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Does the Internet Help the Socially Awkward?

Bryan Caplan asks this question, and answers with a qualified yes:

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?

I am not so sure. The internet certainly does help socially awkward people by giving them a way to make connections that is less difficult for them than "real" life. On the other hand, I am skeptical that internet social skills readily spill over into real world social skills. It seems to me that the two skill sets are significantly different. Indeed, to the extent that nerds in 2007 spend more time on the internet and less time improving their social skills in real world interactions, the latter might actually be worse than those of their 1987 predecessors. Tentatively, I would hypothesize that the internet does not improve the social skills of nerds and may even retard them. But it does reduce (somewhat) the cost of having bad social skills by providing a mode of interaction where those skills matter less.

Finally, the impact of the internet on the social skills of nerds probably depends in part on what they use the internet for. Blogging about law and public policy probably doesn't improve social skills much (bummer for us nerdy VC bloggers). But participating in social activities on the net (e.g. - chat rooms), or even blogging about more personal matters, may have a bigger impact. Still, I doubt that even time spent on the latter helps nearly as much as spending the same time improving your social skills in face to face settings.

But, as Bryan says:

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

Bryan is surely right that non-nerds are better judges of nerds' social skills than the nerds themselves. So have at it!

liberty (mail) (www):
"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?"

I think this has much more to do with the "cool factor" of nerdiness going up which is due to the Bill Gates / Dot Com nerds-are-rich phenomenon, and the everyone-has-a-computer-and-the-nerd-can-fix-it factor.

"Indeed, to the extent that nerds in 2007 spend more time on the internet and less time improving their social skills in real world interactions, the latter might actually be worse than those of their 1987 predecessors."

This is a good point but may be less relevant for young nerds, given that 75% of out-of-school socialiszing is done online these days, as I understand it. So, if young nerds are more social online, it may really help them. But, if they are really nerds, they must spend most of that time writing code or reading legal theory or economics of whatever, not socializing.

I am not sure that I am less awkward in person for having spent most of my last 10 years in front of a dim glare. I do find it easier to socialize online, but it doesn't seem to carry over at all for me.
6.13.2007 10:08pm
cathyf:
Of course if you are a real nerd, as opposed to one of these poseur nerds, you got a major part of your social interaction over the Internet in 1987 ;-)
6.13.2007 10:18pm
Amber (www):
My name is Amber, and I am a nerd.

While the 2007 nerd might be slightly less practiced at the social graces than the 1987 nerd, the 2007 nerd may have more real-life friends than his 1987 counterpart, if some of those people he meets online later become meatspace friends.

For a lot of nerds, I think the difficulty is not in relating to or talking with people, but with initiating social contact (making small talk, propositioning dates, schmoozing/networking, etc.); to the extent that this hurdle is cleared by online contact, the nerd need only be suave enough to maintain relationships.
6.13.2007 10:23pm
Hattio (mail):
I think a big contributor to present-day nerds social skills would probably be the internet's ability to hook up people of like minds. Let's face it. If you are a Trekkie Nerd, it's probably not that hard to be sociable at the Star Trek convention. And practicing those social skills (even among the generally socially awkward) will improve those social skills. So, I think it's very probable that the nerds of today are more socially adept.
6.13.2007 10:35pm
plunge (mail):
Shy people who use the internet alot just end up shy people who are addicted to the internet, reducing even further any contact or normal relationship with other people.
6.13.2007 10:40pm
JNS405:
I think there is something to be said about the possibility that the Internet retards social skills. My husband's friend is one of those nerds that you reference - he spends all of his free time designing Internet cartoons and playing Civ. It seems that all of this has helped him forget how to interact with people outside of the Internet world...you know, those of us who don't want to talk about role playing games or what have you.
6.13.2007 11:12pm
Russ (mail):
The Internet really does help we nerds get better socially. Most of us are fine once we get to know someone, but it's getting past that initial awkward phase of actually meeting people that is the hard part. The Internet helps us get past that since when we finally meet someone in person, we feel as if we already know them, and can thus be a whole lot better socially.

I met my wife online a few years ago. I think it's a wonderful tool.

And never forget that we nerds end up ruling the world...
6.13.2007 11:25pm
nunzio:
I actually think the cool people of 2007 are smoother than the cool people of 1987 as well.
6.13.2007 11:28pm
Evan H (mail) (www):
As someone who is socially awkward, I would say yes.
6.13.2007 11:50pm
DJR:
Nunzio hits it. It is the nature of cool to be constantly evolving, and the nature of the uncool to strive to be cool. Eventually what was cool beomes uncool, and the uncool learn something slight about coolness by adopting that which once was cool. Nevertheless, the truly cool have moved on to bigger and cooler things, so much to keep a bright line between that which is cool and that which is not.
6.13.2007 11:51pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Amber hits the nail on the head, precisely. What many nerds (and I was/am one) have trouble with is the little things that most people take for granted. Making small talk about sports or the weather or whatever, simply starting a conversation with a stranger, these are difficult tasks to the nerd. We have little practice at doing them. And because we don't do them well, we shy away from trying to do them in high school, because the only way to practice is with other people in high school, and making a mistake leads to torment from the bullies and cruel kids. Even if the bullies aren't that bad, the social faux pas we commit in learning leads to more social ostracism.

