Social Phobia in the Online World

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 8 December 2013 |

Most people who have profound ‘social anxiety’ will be well aware of how they should expect to be affected in the offline world. Refusal to answer the door (even to people you like), refusal to answer the phone (even to people you like), absolute aversion to starting conversations without being literally forced to do so (even with people you like), the privacy obsessions, the feeling that solitude in a damp room is a greater luxury than a first class world cruise… If I hadn’t experienced any of this myself, I’d probably say it was a nightmare, but in practice, in itself, it isn’t. I actually couldn’t care less that I don’t want to see or speak to people, unless someone or something is forcing me to do it. Then it falls under the heading of: “deal with it” – and I do. Take away the pressure and necessity to meet or communicate with people, though, and I never would – and I wouldn’t be the remotest bit bothered.

You don’t, as someone with social reluctance, hate the fact that you’re unsociable. You hate the rest of the world for constantly trying to “cure” you and expecting you to be like them. You don’t need to be cured – there’s nothing wrong with you. It’s only an anxiety because society relentlessly tries to force you to do stuff you’re not comfortable doing, and because you’re part of a minority group whom people overwhelmingly fail to recognise, and because people get offended when you don’t want to meet them. The issue itself isn’t a problem – not wanting to meet or talk to people feels natural. The fall-out and consequences, however, can be horrendous.

In a world which invariably tries to 'treat' rather than accommodate social reluctance, needless to say, becoming an achiever, when you're someone who hates social interactions, is virtually impossible.


So what happens when you move this model of social reluctance online? Well, in basic terms, not a lot. Talking to people on the Internet is similar to talking to them in the offline world. Of course, you don’t see them, and they don’t see you, but whilst some people might imagine that takes away a lot of the reluctance (reluctance is a more accurate reference than ‘fear’ or ‘anxiety’ I think), it can actually make things worse.

On the Internet, you have less control over how people take your remarks, so it’s much easier to be misinterpreted than it is offline. That creates extra reluctance. There’s also typically a delay in getting a response online, which doesn’t exist when you’re communicating face to face or by phone. That delay, if you have low self-esteem and are hyper-sensitive to criticism or other social pitfalls, can be agony, because as the minutes or hours pass, you have more time to consider what sort of adverse reactions might greet you. You don’t know if people have read your message and ignored it, or simply not seen it, and there are many other ‘don’t knows’ to contend with online.

There are issues with dignity too. Some of the things which, in a face-to-face environment, will be offered as part of a conversation, more usually have to be asked for online. That’s because on the Web, people don’t experience the same awkwardness and/or feel rude when they don’t respond. If I gave something away for free to a neighbour, they’d almost inevitably thank me, and in many cases they’d probably offer me something as a reciprocal gesture. You’re face to face – people feel rude if they don’t reciprocate. But if I gave something away on the Internet, 9 out of 10 people (at least) would take it without even identifying themselves – let alone saying thank you.

So online, you find people a lot more brazen and brash in asking for praise, Facebook Likes and what have you. Sometimes they're begging you to Like their page before you've even seen what they're supposed to have done. It looks outrageously conceited, and extremely undignified. But when everyone else is going round begging people to like them, and that results in a huge boost to their actual level of achievement, what do you do? Well, you either join in, or you under-achieve. If you’re someone with a mindset of social reluctance, you won’t want the indignity, so you won’t join in, and therefore the only realistic outcome is under-achievement.


It would have been nice to think that the Internet could circumvent some of the problems people with social reluctances have to contend with in non-virtual settings. But it doesn’t. It’s just as uncomfortable Tweeting or emailing someone as it is approaching them and starting a conversation in the street. If you’re unsociable offline, you’re going to be unsociable online. And as the social aspects of the Web become more and more dominant in deciding who achieves and who doesn’t, if you’re unsociable online, the chances of realising your potential are going to be very, very remote.

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