Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives


Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives

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What Does "IRL (In Real Life)" Really Mean in Today's Digital Age?

It's easy and reflexive to view our online presence as fake, to see the internet as a space we enter when we aren't living our real, offline lives. Yet so much of who we are and what we do now happens online, making it hard to know which parts of our lives are real.

IRL, Chris Stedman's personal and searing exploration of authenticity in the digital age, shines a light on how age-old notions of realness--who we are and where we fit in the world--can be freshly understood in our increasingly online lives. Stedman offers a different way of seeing the supposed split between our online and offline selves: the internet and social media are new tools for understanding and expressing ourselves, and the not-always-graceful ways we use these tools can reveal new insights into far older human behaviors and desires.

IRL invites readers to consider how we use the internet to fulfill the essential human need to feel real--a need many of us once met in institutions, but now seek to do on our own, online--as well as the ways we edit or curate ourselves for digital audiences. The digital search for meaning and belonging presents challenges, Stedman suggests, but also myriad opportunities to become more fully human. In the end, he makes a bold case for embracing realness in all of its uncertainty, online and off, even when it feels risky.

Continue the search of realness, meaning, and belonging in the digital age with the IRL Reader Guide.


"I am thankful for IRL. Chris Stedman is equal parts caring and indicting, and I hope this is a book that remains at the forefront of the discussion about our lives -- digital and otherwise -- for years to come."
-- Hanif Adburraqib, author of They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us and Go Ahead in the Rain
"Chris Stedman's newest book is a strangely prescient and timely guide to being more real digitally as we enter an era where we will need to be. His idea of digital life as drag has entirely reoriented my sense of self-presentation there, even as this brilliant book does more than that. By turns playful and wise, he makes us legible to ourselves and each other in new ways."
-- Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and The Queen of the Night
"At first, the premise of this book -- Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in Our Digital Lives -- was of exactly zero interest to me because I'm too shallow and morally bankrupt to read any book with belonging and meaning in the title. However, I was unexpectedly riveted by Chris Stedman's fascinating and surprising insights into authenticity both online and off, and I was especially moved by his vulnerability. I think so many people are going to relate to this work of memoir and cultural commentary, especially dismissive and judgmental people like me."
-- Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Dry
"IRL is a brilliant and captivating meditation on the complexities of identity in the digital age. Stedman offers a refreshingly nuanced account of how digital spaces both satisfy and complicate the innate human need for community and recognition -- particularly for a generation that can no longer find such fulfillment in religion or other traditional spaces. IRL interrogates conventional binaries -- the real versus the fake, the fleeting versus the lasting -- and asks us to imagine our online lives as a frontier rich with possibility."
-- Meghan O'Gieblyn, author of Interior States
"Chris Stedman's IRL is full of insight and honesty, but its greatest achievement lies in furthering our vocabulary of what it means to be real. IRL provides the side of the story many think pieces ignore: that for many of us, our digital lives were where we first learned to live most fully."
-- Garrard Conley, author of Boy Erased
"Chris Stedman's IRL is a deft interrogation of how our increasingly digital lives have reshaped our sense of what's real, within ourselves and around us. Drawing from equally deep wells of research and reflection, Stedman probes and provokes our expectations of our changing world, and how we fit in it."
-- Sam Lansky, author of The Gilded Razor and Broken People 
"IRL takes the shame out of our dependence on the internet and helps us imagine new kinds of consolation and community for a fragmented and sometimes lonely world."
-- Briallen Hopper, author of Hard to Love
"Stedman embraces (rather than resists) the unity of opposite impulses that define our social lives online: critical engagement alongside mob mentality, surprising intimacies and algorithmic bubbles, selfies as vanity projects and selfies as spiritual opportunities. Reading this book made me think more deeply and ethically about the life I lead online and -- relatedly, I now see -- what it is to be human."
-- Thomas Page McBee, author of Amateur
"By reckoning with his own complicated relationship to social media, Chris Stedman ponders notions of community, friendship, heartache, and, above all, how to live a meaningful life. Filled with humane candor and clear-eyed prose, these pages show a brilliant mind at work on some of the thorniest issues today."
-- Nick White, author of How to Survive a Summer and Sweet and Low
"Chris Stedman brings a compelling combination of intimacy, vulnerability, irony, and brutal honesty to his search for what it means to be 'real' both in and out of virtual spaces. His testimony opens a space for all of us to stop fetishizing discipline and false coherence and instead dig deeper into uncertainty and connection."
-- Ana Marie Cox, culture critic and host of With Friends Like These
"Stedman draws on his work as a fierce activist and trailblazing thinker to illuminate a path forward for us all. He shows how the internet offers us an opportunity to approach the most central questions of life in new ways. This book is essential reading for understanding what it means to be human in our digital world."
-- Valarie Kaur, author of See No Stranger
"It's easy to passively let social media run our lives (as many of us do when we start our day by scrolling through it). It takes a wise person to find the good and edifying within it, to identify a constructive way to use and to think about it. Chris Stedman is that person, and we're lucky to have his rational voice in these rancorous times."
-- Dave Holmes, author of Party of One
"In IRL, Chris Stedman is getting after the real questions -- and best of all, he's not answering them for us, but encouraging us to ask them too. He's a mapmaker charting intangible paths between the digital and physical realms."
--Dylan Marron, host of Conversations with People Who Hate Me and creator of Every Single Word
"I, like many of my millennial compatriots, spend a good chunk of my life online. Few are able to write as lucidly on the subject as Chris Stedman, bringing clarity to the often chaotic lifestyle of the 'terminally online.' I highly recommend this book, and I think it will play an important part in shaping how we discuss online interactions moving forward."
-- John Paul Brammer, columnist and author of ¡Hola Papi!
"Chris Stedman's perspective on humanness is so wise, vulnerable, and insightful. While the internet can bring us together and make us feel like we know strangers, true intimacy is a rare and magical thing. This surprising book possesses that magic and generously offers it to the reader."
-- R. Eric Thomas, author of Here For It
"We contain multitudes. Seeing all of those multitudes spun together with a combination of personal memoir and academic interest kept me turning page after page. Ultimately, Chris does for our digital worlds what he does for atheism -- asks us to expand our thinking beyond just one thing or the other, good or bad, and see that we're all of us ... just real."
-- Nora McInerny, author of It's Okay to Laugh and host of Terrible, Thanks for Asking
"This is a book of warmth and wisdom, a book about what it means to be human. It will expand your mind and comfort your spirit. I loved it."
-- Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith
"Chris writes from a very personal, empathetic place of genuine curiosity which inspired me to reflect on my own life online."
-- Cole Escola, actor and comedian
"What does it mean to be real? This is the question that launches author and activist Chris Stedman on a personal and philosophical journey through the ways social media has changed our very sense of self."
-- Reza Aslan, author of Zealot and God: A Human History


