Bryan Caplan  

Has the Internet Helped the Socially Awkward?

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Would you feel uncomfortable striking up a conversation with a stranger? How about over the Internet? If you're like me, you're a lot more outgoing over the Internet than you are in real life. At the same time, though, I wonder: Has making friends over the Internet made me more outgoing in the real world? I suspect it has, but it's hard to be sure.

In a similar vein, have you ever noticed how some very socially awkward people have charming Internet personalities? Does the charm they practice in the virtual world eventually spill over to real life?

Perhaps the best test of these hypotheses: Compare the nerds of 1987 to the nerds of 2007. No doubt, the nerds of 2007 still have their interpersonal issues. But aren't they a lot smoother than their forebears?

What do you think? Non-nerds' opinions count double... if there are any out reading this. :-)


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TRACKBACKS (3 to date)
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The author at The Volokh Conspiracy in a related article titled Does the Internet Help the Socially Awkward? writes:

    Bryan Caplan

    asks this question, answers with a qualified yes:

    Would you feel uncomfortable striking up a conversation wi...

    [Tracked on June 13, 2007 7:55 PM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Wild Pegasus writes:

Oh, it absolutely helped me. The Internet gave me a chance to practice my wit with few consequences for bombing. It got better, and I got enough confidence to fire away in real life. The early results weren't great, but they were better results than I had been getting. I worked on my delivery by watching stand-up comics - Brian Regan turned out to be a great help - and the current results are very good. The Internet was a great set of training wheels for real social interaction.

- Josh

Shruti writes:

I'm not really socially awkward (and I am more outgoing in real life than the Internet) but I don't know if I count as a non-nerd (after all I read your blog regularly).

But I have seen others, mostly male friends, who are very socially awkward but seem very charming over the Internet. Especially the nerds and the geeks. They come across as intellectual and witty. I guess the Internet helps them leverage their comparative advantage.

Ashley writes:

I would consider myself a Geek, and the Internet has been a Godsend for me, allowing me to communicate very effectively by compensating for my lack of interpersonal skills. It's also helped me overcome some of my social ineptness by giving me a feel for how conversations are supposed to go, so that in the real world I am not always scrambling for what to do next. It also allows me to meet and get to know people who would probably not bother talking to me had they not been introduced to my personality online. I wouldn't say I am necessarily more outgoing on the Internet so much as the Internet allows me to mask my social awkwardness. The Internet essentially levels the playing field (so to speak).

Stephen W. Stanton writes:

I am a nerd. The internet has improved my social skills by putting me in touch with bazillions of people interested in similar eccentric topics (e.g., economics).

Spending more time in my comfort zone helped a lot (vs. faking interest in baseball, the stock market, or the lefty college cause du jour).

It made me realize that there's nothing wrong with me, even when surrounded by people that bore me, disagree with me, or act in ways I can't understand (e.g., pot-smoking college libs).

That comfort with myself, plus practice in casual banter helps a lot now when I deal with anyone.

It is similar to when you first become interested in girls (or whatever)... You may not have mad social skillz. It comes with experience. Heading straight to the hottest night clubs will usually backfire. You'll have better luck with the chess club, drama club, CYO, high school dances, etc. Work your way up from there.

The internet is entry level practice for the real world.

Robert Scarth writes:

I think there are some sorts of people who are helped and others who are not - or perhaps more accurately some are helped more then others. If its an issue of social awkwardness or ineptness then, as those above testify, the internet can help. If on the other hand its a question of introversion, then I don't think the internet can help, or can help to a much lesser extent.

I'm a pretty extreme introvert; I often find social contact too intense, and rather stressful. I would describe the feeling as similar to having a really bright light shone directly into your eyes, and not being able to close them. This causes problems because it becomes so overwhelming that I just disengage from the situation, and think my own thoughts.

I don't think I have many problems with my social skills, and I don't find social contact too awkward; I'm perfectly happy and successful with small groups of close friends. Although I do sometimes view social gatherings with trepidation as I worry about being overwhelmed in the manner described above. Another problem I have stems from the fact that introverts are more internally aroused - I have a real problem articulating my thoughts in a conversation; I continually thinking of exceptions, counterexamples, sidetracks, and stuff not even related to what I'm saying. Perhaps I could describe the problem of being an introvert as stemming the torrent from without and managing the torrent from within.

