A cityscape with digital connections drawn above it.

No, “meatspace” isn’t the frozen food aisle at the grocery store. We’ll explain what this tidbit of internet history means, and what it reveals about our changing attitudes about the internet.

Meatspace and Cyberspace

The word “meatspace” refers to the real-life physical world that we inhabit. The term was invented as a contrast to the emergence of “cyberspace,” which is the interconnected virtual world of computers that we interact in. Within a modern context, cyberspace would be everything online, while meatspace would be everything offline.

The term was used in the 1990s to make references to in-person meetups and personal events that would happen outside of the internet. As with “cyberspace,” it also spilled over into news media. Journalists would use it when referring to offline activities—as the opposite of “cyberspace.”

While the exact origin of the term is unknown, it can be found in science fiction and cyberpunk novels that were written around the time of the rise of the world wide web, like Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Many of these novels portray a world where a large part of our day-to-day lives has been replaced or augmented by connected technologies. “Meatspace” is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that living beings are often referred to as “pieces of meat” in the context of a futuristic setting.

Meeting in Meatspace

Many examples from the ’90s view the physical world as a completely separate thing from the virtual one. For example, an archival message from 1995 obtained by Merriam-Webster describes meatspace as “regular events, social gatherings, restaurant hangouts.” When one “meets in meatspace,” it refers to interacting with an online friend or acquaintance in person.

Therefore, there are essentially two definitions of “meatspace.” The first is the physical world—the actual things, places, and people you interact with daily. The other is an offline life that is distinct from your online life. This is especially true if you’re part of many online communities that don’t necessarily have an offline component.

Cyberpunk & Futurism

A cyberpunk-style city street with neon lights.

While many of the more outlandish predictions of science fiction, like flying cars, cloning machines, and humanoid androids have yet to become widespread, one thing has. Part of the conceit of many 20th-century science fiction novels and movies is the idea that we’ll be increasingly attached to a virtual network of computers. With nearly everyone owning a smartphone, that’s more true today than ever. Most of the communication that we have with friends and family members is carried out online through video calls, texts, and updates on social media.

However, many of these books conceive the virtual world and the physical world as two separate, distinct things. In practice, the line between meatspace and cyberspace has become increasingly blurred in the last decade. We depend on computers in the physical aspects of our day-to-day lives, from using food and grocery delivery to obtain essential nutrients to using a robust, detailed map app to navigate around while driving.

Today’s IRL

While meatspace is seldom used in general conversations with other people, it’s still a fascinating tidbit of internet history. If you do use it, it may be a great conversation starter with people who aren’t as familiar with the term. For example, you might say to a friend, “Hey! We should meet in meatspace!”

The modern successor to meatspace is the internet acronym IRL, which stands for “in real life.” While we’ve previously covered this term in our explainer about it, IRL essentially means the same thing as meatspace. It’s used to delineate your regular day-to-day life and your online life, especially if the two do not match up with each other.

One important thing to note is that the internet has changed drastically since both of these terms were invented. Before social media became common in the mid-2000s, being anonymous was the default way that you used the internet. In fact, users were encouraged not to use identifying information about themselves at all. However, with the emergence of apps like MySpace, Facebook, and Instagram that encouraged users to upload photos of themselves, the difference between one’s “real life” offline and their life online became smaller and smaller.

In a way, at all times, we’re both in cyberspace and in meatspace. We hope that makes you feel like you’re in a science fiction movie.

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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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