What is real ?

If you had a phase-you-do-not-speak-of in your teenage years, you might have spent a lot of time discussing in communities online, maybe even doing role play (I like anime and I am not going to explain myself any further). During that time you may have used the abbreviations “IRL/IVL”. They stand for “In Real Life” and “In Virtual Life”, setting a line between the real world and the digital world. Today I am going to question this artificial boundary. Therefore I will refer to the “real” world as the physical world.

The virtual world affect the physical world.

We talked about the Taylor swift effect1. It is the perfect example of the consequences of the virtual world on the physical world. To those who are not familiar with this effect, it is the multiples times proven effect of Taylor Swift online communication2 on the physical world. If you’ve never seen that effect, it works on politics, yes, but politics is a field of communication and that makes it not so surprising. Have you ever heard of the price of eggs ?

In this video we can see that Taylor Swift’s online declarations have an effect on the economy even though economy is maybe the furthest thing from her field : music. This is one example of the many Taylor Swift effects. And Taytay is not an exception – sorry to her fans – we can witness the same effect with other celebrities as Harry Styles or on a different scale with internet celebrities like Elon Musk.

This raises a question : how can we believe the virtual world not to be real when it has a real effect on our lives ?

In the last few decades, we witnessed a shift of our life from the physical world to the virtual world : information, communication, decision, meetings… A lot of things that used to take place in the physical world are now virtual. Of course, COVID made it even more real if I may. I do not see it necessarily as a bad thing, the virtual world is not stealing space from the physical world, it frees time we used on traveling or finding each other in a new place to do other things. However it sure is as important in our life as the physical world. Therefore shouldn’t we consider reality the combination of these two worlds ?

We are real, we do real, we feel real.

Another argument in that direction is the fact that the virtual world is made of real people. Even IA or fake profiles are made by and interact with real people.
Writing this made me think about a quote from Harry Potter. In this scene, Harry Potter has a conversation with Dumbledore that will forever change the course of the story. At the end of this conversation, is this exchange :

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

By these words, Dumbledore blurred the frontier between imagination and reality but at the same time he set a new frontier by widening the precedent. With his definition, reality can exist outside of the physical world. It is a new definition of reality not as “things we can touch” but as “things we can experience”. And in this definition, the digital world is nothing but unreal. Indeed, in the digital world, we can have friends, we can feel betrayed, harassment is a real issue and we can get trialed for what we do. That makes the digital world very real to me. In a way, I will go even further : the digital world exists in the physical world. If you remember correctly, many weeks ago I wrote three blogs about it (here, here and here).


To my mother and father : yes the friends I made online are real friends 😂 and to you dear reader, think twice next time you want to say “in the real world”.

  1. Alcoba N. The new enemies of Argentina’s far right: Taylor Swift and BTS fans. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/04/world/americas/argentina-election-swift.html. Published November 7, 2023. ↩︎
  2. Taylor Swift political comments resurface out of context. Fact Check. https://factcheck.afp.com/doc.afp.com.33WU9Y2. Published September 29, 2023. ↩︎