Online and offline distinctions have been generalised from computing and telecommunication into the field of human interpersonal relationships. The distinction between what is considered online and what is considered offline has become a subject of study in the field of sociology.
The distinction between online and offline is conventionally seen as the distinction between computer-mediated communication and face-to-face communication (e.g., face time), respectively. Online is virtuality or cyberspace, and offline is reality (i.e., real life or “meatspace”). Slater states that this distinction is “obviously far too simple”. To support his argument that the distinctions in relationships are more complex than a simple dichotomy of online versus offline, he observes that some people draw no distinction between an online relationship, such as indulging in cybersex, and an offline relationship, such as being pen pals. He argues that even the telephone can be regarded as an online experience in some circumstances, and that the blurring of the distinctions between the uses of various technologies (such as PDA versus mobile phone, internet television versus internet, and telephone versus Voice over Internet Protocol) has made it “impossible to use the term online meaningfully in the sense that was employed by the first generation of Internet research”.
Slater asserts that there are legal and regulatory pressures to reduce the distinction between online and offline, with a “general tendency to assimilate online to offline and erase the distinction,” stressing, however, that this does not mean that online relationships are being reduced to pre-existing offline relationships. He conjectures that greater legal status may be assigned to online relationships (pointing out that contractual relationships, such as business transactions, online are already seen as just as “real” as their offline counterparts), although he states it to be hard to imagine courts awarding palimony to people who have had a purely online sexual relationship. He also conjectures that an online/offline distinction may be seen by people as “rather quaint and not quite comprehensible” within 10 years.
This distinction between online and offline is sometimes inverted, with online concepts being used to define and to explain offline activities, rather than (as per the conventions of the desktop metaphor with its desktops, trash cans, folders, and so forth) the other way around. Several cartoons appearing in The New Yorker have satirized this. One includes Saint Peter asking for a username and a password before admitting a man into Heaven. Another illustrates “the off-line store” where “All items are actual size!”, shoppers may “Take it home as soon as you pay for it!”, and “Merchandise may be handled prior to purchase!”