The internet helps because it means I can take in conversations at a more measured pace, and can switch them off easily and without causing offence if they get too overwhelming. Also when it comes to expressing myself I can take more time, and go back and edit what I say so that it makes more sense and has a more coherent structure. but the internet doesn't help overcome the fundamental problem, because it seems to be one of my brain. I still take a long time to read stuff online and to write replies, and comments.

Kendall writes:

In a paper you can find on my website, I find that the internet is not correlated in any statistically significant way with divorce. In some unreported analysis associated with this paper, I also looked at marriage rates, and found no correlation there either. Of course, the effects on social awkwardness could be cumulative over many years, and so difficult to pick up, and yes, the internet could have multiple effects that offset each other, but there is little prima facie evidence that the internet is, on net, reducing geeks' offline social awkwardness towards the opposite sex, at least.

TGGP writes:

I'm way more of an asshole on internet forums than in real-life (or at least I was back when I posted on forums). In meatspace I don't get into the same sorts of discussions in the first place and I'm more wary of the consequences of pissing actual people off than some made-up name appearing on my computer.

Stephen Barr writes:

I see socializing over the internet functioning as a type of subsidy to one's overall socialization. When the subsidies are removed, it may be difficult for the seller to adapt and compete in a more free market. I have several friends that can much more comfortably uphold a conversation online than they can over the phone or in person. Although this may help them in the short run, as they will have more people with whom to converse, the full gains from trade (deep and meaningful relationships, physical interaction and affection, etc.) will not be realized.

Overall, I think that socializing over the internet can compliment regular socializing, but it is a poor substitute. In fact, they are only substitutes at some socially inferior level but can grow to be compliments as social skills rise.

Chuck Cavanaugh writes:

I find communication via the Internet to be far preferrable to other forms of communication. Phone calls get me all flustered, and being with people in person is generally just tiring.

Two of my best experiences have been making large complex web sites for people without my ever needing to bothered to actually speak to them. I guess it comes down to a question whether the nerd can make himself useful - both to the direct benificiary and, ultimately, to the world in general. Having established what a useful person I am, then it's much easier to advance to personal contact with a person that I've met online.

In the one case, after about 2000 emails concerning development of a government site, my good friend accidentally telephoned me one time (thinking she was phoning somebody else) and she got so flustered she hung up immediately. It was hilarious. She never made that mistake again! We agree that email is the only type of communication we need.

In the other case, where I made an African Wildlife Conservancy web site, I accepted an invitation to visit Kenya for three weeks, where I had a wonderful time.

I'm so tired of the people in my real life. I'm thinking of limiting my personal relationships as strictly as possible to people I've met online.

Mensarefugee writes:

The net allows one to take a break when they feel awkward of pissed off or whatever. I cant have politically incorrect conversations in real life. But on the net, the animosity just rolls off.

Rain And writes:

I would say, to the contrary, that the Internet more likely makes the problems of the socially awkward even worse. To the extent the Internet creates social connections, these connections are often quite superficial, yet they feel like an easy and tempting substitute to people with social handicaps. Rather than making real friends who can provide everyday assistance, genuine companionship, and intimate connections, they feel content with 'forum regulars', 'email/ichat buddies' and other nonfriends. This is a crutch that prevents some from taking the necessary plunges they otherwise would.

Also, the Internet, as TGGP hints above, actually has the opposite effect of tearing down conventional standards of interaction and politeness. Even the otherwise civil and educated people who inhabit places like Marginal Revolution are turned into swearing, crude, combatitive, and sloppy animals by the Web's state of anonimity, faux-anonymity, and semi-anonymity. Dealing with such people, as well as being influenced by their norms also tears down the social skills of the nonanonymous, as does the distant, unreal nature of web communication. This probably influences general social behaviors, especially for young people.

But Email, chat and sites such as Facebook and Myspace, may actually improve the social skills of those who are already average and above average in social skills. In that case I propose the web makes the below average worse, and the above average better, creating even more social skill inequality.

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