"This paperback edition of IRL includes a new introduction, drawing into consideration how the coronavirus pandemic has driven many more personal interactions into the online world. For readers wondering how to balance life online and off, IRL provides amiable and invaluable insight."

Shelf Awareness

"Even without the pandemic, IRL would be a vital read, a thoughtful examination of our perpetually "logged on" existence, and a measured critique of the social systems that define our time online."

AV Club

"Stedman remains accessible as he places himself into this technological yet jargon-free narrative; anyone looking to learn more about digital culture and its impact on society will be interested in and able to follow the concepts the author puts forth."

Library Journal

"Stedman's humorous, thoughtful guide to how we can rehumanize the online world is needed more than ever."

America Magazine

"A handy user's manual for leading an online life full of meaning and connection."

Kirkus Review

"There's never been a better time for a book like IRL. It's a book that deals with elemental urges in plain, direct language. . . . There are dozens of vivid metaphors in the course of this book. . . . Odds are we're all going to be living online for the foreseeable future. Stedman's hard-won wisdom on the subject is well worth heeding."

Open Letters Review

"Jam-packed with metaphors and beautifully described vignettes. . . . Stedman reminds us throughout IRL that these digital lives, though different, aren't any less real than our offline ones, so they must be managed with care."

Lambda Literary

"Sensitive, intelligent."

MEL Magazine

"A must-read for anyone who's condemned the internet for creating huge social disconnect, and everyone whose lived experiences prove otherwise."

BuzzFeed Books

"Stedman is at ease in the existential, both digitally and IRL (in real life). . . . IRL is a fascinating contribution to this all-important conversation."

Foreword Reviews

"A book that will change the online (and offline) you."

Input Mag

"Thoughtful, prescient, and hyper-relevant."

Killing the Buddha

"In Stedman's new book, IRL, he cements his position as a powerful cultural critic and gifted author."

Loft Literary

"IRL is a profound and necessary exploration of our identities online and how we interact with each other."

Largehearted Boy

"[IRL] is erudite yet highly readable, a deeply confessional memoir that mixes philosophy with pop culture and media studies."


"In Stedman's latest work, the author turns his thoughtful yet thorough gaze upon the internet as a means of constructing purpose and identity. A hybrid of memoir, criticism, and reportage . . . all held together by Stedman's moments of bracing honesty. . . . Vital

The Believer

"Honest and careful, . . . [Stedman] offers compelling new ways to think about our own engagement in the digital world, constantly pushing us to consider what is real. . . . Provocative, unlikely, and fascinating."

Vocation Matters

"Tackles big questions about what it means to be authentic in a world where so much of our social interaction is now taking place online. The book goes to deep places, but it doesn't burden the reader with an overly serious tone. Instead, [Stedman] brings a lightness by blending memoir, interviews, and social science, all arranged in vignettes so that reading feels like scrolling through a carefully curated Instagram feed. . . . A glowing example of what it means to think relationally about our own lives and the lives of others."

The Society Pages

"If you've ever wondered why you can't stop drunk-tweeting or stick to your commitment to delete Facebook from your phone, Stedman's book might help you feel better about--and maybe even better understand--your behavior."

Minneapolis City Pages

"A perfect book for our Twitter-fingered, selfie-obsessed times."

MyTalk Minnesota

"I found myself remarkably moved, stirred time and time again, and convinced that Stedman has hit upon the human condition. . . . One of the most important volumes in the last decade on the intersection of technology, social media, and humanity."

The Journal of Interreligious Studies

Table of Contents

Introduction: Anxietweets
Chapter 1: Mapping Our Digital Selves
Chapter 2: Drafting Distance
Chapter 3: Intimacy Granted
Chapter 4: Inked
Chapter 5: Never Alone, But Always by Ourselves
Chapter 6: The Roles We Play
Conclusion: The Velveteen Habit

Product Info

  • Publisher Broadleaf Books
  • Format Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781506463513
  • Dimensions 6.25 x 9.25
  • Pages 331
  • Publication Date October 20, 2020