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!