Throughout his career as a writer, Chris Stedman has been a fixture in online communities. His first book, Faitheist, earned him praise from atheists and religious communities alike. Now he turns his attention to the chaotic world of the internet.
His latest book, IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives, is out today and seeks to pick apart the layers of identity necessitated by our new digital lives. If we're all logged on to the same sites, the same platforms, the same internet, what separates us into different tribes? Why can't we find common ground? What will it take for us all to see the authenticity each of us is trying to project?
Along the way, Stedman chats with gamers, furries, drag performers, and some extremely online posters to discover just what all this overstimulation is doing to our sense of self and feelings of community.
In addition to the book, Stedman worked with game designer Julia Makivic to create IRL: The Game, a choose-your-own-ending visual novel in the style of Twitter and Instagram that helps to drive home the experience of curating a digital persona. Even for someone as terminally online as myself, it's a surprisingly affecting tool.
Stedman was kind enough to sit down for a long chat with Input about the book, the game, and his favorite furry DJ:
Ryan Houlihan: What got you started writing online? What attracted you to the medium?
Chris Stedman: I was one of the many, many people who started a blog in the late aughts, and then a friend told me to get on Twitter to support it. It's wild to think back on everything that's happened because of that blog and my Twitter account. When I first made them, I never imagined they'd reach as many people as they have. I was initially drawn to the internet's narrative power: how it can help us bypass the cultural gatekeepers and institutions that shape our broader narratives and tell another story. Of course, in my years of research for IRL I came to see it's a lot more complicated than that. Still, I really do owe my career — and so many of my friendships — to writing on the internet.
RH: This is your second book. Why did you think the internet was a natural follow up to examine after religion?
CS: I didn't grow up religious, and I'm not religious today, but I've been interested in religion for most of my life because of the questions it gets after: What does it mean to be human? What makes life meaningful? What's our responsibility to the world around us? Today, the fastest-growing segment of America's religious landscape is people who say they don't belong to one. The questions many of us once grappled with in religious spaces are ones we now explore online. So though on the surface my books may seem pretty different, I'm still driven by the same questions. And as many of us shift from exploring these questions in one kind of institution (religion) to exploring them in another (the internet), we have an opportunity to re-approach them and ask them in new ways.
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RH: When did you decide the game would be a useful tool in communicating with your audience?
CS: In one of IRL's chapters, I speak with game makers and gamers to understand how we "play" with identity online. In play, we express and experiment with ourselves. Today, much of that experimentation occurs online — both overtly through gaming, but also in all the playful ways we interact and perform on social media.
When the pandemic hit and most of my traditional plans for bringing this book into the world were shuttered, I wanted to find a creative way for people to engage with its themes beyond the book itself. Then I remembered how much I learned from all the people I spoke with for the gaming chapter. A companion game for the book seemed like such a natural fit.
RH: What do you think the game helps to convey to your readers or prospective readers that motivated you to produce it?
CS: My favorite books take you on a journey as the writer sifts through big questions. IRL is my attempt to bring readers along on my search for a better understanding of what it means to be "real" in a digital world. And of course, a book isn't a one-sided experience; readers bring themselves to the pages, too. A book becomes something more as it's read through someone else's lens. My hope for anything I publish is that it'll be a tool for people to reflect on their own lives and develop their own perspectives.
What excited me about making a game to go with the book is that games can function similarly. Players bring themselves to the journey, and are given opportunities to reflect. In this game, players encounter characters inspired by people I write about in IRL and accompany them as they sift through their own questions about digital connection, realness, and meaning. As they do so, my hope is that players will find themselves sifting through some of their own questions, too.
“IRL is my attempt to bring readers along on my search for a better understanding of what it means to be ‘real’ in a digital world.”
RH: Do you think you’ll try your hand at other gaming projects?
CS: If I could have another experience like this one, yes! I was lucky that a friend I know through Twitter connected me to the amazing Julia Makivic, who designed and developed this game with me. I was very drawn to her style and her unconventional approach, and we ended up working together really well, which was such a cool experience for me as someone who knows almost nothing about making games. I'd love to work with her again, and would definitely recommend everyone check out her other work.
RH: Does every generation value authenticity? Do we just keep changing what we perceive as authentic as soon as many people achieve a facsimile of it?