But the internet allows us to experiment in relative anonymity. If we screw up and make fools of ourselves in one forum with one screenname, we can move elsewhere with another screenname and try again, learning along the way.

That's my perspective, anyway. Maybe I'm different because I made conscious decisions to work on overcoming my shyness and social awkwardness, but I suspect that there are a lot of smart, self-aware nerds out there who have done similar things to improve themselves.
6.14.2007 12:29am
The Miss Binky & Amazing Jack Show (mail) (www):
What do you think? Non-nerds' opinions count double... if there are any out reading this. :-)

Bryan is surely right that non-nerds are better judges of nerds' social skills than the nerds themselves. So have at it!

----

Taking into account your invitation to non-nerds, with the bonus of scoring double points...is it immodest of me to count myself among the non-nerds? I just really want to score more points, as I am a competetive non-nerd in addition to being a closet-nerd in non-nerd's clothing. (sorry, that wasn't meant to imply that you nerds dress funny).

I have actually fallen in love on-line with nerds because I find intelligence extremely provocative. I love contributing to online newsgroups expressly because of the fact that relationships with some of the most interesting people I have ever met, have been forged by discourses that I'd be hard-pressed to engage in on a conventional date.

Everything else is stripped away and you find yourself magnetized by the mind of a person, rather than the size of their pecs. (that goes double for you guys!)

Besides, I get bored really easily if a guy can't intellectually stimulate me...so alas, I am relegated to being a closet-nerd and fulfilling my deepest desires online, where the nerds hang out.

I have never actually had a romantic relationship that translated from online to face to face however, but one of my best friends whom I absolutely adore, is a total nerd and he taught me how to write code and do my own website...which I thought was very cool.
6.14.2007 1:12am
guest:
Well, um, I, uh, I think I fit in better, uh, here.
6.14.2007 1:31am
ys:
Re: Miss Binky
As is well known, on the internet you can be a poodle behind your screen name and no one will be the wiser. This is not to imply that Miss Binky is an actual poodle, but then... stranger things have happened.
6.14.2007 1:40am
EH:
There are two factors here. First is that like work and the bar (the alcohol kind), the internet is a separate social space and so it is natural that variations on a persons persona would change from place to place. As we've all seen from trolls and spammers, the depersonalization of Internet interaction can facilitate different attitudes and personality traits.

Second is the commodification of technology that has turned more cool people into nerds than it did in 1987 when all the cool nerds had were car stereos and Apple IIc's. Now, social people can use technology to be more social, and they do.
6.14.2007 1:50am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
What the internet -- weblogs particularly -- provide is a forum with an entirely different set of social cues. The two don't translate at all into each other.

You've left comments open on this post, so even if you hadn't explicitly asked for comments you're implicitly saying that you're open to them. To draw the analogy (disanalogy?) closer to the "real" world, when you have a discussion back and forth with one of your co-bloggers in a series of posts, the onlookers and passersby are implicitly invited to chime in with side comments.

Now if I were passing a casual conversation in a bar they may very well appreciate and welcome my thoughts on the matter. But the cues to indicate that, if they exist, are completely beyond me. In this space I understand the cues and the protocols almost instinctually, while face to face I just don't. There's no translation either way.
6.14.2007 1:59am
Crunchy Frog:
Well, considering I met my wife through a BBS, I can definitely say that being online has proved beneficial to my social life :)
6.14.2007 2:05am
ATRGeek:
As many of the above suggested, I think it is less about developing social skills and more about developing enough self-confidence to overcome shyness. That won't save you if your basic persona is to be rude, self-centered, or a bore, but if you are a fundamentally nice, engaging, and interesting person, then overcoming your initial shyness may do wonders for your social interactions in any forum.

By the way, I was never too shy myself, but in college I became quite outgoing, and I did it the old fashioned way: with alcohol. For good or ill I think there is a strong parallel: once you use a little "Dutch courage" to overcome your shyness and discover you are competent at being social, that self-confidence can translate over into other contexts.
6.14.2007 6:20am
ATRGeek:
Oh, and I forgot to include the second part of my alcohol/internet analogy: in some percentage of cases, people will become addicted.
6.14.2007 7:52am
liberty (mail) (www):
John Armstrong really nails it I think!!

To reiterate:

Many nerds, or at least I, have a problem with social norms and social cues that makes social interaction - like meeting people or making friends out of acquaintances - difficult. The need to track these ephemeral cues all but vanishes online. The signals are clear (like leaving comments open), the "norms" are fairly well known and easy to break without much consequence (like emailing someone out of the blue) and the rules are spelled out (like the "Important Note" below, although some of it depends on your knowing whether you come off as a blowhard at dinner, which brings it back to a recognition of social norms in the real world).

Best of all you never have to stand there awkwardly, sure that everyone thinks you are an idiot. You can just make a fool of yourself and then go.
6.14.2007 10:12am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Yes, John Armstrong got it.
Those of us who are not good at picking up non-verbal cues will continue to do much better in this text-only medium. Back in 1987, nobody had even heard of Asperger's Syndrome.

