One of the great myths about using the Internet as a social tool is that too much time at a computer can make you more insular, turn you into the stereotype of the introverted geek with diminished social skills. As in the old joke about computer programmers;
How can you tell if a programmer is extroverted?Some critics of social media are really very serious about this – the Archbish says that teenagers are killing themselves because of their transient on-line friendships (as opposed to fifteen years ago, when next to no-one had the Internet, and the UK suicide rate was markedly higher*). But they miss the absolutely essential point about on-line social interaction. This is part of the real world, not another world disconnected from this one. And I would argue that on-line social interaction can improve both our social confidence and our social skills.
He's stares at your shoes when you're talking to him.
Once again, chronic illness makes my experiences rather extreme, but not irrelevant.
If you spend a lot of time at home, your social muscle gets deconditioned. However much you might long for it, when you finally find yourself in the company of other people, especially new people, it can be extraordinarily hard work. The physical presence of new people can be over-stimulating. They look different, they smell different and you have a whole new repertoire of body-language, facial expression and tone of voice to get used to – and respond to appropriately. Other people take an enormous amount of energy before you even start trying to talk to them. Fortunately, they're mostly more than worth it.
The real problems arise when we pay attention to what we are doing. We're tired and we're slightly bamboozled. We're probably not smiling enough – or perhaps smiling too much and failing to drop our smile when we're being given sombre information (I'm afraid I do that a lot – if I'm still smiling after you've told me your cat has died, please give me an extra second to process the information before assuming I am glad). And we're almost certainly not saying the right thing. We're boring. We're tactless. We're standoffish or we're over-friendly. Frankly, we're such a complete and total idiot that we probably shouldn't be let out around other people at all!
My loss of confidence was probably the quickest and most crushing psychological effect of being ill. Other emotional consequences took a while to set in but I went from being genuinely out-going, stage-struck teenager to being uncomfortable around people other than my close family, within the space of about six weeks.
Now this wasn't just about isolation. In fairness, the cognitive effects of my illness were at their worst early on – I was a zombie, frankly. A zombie too nervous to get close enough to actually eat your brains. Disability can also have a profound effect on our self-image. We have to find brand new ways of realising that we are okay as people, that we have the same value we always did. We may have to adjust to a different kind of body. And we face particular challenges to our social confidence, like using a wheelchair or walking stick, which can be like wearing a flashing light or an invisibility cloak, depending on who's looking.
So there have been occasions when I'd said I was too ill to go out when actually, I was too scared. And that's a horrible situation. It was never that I didn't want to go - I would have been looking forward to it. But then it'd be time to get ready to go and I'd begin to get nervous, and eventually the nerves would rise to a panic. And for the strength of that panic, there might as well have been a pack of hungry velociraptors in the street outside. I was not going anywhere.
Of course this is deadly, because as with any phobia, avoidance only makes the next time even harder. At the point where you commit to go somewhere but chicken out at the last minute, that's a problem and only a few steps away from being an illness all of its own. Fortunately, such occasions were very rare for me, but some level of social anxiety is very common even for healthy people who leave the house more than once a fortnight. It is completely reasonable to want to come across as a decent kind of person. Even if you are happily non-conformist, you don't actually want to irritate or offend anyone, even the squares!
Anyway, these periods where my social confidence got so bad coincided were periods where either wasn't on-line, or not spending much time on-line. Spending time on my computer compensates a great deal for the isolation of illlness. It's no substitute, as I've said before. But it does seem to prevent my particular level of isolation from damaging my mental health. And if it can do that for me, I don't see why it can't benefit everyone who uses the Internet as a social tool.
Rather than turning us into loners, on-line contact is excellent practice for face-to-face. In particular, you lose the fear of strangers. I frequently “speak” to people I don't know very well, and I have learnt that I don't fluff up that badly. Occasionally, I am clumsy and wires get do get crossed –one would expect this to happen more often on-line than off – but it's almost always resolvable and if not, you learn it doesn't matter all that much. The world doesn't implode if one person thinks you're an idiot. At the same time, strangers are often extremely helpful, friendly and supportive. And some of them become your friends.
But even transient encounters are not unimportant. Comments like the Archbishop's about social networking undermining community life strike me as particularly ironic. Communities, unlike families and friends, are relatively large groups of people who don't know one another well but look out for one another despite the vagueness of their acquaintance. What undermines community life is the idea that you shouldn't trust or invest in people who you don't know intimately. This is why neighbours don't talk to one another – a reluctance to talk to strangers means that strangers is all they'll ever be.
You also get to learn and practice social skills in a safer environment on-line. It's safer because you can take your time to respond - even on IRC, you've got a chance to think twice before you speak. And perhaps best of all, on-line, it is possible to sit in a corner and listen without saying anything for periods of time without anyone fussing over you. Off-line, especially if you are a woman, you are expected to look cheerful and join in. And make the tea.
There are lots of forms of social isolation and alienation which can make people self-centred, not just not getting out much. But on-line, you can't just talk about yourself all the time, you are confronted by the complexities of other people's lives, reminded that your troubles are not extraordinary and your opinions not unique.
Of course, not on-line interaction is trouble-free. Social-networking and e-mail pose particular problems as tools for bullying and harassment. Not all interactive media is truly interactive, and there are places where people can express uncompromising opinions without paying any attention or respect to others and without getting any real feedback. Instinctively, I have my doubts about whether the BBC's Have Your Say pages or the newspapers who have a Comments thread under every story aren't in fact deeply unhealthy for their users. And fora where there is nothing but bickering and bullying are likely to be as damaging to one's social skills as a hostile work environment. But safe places do exist and they can be created.
* I'm not suggesting the Internet has brought down the suicide rate, just that there's no evidence that it's making things worse. I know what I'm about to say is a cheap shot but it's also a serious point (we are talking about the untimely deaths of young people, after all). They reckon about a third of teen suicides worldwide are related to sexuality - you know, perhaps some kid falls in love but some authority of other in their life, a church for example, says that love is an abomination. So if you were an Archbishop and you really did care about young people, as opposed to gaining publicity through your participation in a moral panic (one very popular with a news media which is struggling in the Internet age), then there might be more pressing matters to look at. Just saying.