CS: We've always wanted to know ourselves, but I do think there's something particularly acute about that desire for people alive today. In a time when so much of life takes place on digital platforms that have been cast as "fake," authenticity has a lot of cultural value. Which is why so much of online authenticity culture feels performative, I think, and also why our own pursuit of authenticity can feel so desperate in moments.
But yes, what it means to be "real" is always changing. It's why it's such a big question, and why it's been central to the human experience for as long as we've been around.
RH: Do you think the internet has brought you — or most people — closer to authentic experiences or does it provide too many experiences which in turn obfuscates them all?
CS: I think the internet has helped me see myself more clearly. We've always curated our public presentations; that's not new. But social media can make that editing feel more stark. There's value in that starkness, though. I draw a parallel to drag in IRL — drag heightens and exaggerates our gender scripts in order to shine a light on them. I think the ways we perform online can function similarly. If we're willing to look honestly at how we live online, our "digital drag" can reveal us to ourselves, helping us understand ourselves and one another better.
RH: I’d never connected fursonas to the idea of identity and the self even though, duh, it’s right there in the name. Does editing and curating parts of an imagined version of themselves — their fursonas — give furries an outlet for identity anxiety that the rest of us don’t have?
CS: While I of course can't speak for the furry community, in the book I share the story of my friendship with Steve, who I met on Twitter. After we connected, he invited me to see him DJ the closing party of a furry convention. Through Steve, I've gotten to know many others involved in the community, and these connections and experiences have challenged my assumptions about furry identity.
I'd once imagined that developing a fursona was a form of "hiding" — putting on a kind of costume and playing a character. Now I understand that for many it's a way of exploring and expressing identity, including things that are aspirational. I think there's a lot the rest of us can learn from how furries play with identity. Because ultimately we're all building ourselves and our identities in various ways. It's just not always so obvious to us, or so intentional.
RH: If everyone in your life is consuming the internet, do you even get a choice in being impacted by it? If so, can we even be objective about it?
CS: I think opting out is essentially impossible. At one point in the book, I interview a couple who ditched their cell phones and got a landline but, of course, didn't stop living in a world shaped by the internet. Similarly, in the final months of working on IRL, I took a three-month social media break. At first, it was awful, but eventually, it felt freeing. I had all this extra time and I felt less anxious. But that's because I was basically on a retreat.
It's like going off and meditating for a week. It's nice (if that's your thing), but it's nice specifically because you're disengaged from the highs and lows of life. If you want to be present in the world, you can't stay in retreat. So whether you're extremely online or hardly online at all, if you want to participate in a world that's deeply influenced by digital culture, it's important to reflect on how it's impacting our understanding of what it means to be human.
RH: Do you think there are things that are uniquely offline that the internet gets in the way of?
CS: It's easy to get swept up in the internet, and in a time when constant digital connection is so reflexive — when logging on is less a specific act and more a part of every moment, with your phone being the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you see before closing your eyes at night — stepping back has to become an intentional act. We need the perspective we get in moments of disconnection, online and off — moments when we're truly alone with ourselves and the questions that arise in solitude.
I also think we make a critical mistake when, in response to the false assertion that life online is "fake," we counter that life online and life offline are the same. They're not, and for everything we gain in digital space, there are also things we lose when we move our search for meaning and belonging to the internet. We have to acknowledge both the challenges and the opportunities afforded by this shift.
RH: Do you think there’s a power dynamic between people who are and aren’t extremely online? Has extreme online-ness prepared some people for COVID who usually don’t feel mainstream?
CS: Absolutely. For the immense geographic distances the internet can close, it can also put distance between those of us who are very online and the realities of those who aren't. It's easy to think of Twitter as the entire world, but we would be wise to remember that the majority of tweets come from a small slice of users and that, on average, Twitter users tend to be more privileged than the general public. And yes, I think that extends to how much easier it has been for the most online among us to adapt to the digital necessities of pandemic life.
Ultimately, we need to remember that we bring all of our human failings to who we are online. Digital platforms reflect the biases of the people who built them. The internet as it exists today is shaped by the priorities of profit and the prejudices of the powerful. For all the internet does to elevate social movements and the voices of the disenfranchised, we need to be honest about how it also reinforces and calcifies inequity.
RH: What’s your favorite, or should I say preferred, social media platform?
CS: Twitter, easily, even though it's also a nightmare. Truly the best of times and the worst of times. But I guess it's like a lot of religious communities in that way. You can see some of the best of humanity and some of the worst in the ways we're all trying to sort out what it means to be human in real-time online, one bad tweet at a time.