As others have pointed out, using electronic communication does not make one a nerd at all these days. (In 1983 I had to beg my way[*] into the lab of the psych professor who had been the first to wire into the DARPAnet, and with a telephone in one hand watched messages travel up and down the east coast. By 1987 you didn't have to be a complete nerd, just an early adopter, to dial in to a F1DO BBS.)

I can't remember, are nerds cool and rich again? All the recruiters were telling me that the market is the best since the dot.com crash and I'd be re-employed real soon now, but they aren't calling so much, and at this rate I won't be working until after the summer doldrums are over. (Last time that happened was 2001, when I hunkered down and got ready to have a vacation until Labor Day. Oops.)

[*]Actually, lacking in social outgoingness, it was my e-correspondent, whom I later asked to be my best man in an email, who made the introduction.
6.14.2007 10:59am
Houston Lawyer:
Social interaction favors the quick minded who can think on their feet. While you can be witty on the web, you have a lot more time to think of your responses.

Social interaction also favors the attractive. Nothing on the web can help you with that.

I'm agnostic about whether interaction on the web will increase your self confidence enough to overcome your old social limitations.
6.14.2007 11:52am
johnbragg (mail):
Nerds have the greatest difficulty with initial face-to-face contact with strangers. (Initial contact online is very different--much lower stakes, lower adrenaline, lower chance of embarrassment.) Nerds who "meet" online and then go on to meet in real life have less difficulty with that initial F2F, as there is a shared body of experience and interest to talk about.

I cannot speak to the results of the MySpacing of youth interaction. But within my age cohort (I'm 33) I know more and more couples who met online, either through interest groups (higher nerd quotient) or dating services (lower nerd quotient).
6.14.2007 12:07pm
johnbragg (mail):
Nerds have the greatest difficulty with initial face-to-face contact with strangers. (Initial contact online is very different--much lower stakes, lower adrenaline, lower chance of embarrassment.) Nerds who "meet" online and then go on to meet in real life have less difficulty with that initial F2F, as there is a shared body of experience and interest to talk about.

I cannot speak to the results of the MySpacing of youth interaction. But within my age cohort (I'm 33) I know more and more couples who met online, either through interest groups (higher nerd quotient) or dating services (lower nerd quotient).
6.14.2007 12:08pm
LogicGuru (mail):
Amber's dead on: it's the openings, smalltalk and conversational protocals that we can't handle. I'm 57 and I still haven't figured out how to do that. I have to think it all out, I'm always insecure about it, it stresses me out and I hate it. I don't even like going into stores where they know me and making a phone call to set up an appointment with the vet stresses me out. Of course I do those things--I function, I make appointments, shop, behave like a normal person and get my business done. But it's stressful--I have to plan, think out these little interactions and rehearse them in my head.

No one knows I'm painfully shy though. Being in philosophy I'm very aggressive in argument. Once a conversation is going and I don't have to deal with the niceties I'm fine.

Email though is a blessing. I can't stand making phone calls. I use the internet extensively and have since it first became available to academics, I think late 80s. But it hasn't spilled over to real life. I'm as shy as ever.
6.14.2007 12:28pm
An0n:
A few months ago I discovered, entirely by accident, that the biggest nerd I know -- an employee in another division of my employer -- writes for a successful group blog with which I'm fairly familiar. (And no, he's not a Conspirator!) That led me to the discovery that the guy has a significant online presence, and his online persona isn't at all nerdy. Meanwhile, back in the real world, I actively avoid in-person interaction with him. It's always painfully awkward.

The bottom line here is that, as far as I can tell, his online social skills have not bled over to the real world at all.

Just an anecdote.
6.14.2007 12:32pm
neo-nerd (mail):
One thing being overlooked is the amount of time that the Internet can suck out of your life. If you are not able to exercise some self-control, I think it becomes a big detriment to developing real-world social skills. There are always more things to read, watch, listen to, etc. on the Internet, and once you are immersed the non-virtual world can disappear from view. I'm not quite sure that a continuous online existence (even if far more interesting than real life) is a healthy thing.
But reading a blog like this one sure beats working.
6.14.2007 1:44pm
The Miss Binky & Amazing Jack Show (mail) (www):
ys:
Re: Miss Binky
As is well known, on the internet you can be a poodle behind your screen name and no one will be the wiser.

This is not to imply that Miss Binky is an actual poodle, but then... stranger things have happened.

---
Actually, I'm not a poodle but I've been most closely associated by some, with a "Twinkie". However, "The Amazing Jackā„¢" is a verifiable weiner-dog.
6.14.2007 2:02pm
Pat Conolly:
One thing I've noticed is that the way I express myself in writing is quite different than the way I express myself verbally. So people who might think I'm a doofus if they first met me in person might be more impressed if they read some lengthy stuff I had written.

Or people who might think I was deadly dull from reading what I say online might think I was pretty funny (and a doofus) if they first met me in a situation where I was loose (this usually is after a few drinks).
6.14.2007 6:47pm