Being social has never come easily for me. I blame it on a combination of natural introversion, compounded by being on the wrong side of juvenile cliquedom and outright bullying. The lingering psychological effects of both often manifest themselves as social anxiety, and have left me ill-equipped when treading the waters of social interaction. At least, this is true in meatspace. Socialization is a lot easier when you have the luxury to do it from behind a screen, at least for some of us.
I think of this when I read people arguing about how online social interactions aren’t real, that they’re unhealthy, or dangerous. These are part of a long narrative about how technology isolates us, how screen-intermediated interaction is false interaction. It’s an attitude that extends back to the rise of the telephone in the home, and even extends to social criticism of novels and other forms of solitary entertainment. If you’re not directly interacting with your fellow human beings, the argument goes, you are not being human. Never mind what you, the human, would rather do with your time and reserves of social energy.
For myself, and many others, technology provides a way to satisfy the natural desire for social contact that even exists in the most shy and introverted among us, and it lets us do it on our own terms. A screen provides a form of safety, a screen name a form of anonymity. When the real world all-too-often forces us to be someone we are not, technology gives us the freedom to be who we are. It also gives us the freedom to be many people at once, to try on identities at will, and find the ones that suit us best. The ability is a double-edged sword, as shown time and time again by anonymous harassers and the Joshua Goldbergs of the world. It’s important to not lose sight of what we gain by choosing our identities, instead of being tied to a “real” self so Facebook can better target ads.
I know that, had I not discovered IRC as a socially isolated teenager, I would have been in a far worse place at a delicate and dangerous time in my life. Had I not found a diverse message board for a now defunct comedy site, I would never have met the love of my life, and my partner for over twelve years. My online social life has been as much of an emotional rollercoaster as anyone’s social life in the “real” world. I’ve been on the inside, and on the outside of circles. I’ve made friends, and made enemies. I’ve broken hearts, and had my heart broken. That most of these interactions occurred through a screen does not make them any less real, and any less emotional. Most, of course, because these online social interactions formed the bridge to real world socializing, bypassing the screaming monster in my head that worries if the other human beings will eat me alive.
This is what critics who decry online social interaction miss. They operate from the assumption that extroversion is the only correct way to be, that social anxiety either doesn’t exist, or can be cured though forced socialization. It’s true that technologically mediated social contact is different from what occurs in “reality,” but for those of us for whom “real” social interaction is fraught with peril, it’s often a lifesaver. More importantly, online social interaction does not preclude “real” interactions. Technology opens up doors for so many of us. Let’s not close them based on some antiquated notion of the “correct” way to interact with each other. To do so closes the door on so many who need that help—myself included.