A long time ago, when the world was young, the Internet was touted as a cure for social isolation. Geeks living in basements constructed entirely out of 12-sided dice could finally interact with others, unhindered by the shame-sweat collecting in their untrimmed beards. Clearly, this has happened for some people. But the Internet, particularly newer forms of social media, has also created a whole new crop of issues for the socially artless among us. For those of us who start every day with a hit in the face from the Awkwardness Crowbar, even face-to-face interaction is easy compared to ...
Only a few years after Facebook found its way into the Internet's inner tubes, it started to catch on among older, less Internet-savvy people. One minute, it was dominated by college students; the next, your grandmother was trying to place a Cracker Barrel phone order on your wall. And mostly this has been a good thing: If it means less time spent in awkward silence during family phone calls, I'll gladly have every single one of my relatives on Facebook, even the ones who constantly post memes implying that everyone who doesn't share their badly sourced photo is somehow in favor of child abuse.
"If I don't share this with my friends, how will they know where I stand on the controversial topic of animal torture?"
But the influx of relatives, family friends, and old Sunday school teachers has also created a type of social situation not seen since mankind invented the door. Every single person you've ever known is now hanging around in the Internet equivalent of one big, open room, able to interact freely not just with you, but also with each other. Your life has basically become the plot of a British romantic comedy set at a hilariously mismatched wedding.
Sure, you can put filters on your status updates so that only a small group of your Facebook friends will be able to see your links to your erotic Frozen fan art page or whatever, but intra-Facebook strife can arise from status updates that seem completely innocent and uncontroversial, and yet nevertheless turn into a war between your elderly relatives, that one friend who answers everything in old memes, and your cousin who is an MRA.
The issue here isn't that people are yelling at each other online; if that in itself was a problem, the human race would have had no choice by now but to cleanse the planet with fire. It's that these stupid online fights have real repercussions in your life. Your friend isn't antagonizing a random anonymous person; he's baiting a relative that you're going to have to talk to at your next Thanksgiving dinner, where it's extremely likely that she'll bring up the matter of your awful, disrespectful friends. If you tell him to shut up, you're picking on a friend for the sake of someone you see only once a year. You're forced to participate in this awkward Internet-argument balancing act, all because Facebook has taken all the different elements of your social life and stitched them together into a hideous, shambling corpse that keeps ruining all of your jokes.
You're probably familiar with the typing indicator, the icon in chat programs that lets you know that your conversation partner is mashing out their thoughts on a keyboard. A long time ago, chat programs did not have this little signal: Back then, after you were done typing, you'd just have to stare at the screen and wait, with no clue whether your partner was typing a reply, off drinking coffee, or rubbing their body salaciously against the keyboard. People eventually got tired of this, and nowadays the majority of chat and instant-messaging platforms feature an ellipsis, a moving pencil, or some other sign telling you that the person you're talking to is about to complete a thought.
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Or that they're painstakingly typing out the last "equal" sign in a piece of ASCII penis art.
Obviously, typing indicators have their advantages: You no longer need to wonder whether your chat partner has been shocked into silence by your admission of undying love or has just gotten up to get another taco. But for the socially awkward among us, typing indicators have also introduced us to a whole new landscape of chat-anxiety. As soon as you start writing something, you know the other person can see what you're doing and is waiting for you to speak. If you change your mind and delete what you were typing, they can see you doing it, and now they're wondering what it was you were going to say and oh God now they're judging you.
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"What was I thinking? Twelve equal signs is way too many."
The same awkwardness applies when you're the one watching that stupid little icon. What the hell is the other person taking so long to say? What's up with them typing for 45 seconds and then coming out with a one-word reply? What are they hiding? Is our whole friendship a lie?
If you're one of those weird people who have your life together, I'm sure you reply to all your emails as soon as you get them and never give the issue a second thought. I'm also sure that you cook perfect, healthy meals every night and that your cat never throws up on anything, and also that I hate you.
Look at Ms. "I probably don't even have body lice."
See, for awkward people, replying to emails can go one of two ways. One, we overcome our social anxiety and answer that email from an acquaintance or relative or parole officer or whatever within two minutes of receiving it. Two, we never answer it at all.
This second option isn't deliberate. It's just that answering emails makes us uncomfortable. So we put it off, and in the meantime we'll compose a perfect email response in our heads to send later when we've built up enough courage to interact with someone. Almost inevitably, our brains interpret this fantasy email writing as an actual memory of writing the email, and so the little alarm that would otherwise remind us to write the fucking thing gets turned off. At some point in the future, usually at 3 a.m. in January the next year, we'll remember that we did not reply to that email, but only thought really hard about replying to it. This is followed by several hours of dark-night-of-the-soul anguish about whether answering an email three months after you received it is ruder than not answering it at all.
"In reply to your question of September 2007, why yes, I do like bees. Thank you."
So why not just push away the anxiety and answer all of one's emails right away? Well, it's not that simple. After all, replying to an email immediately means that there's a good chance that the person will write back right away, and then you'll have to answer another email, and before you know it you've been sucked into a hellish quagmire of having entire polite conversations with people you don't know very well, like some kind of well-adjusted person, and next thing you know they'll be expecting you to put pants on.