The Internet is the real world
Anyone who says "the internet is not real life" or something similar is still not paying attention, and misses how technology, humans and culture work together
Years ago in my life as a consultant around the late 2000s, I sat in a meeting room with senior leadership of one of the world’s largest QSRs (quick serve restaurants). In it, I proceeded to share research how there were several thousand ‘fan pages’ organically created by fans of the brand in each market, sharing their love for their local market locations. Hours of time spent daily by people sharing images of store visits, menu items, experiences. I wanted the brand to have an official presence on the platform, before it was the standard for these companies to be present on one. It was the obvious decision at the time and not requiring some deep alpha or insight. But to these executives, it wasn’t real. It didn’t click. They thought “too risky” for the brand to use social. Of course, they eventually did, years later (me always doing what’s right for clients, actually secured their official page before they said yes and handed them the keys when it had a 7 figure following).
I’m still not sure how senior executives could be so unwilling to experiment with something new, especially in the case it was de-risked, you saw how passionate their users were. Who wouldn’t want to have another non-paid marketing channel (this was way prior to meta others pulling the rug on organic brand reach).
Still do this day there are examples of people no wiser than these executives. I see it all the time in media, marketing and even by normal folk - they don’t think the internet is real. Still. In 2024! People will say things like “yeah that’s just online” or “part of the bubble.” But by this logic, Earth itself is a bubble. It’s actually a quite nihilistic view, or perhaps just one by misguided people who are not very attentive to their environment. You would think the trillion $ market caps on internet companies would drive this point home, but you would be wrong.
The media industry who should know better, are completely whiffing on this as well. From this fantastic story by the Honest Broker, which is worth reading in full.
Consider the recent attempt by Hollywood Reporter to publish a list of the most important people in podcasting. This is a great idea for a story—except that Hollywood Reporter is so out-of-touch that it can’t really figure out what’s happening in podcasting.
As Ryan Broderick points out, the list was “a weird, sloppy mess.” He reaches the conclusion that there’s a “real Internet” and the “media’s idea of the Internet”—and they seem to be diverging. Big things happen, but legacy media has no clue.
The next point I make is very important. So I’m going to put it in boldface.
This hostility and ignorance of entrenched institutions is the single biggest difference between the new alt culture and the old counterculture. In the 1950s and 1960s, entrenched elites took the counterculture very seriously. They learned from it. They treated it with respect.
The microcultures of today get none of that. My general sense is that Hollywood and New York wish all these alternative voices would disappear.
The point of this is that legacy media still does not believe the internet is real (or simply willfully ignores it as does not wish to lend legitimacy, which merely illustrates their pretention and gatekeeping). Of course, they’ve lost this battle, and it’s sort of their own fault. But you, the reader, should not be gaslit by them. For they are going to continue to hold their heads in the sand and ignore reality, which they need to in order to wring out any final value of their decaying assets. For everyone else, it’s dangerous. Imagine how much you would have missed out on investing, professionally, socially etc if you believed the luddites or rent-seekers upset about change and didn’t take advantage of tech.
Anyway, if the internet isn’t real life, what else could it be? Why else would humans spend time here? It’s not some nebulous land of cat videos and takes about a different planet. It's a mirror reflection of our messy, beautiful, chaotic human experience back at us, amplified by cell towers, WiFi routers and social platforms.
Do we really still need numbers? Ok, sure…
The global internet economy is worth a staggering $11.5 trillion. That's more than the GDP of Germany and Japan combined! And it’s still so early.
Over 5 billion people, nearly two-thirds of the world's population, are now online. It’s not early days, it’s here right now.
We spend an average of 7 hours a day glued to screens, consuming information, building communities, and yes, even watching cat videos (no judgment for cat video enjoyers). People in knowledge work spend far more than this.
Many of the important things in our life are online now
We fall in love, build careers, and even lose loved ones online
Social movements erupt and revolutions unfold on social platforms
The catalyst to take down companies and institutions now frequently starts online
Many jobs can now be done better and more efficiently remote
Internet has supplanted TV, radio and newspapers as starting points of discussion
Readers here know all this and significantly more. The internet isn't some alternate reality; it's the augmentation of reality itself. It's where we express ourselves, connect with others, and shape the world around us. No “metaverse” or VR is required, in fact that is frequently a step-removed from something that already exists and works well.
A fav quote from William Gibson:
Cyberspace is colonizing what we used to think of as the real world. I think that our grandchildren will probably regard the distinction we make between what we call the real world and what they think of as simply the world as the quaintest and most incomprehensible thing about us.
So, why the disconnect? Why do some still cling to this outdated notion of two separate worlds? Other than media, those with financial bias, or people trying to paint a narrative, of course.
Perhaps it's the fear of the unknown. Maybe it's the comfort of familiar ground, even if that ground is rapidly turning into a parking lot for self-driving cars. Or maybe it's just the sheer scale of it all, the overwhelming vastness of this digital universe that dwarfs any shopping mall or city square.
But whatever the reason, it's time to shed the ‘separate space’ delusion. The internet isn't some playground you visit on weekends. It's the beating heart of the 21st century, the agora where ideas clash, empires rise and fall, and kittens chase laser pointers (for people who hate this: why exactly would you be against a bit of fun).
Of course, some things that happen online are astroturfed or a faux trend. But as marketer, analyst or simply observer if you can’t discern this that’s on you. It really should be a basic life skill, but since it’s clearly not yet based on comments I continue to get, hey that’s a huge advantage for anyone willing to do the smallest amount of mental work.
Even people in our own sector underestimate things like AI which is going to reshape so much it’s probably impossible to overestimate.
Anyway, if you're still not convinced, here's a bonus challenge: spend a day without using the internet. No Google Maps, no social media, no online shopping. Just you, the open road (or sidewalk, depending on your ambition), and the sweet, sweet silence of disconnection. Then come back and tell me the internet isn't real. You’ll have a nice day and it’ll be a good break. That’s important, too. But you won’t be connected to the pulse of the world or important information to make your experience in it better.
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