Next week we launch a new investigative project on The Spinoff, untangling the knotty intersection between real life and the internet – and we want your stories.
When you try to hold the internet in mind, what do you see? A sinister jumble of green 0s and 1s, à la The Matrix? A blue globe beaming with interconnecting white lines? Do you picture a 90s PC desktop in a dark room, or an iPhone screen containing tidy rows of bright, addictive apps? Does Al Gore spring to mind?
We all chuckled in 2006 when Alaskan senator Ted Stevens described the internet as a “series of tubes”, but for many of us, it was a nervous laugh of recognition: if pressed, we couldn’t really tell you what the internet is, either.
It’s easier to grasp what the internet does: it bombards us with a terrifying stream of news about the climate crisis and Covid-19; connects us with friends in London and relatives in the Pacific Islands; feeds us hilarious, ever-mutating memes and holds us hopelessly in thrall, scrolling and scrolling for a precious hit of dopamine.
We also tend to have a clearer conception of what the internet isn’t: it’s not “real life”, the day-to-day, physical world that nerds used to call meatspace before the shorthand IRL came along. The internet is the opposite of “touching grass”, as the kids say – gathering around the dinner table with your loved ones or kicking a ball at the beach is Offline. Wikipedia rabbit holes and Twitter ratios are Online, even Very Online.
Except, it’s hard to think of a sphere of life that isn’t touched by the series of tubes now. All the most meaty of meatspace concerns – love, sex, crime, health, politics, science, religion – are impacted by the internet in myriad ways we’re just beginning to grapple with. And that’s exactly what we’ll be exploring with IRL, a nine-month long investigative project on The Spinoff untangling the knotty intersection between real life and the internet, made possible by NZ On Air’s Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Do you make a living on online platforms like Uber or OnlyFans? Have you been the victim of a scam or catfishing? Are you desperately trying to rid the internet of a video of yourself? Send your tips in confidence to email@example.com.
I’m Madeleine Holden, and I am the senior editor of IRL. A lawyer in a previous life, I’ve been writing about relationships, sex and digital culture since 2012, most recently for LA-based MEL Magazine. I’m no Kevin Mitnick, but I am deeply enmeshed in the digital world: I ran a popular Tumblr blog called Critique My Dick Pic for five years (I once got Kim Hill to say “dick pic” three times in a row) and used to draft Tinder bios for cash. I can’t wait to delve into thorny topics like porn regulation and the gig economy, plus a smattering of lighter stuff (no more dick pics, though).
Dylan Reeve is the project’s senior writer. You probably know him from the documentary Tickled, which he directed alongside David Farrier, but he brings nearly two decades of experience in the TV industry and masses of technical knowledge about the gritty, dark corners of the internet. With his special interest in the spread of disinformation and the ways people exploit their anonymity online, you can expect longform investigative features from Dylan that go all the way down the rabbithole.
Josie Adams is IRL’s staff writer and describes herself as “enthusiastically online”. She has been a familiar face at The Spinoff for the past couple of years, covering topics like cryptocurrency and the SEO of conspiracy theories, as well as working with Instagram wunderkinds shityoushouldcareabout on their new webseries about the internet. Josie’s an expert at explaining decentralisation technologies so that even luddites like yours truly can understand them, but she’s also got her fingers in all sorts of incredibly niche and very human online communities.
Last but not least, Shanti Mathias is our junior writer and researcher. Shanti worked for Salient for four years as a news reporter and feature writer, covering everything from teen mum YouTube to New Zealand’s dinosaurs. She’s already blowing us away with her sharp eye for stories no one else is covering, including the development of unspoken cultural norms on (and off!) the internet and the sometimes-invisible systems that make digital activity possible.
Starting next week, we’ll be publishing weekly features about issues at the online-offline intersection affecting people in Aotearoa, from cyber crime to online dating, online shopping addiction to cancel culture, throwback viral stars to the future of NFTs. The possibilities, like the tubes, are endless.
Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.