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Does the Distinction Between Online and Offline Still Matter?

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I’m old enough to remember when being at home meant that you were off work. There was no logging in from home to check your mail. (If you wanted your mail, you had to drive into the office to pick it up.) Computers were big boxes that sat under your desk, not something you carried back and forth between home and the office with ease. Occasionally, you might bring home paperwork or something that you needed to read, but the constant connection to work was rare. Being online was something that I associated more with work than recreation, and it required conscious thought and effort.

Now, my phone has more processing power than my first work computer, and I am always connected. This connection isn’t just for work, or even for productivity. I rely on being connected for many routine personal tasks: dictionary, looking up random facts, amusement, recipes, etc. I jump back and forth seamlessly and no longer really think of it as being online or offline. I take it for granted that I can always be connected on a moment’s notice.

Gartner’s Nick Jones agrees that the distinction between online and offline has almost completely disappeared:

Labeling time as “online” vs. “offline” is so last decade. For many of us that distinction already vanished. Many of the things we do at home and work mean we dip into web services continually throughout the day. We post updates to social networks, stream media, check information, stream feeds and tweet (not the latter in my case as I’m a twitter refuser). And behind the scenes loads of gadgets in our home and pocket silently and continuously communicate to access web services, updates, information…There is no “online” vs. “offline” any more, there’s only online.

I spent the last couple of days taking a long weekend off work to just relax at home. I finished reading “Accelerando” by Charles Stross, which I had started reading a month ago; I started and finished Cory Doctorow’s “Makers,” a fantastic book; and I started reading Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash.” I stubbornly refused to do any work, but I noticed how often I kept looking things up on my phone or laptop:

Because I live in a place where Internet access is everywhere, I have stopped thinking about any distinction between “online” and “offline” in favor of an always-connected lifestyle.

What do you think about the distinction between online and offline, and is it still a meaningful distinction in your life?

Photo by Flickr user eschipul used under Creative Commons.

4 Responses to “Does the Distinction Between Online and Offline Still Matter?”

  1. I think so too – most web workers today are way ahead of the curve. After all, just a few years ago personal computers were just boxes below the desk you could play simple card games on if you didn’t mess with Word ’97.

    Today, most cell phones are connected to the internet 24/7, eMails and social media are never out of reach, breaking news hit us as push notification and if I ever need to know something I just open up Google or Wikipedia and get the information I need immediately.

    In the end, I really enjoy this lifestyle where a simple smart phone such as the iPhone can handle literally anything from taking photos to checking eMails, browsing the net or even do more advanced tasks such as tracking weight, monitor the progress of my running training or sending invoices on the go just to mention very few examples.

    Not everybody embraced this way of life yet, but for those who do appreciate it, it’s definitely a useful addition to the regular offline life.

  2. Michael,

    I was targeting this question only at web workers – those of us who make our living online. As someone who spends so much time working and playing while connected, this is no longer an important distinction for me.

    I agree that this distinction is still applicable for many other audiences, including many people that I know.

  3. I think you need to clarify who the target of this question is. To us (edge players, early adopters, etc.) the distinction between online and offline media, new and old media, and the lines between them are all pretty much gone. But to 95% of the rest of America (and the world) Hulu isn’t something that’s even hit their radar. We tend to forget, since we’re in it every minute of every day, that we’re way ahead of the curve. I run in to people all of the time that have never used Netflix, much less know how to connect a computer to their TV to watch movies instantly. They’re clueless about Boxee, and Hulu, Crackle, Babelgum, Joost and all of the other cool stuff happening in media.

    So, yes, there is a distinction. But it depends on your target as to how much.