The initialism "IRL" superimposed over a Los Angeles cityscape.
Songquan Deng/Shutterstock.com

You may have come across the initialism “IRL” in tweets, on Reddit, or in comment sections across the web. But what does it mean, and how do you properly use it on the internet? Here’s how.

“In Real Life”

IRL stands for “in real life.” When people use it online, it often refers to their identity and life outside the internet, such as their day-to-day job and nearby social circle.

The use of IRL and other online initialisms can be traced back to the popularization of chatrooms on the internet in the 1990s. During this time, people who frequently talked with others on the web began to develop their own words, acronyms, and initialisms to refer to certain things. Among these is IRL.

Because online talk during this time was mostly anonymous, people used the phrase as a shorthand to share details about their offline lives. An early use case of this would be if an online friend asked you what your occupation was. In response, you’d say that you were “a dentist IRL.”

By the way, IRL

The Evolution of IRL

With the rise of social media in the early to late 2000s, the way that people used IRL started evolving. People began using their real name and identity on the internet on early social networking sites such as Friendster and Myspace. They would connect to their nearby social circle, post pictures of themselves, and communicate with each other on instant messengers such as AOL and Yahoo.

A smiling woman typing on a laptop computer.
G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock.com

The line between your internet identity and your actual identity began to change. Instead of IRL referring to someone’s offline life, it became a way of separating your anonymous internet persona from your real persona. This was particularly true for internet forums and online games where you take on a specific character.

IRL can be used in instances where your online life merges into your offline life. For example, if you meet one of your longtime guildmates in World of Warcraft at a convention, you’d say that you finally met IRL.

Famous People and IRL

Aside from drawing a line between your internet persona and your real identity, IRL is often used in another way.

Most of the time, we only see famous people, such as actors, singers, and internet celebrities on our televisions or phones. What we know of them through these channels is often just a small snippet of who they are. So it’s no surprise that when you run into a famous person on the street, they may look, sound, or act differently.

There is a difference between a famous person’s on-screen persona and who they are in real life. In this context, IRL can be used to describe who they are outside of their careers. So if you meet a celebrity on the street, and you have a pleasant interaction, you would refer to them as “really nice IRL.”

Me IRL and Other Variations

There’s also “me IRL,” which frequently pops up in memes and tweets. While the initialism in the phrase also stands for “in real life,” people use “me IRL” in a very different way.

Me IRL comes with an image, video, or statement, that the user believes is representative of their current real-life state. For example, if you accompany “me IRL” with a video of a man tripping over himself repeatedly, that is likely a self-deprecating joke about being clumsy. It can also be used with an unusual or incomprehensible image to humorous effect.

The phrase became popular because of the r/me_irl subreddit, which is one of the largest humor communities on the site with over 3 million members. The sub also has a rule that all post tiles must say “me_irl” and nothing else. Because of the size of the subreddit, posts there often become some of the most popular and widely known memes on the entire internet.

Me IRL Subreddit Reddit Joke Post
u/Jspr4 / Reddit

For example, the post above is one of the most popular posts of the year on me_irl. It shows how even if someone went back in time to explain modern ideas to people, they wouldn’t know enough about them actually to do so.

How to Use IRL

If you’re chatting with someone online or posting on a forum, you can substitute IRL for when you would use “in real life.” As mentioned above, you can also use it when you have a celebrity encounter.

Here are a couple of proper ways to use IRL:

  • I’m a psychology student IRL.
  • Bill Gates seems like a really friendly guy IRL.
  • I and a friend I play DOTA with recently met up IRL at a local tournament.
  • I don’t know jac_extreme003 IRL, but we talk a lot online.

If you’re curious about how to use other internet terms, you should learn more about TBH and SMH. You could soon find yourself using some of these terms IRL.

Vann Vicente Vann Vicente
Vann Vicente has been a technology writer for four years, with a focus on explainers geared towards average consumers. He also works as a digital marketer for a regional e-commerce website. He's invested in internet culture, social media, and how people interact with the web.
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