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Blurred lines: How people's lives have become an online and offline experience

Published: Thursday, Dec. 19 2013 4:25 p.m. MST

Computer users use the internet at the Millcreek Community Center Library in Salt Lake County Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. Pew said about 85 percent of Americans 18 and older use the Internet, while 95 percent of Americans aged 12 to 17 are online.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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As a self-publishing and budding author, Garrett Robinson spent much of the past year building an online community of fans, bookworms and readers. Though he started out slow, his online presence procured enough of a following that he now writes books full-time.

“Now, when I meet fans and readers in real life, a large portion of our discussion normally revolves around our online interaction,” Robinson said. “I'll be out at a party or an event and run into someone who's just read my latest book, and who then went on to ‘like’ me on Facebook and subscribe to my blog.

“Invariably they'll want to talk to me about the topics I discuss,” he said. “I've had hourlong conversations about it from people who I didn't know at all until they found me online.”

Robinson’s online life is blending into his offline world, something not uncommon in today’s digital age, experts say. The Pew Research Center said in a study that in 2012 about 85 percent of Americans 18 and older use the Internet, while 95 percent of Americans ages 12 to 17 are online. This is a jump from the 46 percent of people who used in the Internet in 2000, according to the study.

No longer is the Internet merely a destination. Rather, it’s just another piece of everyday life, experts say. With social media's continued evolution and growth, experts say both the digital world and reality are beginning to blend together.

Alex Juhasz, a media studies professor at Pitzer College, said “most of the time we’re in some kind of blended reality, where digital culture is affecting and in conversation with and influencing our daily lives.”

But the blending of offline and online worlds isn’t without its challenges.

Real-world relationships online

Everyone’s online experience is different, said Rebecca Hains, associate professor of communications at Salem State University. Some primarily use it for research, while others go online primary for entertainment or communication, such as with social media, she said.

“But we have to remember it’s not the same for everybody,” Hains said. “There’s so much complexity there.”

Most people use online technology as glue for relationships that already exist in the physical world, said Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Boston University. Users can arrange hangouts and get-togethers, or “talk to Grandma in a new way,” she said. With video applications — like Skype or Google Hangout — and picture messaging, people can see each other on a whim, Rutledge said, which develops more quality relationships. It creates closeness and intimacy with people, she said.

And the abundance of social media applications — like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest — gives people a wide range of options of how to connect with their friends and families, Rutledge said. The Pew Research Center recently published a study that said 72 percent of online adults use social media, which is up from the 67 percent from 2012 and only 8 percent in 2005.

“It makes people feel so connected,” she said.

Rutledge said the lines separating online and offline experiences have been blurred. The two worlds “are very fluid,” she said.

Blurring creates challenges

Juhasz said it’s hard to distinguish between what she called “lived reality” (real life) and “the online experience” (digital life). The worlds have meshed together to create the “blended reality,” where people are always being touched by media information and it’s infecting or augmenting their lived realities, Juhasz said.

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