from which to separate ourselves. Most researchers, scholars, and philosophers would probably agree that articulating the online/offline phenomenon is daunting task, and yet terribly necessary in order to understand ourselves and our futures at this moment.

Naming “it”

During my search to find how others are naming the phenomenon, I came across terms like “augmented reality” and “augmentism” quite often. According to Mr. Teacup (Internet persona), we might call the phenomenon of online/offline interaction, augmentism, or the idea that “new technologies are extensions to our existing reality”. Another writer, Nathan Jurgenson of Cyborology, argues that the phenomenon is “co-constructed” and that “the digital and physical are increasingly meshed. It is, in other words an implosion of “atoms and bits [called] augmented reality”. Without so much naming it as describing it, communication scholar, Manuel Castells, recently stated in an interview with UOC that “nobody who is on social networks every day is the same person. It’s an online/offline interaction, not an esoteric virtual world”.

It’s comforting to see more discussions about (re)naming the phenomenon since conversations about the separation of online (i.e. fake) and offline (i.e. real) worlds have long shaped views about our relationship to computer-mediated technologies. As the authors above imply, these dualistic narratives are inherently false and misleading. In an era where offline practices and affiliations impact online interactions and vice versa, it is time to not only propose but also push for alternative ways of understanding how our ‘connected’ and ‘disconnected’ lives shape who we are and the worlds around us.

For the past two years now, I have also been trying to articulate the phenomenon by naming it. Implicit in my idea are theoretical discussions about tracing and shifting from theorists, Bruno Latour and Gloria Anzaldua, respectively. To date, I am unaware of anyone using these two thinkers hand-in-hand to explore the phenomenon of shifting and tracing in and among online and offline contexts. Separately, however, people have cited both thinkers’ work to examine the World Wide Web (WWW) and social theory. Lisa Nakaura applies Anzaldua’s mestiza consciousness to critique the reification of identity categories on the Internet in her chapter, “Menu-Driven Identities: Making Race Happen Online”. Ulises Mejias, a graduate of CCTE (the doctoral program in which I an currently enrolled) applies Latour’s critique of the social to examine social software. While Anzaldua and Latour, in my opinion, complement each other, their ideas are unfortunately presented as worlds apart in academia since Anzaldua’s ideas have been used to theorize identity and Latour’s ideas used to critique social theory. As a graduate student of women’s studies and current doctoral student in communications, I hope to marry these two thinkers in academia by applying their ideas to my work here.

Expanding on the works of Latour and Anzaldua, I propose a new naming of online/offline phenomenon:

The ONL-OFL Continuum describes what happens when our selves move, as well as describes the practices that constitute our selves moving within and among computer mediated and non-computer mediated contexts. Additionally, the ONL-OFL Continuum says that ‘connected’ realities inform ‘disconnected’ realities, and vice versa, and as such may very well result in the (re)shaping, (re)making, and co-construction of experiences across contexts.

With the ONL-OFL Continuum, I take to task issues concerning movement, i.e. shifting and tracing, and subsequently, marking. I argue that if we can 1) identify these shifts and traces, and then 2) probe these shifts and traces that occur within and among networks through well-articulated and exhaustive descriptions, then we might be able to transition beyond digital dualism rhetoric. Doing so may also allow us to begin exploring how shifting and tracing reflect changes in the way we communicate and identify across contexts.

When we move, we not only leave traces of where we have been but we are also marked by the so-called “traveling” we have encountered through our ‘connected’ and ‘disconnected’ experiences. I argue that left on us is a sort of imprint as if we’ve gone through a type of perpetual third space car wash (although with this metaphor, I don’t want to evoke imagery of clean/dirty, worse/better dichotomies either). On us exists remnants of places and spaces we’ve traversed. Text-speak, like “LOL” and “OMG” are now uttered on the streets of New York City in everyday synchronous face-to-face conversations. Loved ones who have passed away still exists in photos and status updates on Facebook, or, as is the case with my father who passed away in 2008, still exists by way of YouTube (it is very difficult to watch this video of my father ‘existing’ posthumously through computer-mediated technology, which is why I’d rather link to it than embed the video here). Embarrassing scanned family photos from the 80s that were “accidentally” posted without our permission exist someplace on the Internet where Kodak film stock is irrelevant. We exist simultaneously across contexts as atoms projected through bits and nodes. Granted, we have always existed simultaneously across contexts, even before the advent of the Internet; it’s just that the Internet makes this phenomenon more palpable. We are, as Jacqui Alexander says, “never quite who we are. We are always remaking ourselves”, and I would add too that we are always being remade–particularly in the context of the ONL-OFL Continuum.

‘Online’ and ‘offline’ experiences are co-constructed by way of an awareness that enables us to locate our selves in relation to others. I am constantly aware of how I construct myself on Facebook and on Twitter. But perhaps more importantly, I am also aware, sometimes to the point of obsession, of how my online presence reflects my offline presence, particularly around groups of people that came to know me first via social media. I say to myself, “I wonder if they think I’m acting differently face-to-face than online.” Because our realities have expanded into computer-mediated contexts we may even adopt a sort of alternative consciousness that enables us to adapt in nearly chameleon-like ways. And for those who find themselves on the margins in offline and in online worlds (because there is no such thing as a cyberutopia), we may in fact adopt a sort of double or mestiza consciousness as a way to better navigate inequalities that are ever present even in extended ‘online’ realities.

One can very well argue that notions of selves, co-construction, and even consciousness are arbitrary terms, which may very well be the case. But we have to locate our experiences in this digital moment somehow, and I try to do this with by introducing the ONL-OFL Continuum. Naming phenomenon, and subsequently articulating it, will remain a never-ending task. I implore us to, in the very least, remain up for the challenge.

Note: Another very important aspect of this conversation and the ONL-OFL Continuum deals with synchronicity (occurring at the same time) and asynchronicity (not occurring at the same time, and typically mediated through computer technology), both of which I will attempt to highlight in another post. Correspondingly, another issue I would like to examine in a latter post concerns the idea that the ONL-OFL Continuum, by its very name, implies a dichotomous relationship. However, the term does not reify digital dualism rhetoric, i.e. real vs. fake. Rather the term describes movement characterized by ‘connected’ or computer mediated contexts, and ‘disconnected’ or non-computer mediated contexts that are distinguishable by way of tracing and marking, and according to degrees of synchronicity and asynchronicity.

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