IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World

Madelyn Peppard reviews Chris Stedman's new book.

Chris Stedman
Broadleaf Books, 331 pages | Published August 30, 2022

The internet is often seen as a source of isolation and contrived happiness; Chris Stedman urges us to see its possibilities instead. In IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World, Stedman describes the internet as a place where, with proper time and practice, we can be our most authentic selves. Drawing on the ups and downs of his own life, Stedman illustrates how social media served as an antidote to loneliness, rather than a source, and as a linchpin for self-expression and authenticity, rather than a contributor of self-artifice. In the globalized post-COVID era, he argues this type of connection is a necessity that can be perfected with time and effort.

Stedman, host of the podcast “Unread,” sympathizes with both social-media positive and negative attitudes, however, he chooses to focus on the question of how we might start “using digital platforms to seek out things frequently considered central to the human experience—purpose, connection, community,” replacing decreased participation in traditional civil institutions with effective online communities. As a professor of Religion and Philosophy, Stedman thoughtfully examines whether technology helps or harms humanity in our quest for these pursuits – social media helps to both broaden and narrow our communities to include people around the world (something unachievable before the internet), and to connect around mutual experiences. Humans connect through our imperfections; when we share the messier parts of life (losing a pet, a relationship breakup, chronic illness, etc.) we deepen our connections.

The book’s narrative follows Stedman’s life in an enjoyable but sometimes confusing journey. He cites a time in his life for each chapter’s theme, which can be relatable to readers yet often outlandish to those who have not had similar experiences. This can leave readers either intrigued or confused about the relevance of some stories behind Stedman’s many philosophies. He does, however, relate stories from his own communities as well as others, for instance, he explores the LGBTQ community and disabled communities as two groups that have found more unity and cultural voice online. This book is for anyone concerned about the long-term impacts of social media use on community degradation, those who are on the fence about the formation of online communities, as well as those once burned by social media. Stedman’s illustrations explore all these sentiments.

What does it mean to live in an “age of authenticity?” Can real connection and belonging be experienced online? Can this new frontier help us redefine what it means to be real? IRL explores these questions and gets to the root of our longings for community and connection. Readers eager to dig into practical philosophy or who have had some of their most genuine and long-lasting connections formed online will respond most strongly to this book. It is best suited for a curious individual seeking to make the most of their internet and digital communities, particularly while coming of age.

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