The changing pandemic value of social skills
There used to be a premium on being socially good when you were around other people and not in your home. And there was a corresponding social cost on those people who stayed in and were not as socially proficient in groups. Partly the cost was in the size and quality of your network, partly relationship quality (matching problems bedevil the awkward introvert), and partly in status: these are the people more likely to be labelled 'basic' by the rest of their group.
These people (without socialising skills) are more overlooked and less well understood. Categorisation diminished them. Being 'basic' means you cannot be much else. The matching problem exacerbates this.
Of course, the internet massively reduced many of these costs and enables all sorts of otherwise unfeasible interactions. But it was especially good at connecting these people with others like them, and then at incorporating them into the mainstream. Why do you think all those social media accounts show everyone prospering in similar ways?
The irony is that there are still many people out there who have something to offer that is being overlooked. Not because they are overlooked, but because at some margins the internet enabled them to be noticed because they could fit in a bit more. The real social power balance was still in favour of the outward bound.
The mistake was thinking that public socialising was a higher-grade substitute for introvert-at-home socialising. In some ways that's right, but at many margins the second kind is probably the better product.
Well, now we are all obliged to stay at home, how will the dynamic shift?
First up, the matching problem will start to ameliorate (more than it already has) simply because people will have fewer options. Boredom makes grandpa's stories worth listening to. Old people always do well out of power cuts because people finally get round to paying attention to them.
Second, we will discover what good social skills really are. People who talk too much will no longer have a trapped audience. In a bar you are tied down to finish your drink, maybe go on to the next activity, maybe not leave too soon because it looks rude. Maybe you simply cannot find a way of telling someone to shut up. Online, that problem is much simpler. You just tell them you g2g or that someone is at the door or whatever.
Third, as people start working their lives differently they will work their networks differently. People who turn up are always more valuable. If that's online it has different connotations. Talking about your problems, having something interesting to say, being able to alleviate the boredom, these are different skills to holding or perhaps dominating a room.
Fourth, being funny on chat is not the same as telling long stories to a group. The skills base is different. Offering up interesting conversation is much easier online than in a crowd when you are the basic one.
Fifth, just as the elderly will get more calls (as they ought to anyway) so I suspect people will become more charitable towards their contacts who they might otherwise see as socially irritating. This will enable them to find new ways of appreciating those people.
Overall, I am hopeful that this will have a positive impact on the way we think about who is a good person to know and like. The bad side of the new 'Netflix' culture is that big-screen movies are going out of fashion. The good side is that, when we're all on lockdown, bullshit artists may start to face a similar lack of demand.
If you are looking for examples of this already happening, try the sudden surge of interest in epidemiologists on Twitter. No-one knew what that was a month ago. Now, everyone thinks they are fascinating. The reasons for that are obvious, and they are benefitting from a big marginal gain. For many people the reasons will take longer to filter out and the gains will be less significant, but perhaps not to them personally.
If you think of life as a big arcade game constantly riddling and resorting us all until we are appropriately matched and have reached our level (until the machine starts-up again), this is potentially the best thing that could happen to some people who were poorly matched before, especially because all of the infrastructure of the internet, social apps, chat tech etc is already in place and well established among users.
As I said in a previous post about decadence and the Alchian-Allen theorum: 'There is so much to be gained by simply sitting at your screen and surfing, exploring the cultural niches of YouTube or learning Game Theory online or simply playing videos games. We haven't yet realised that our minds are the new frontier. And therefore the returns to any sort of physical world accomplishments are much diminished.'
Welcome to your moment, infovores. Now use it well. Most people cannot contribute much of significance to the pandemic situation scientifically or for policy. But there is much else to be done. All sorts of things that seemed irrelevant will now become more interesting and more used. As sententiae antiquae said on Twitter recently: 'Some people have hassled me about buying that complete Oxford English Dictionary, but now that we will all be at home for a while, it looks like it was a prudent investment.'
Get a jump on this new dynamic and be in touch with people who will now be more receptive to hear from you. Spread the word about the necessary precautions.
Start doing what you can to keep people occupied while they are in their homes. Share something interesting.
If you could anticipate a rise in the stock market, you would invest. Do the same with a rise in your own status. Double-down on what you have to offer, not what the world wants from you. People will discover they are good in this crisis. Being good in any old crisis is one thing, but this time is different.
Maybe you are the sort of person who can get everyone else you know finally interested in niche films they could make a list of and watch at home. Perhaps you can create social accounts that will engage people in these new conditions. Is this the time when you get round to making your podcast or YouTube channel? Can I recommend starting a blog?
The office presents many opportunities for the nerdy and the well-informed, in whatever sphere, to be of help to their colleagues when none was previously needed. Without the high-cost of having to go somewhere and talk to someone, what else might you say to your colleagues. Gratitude is easier to send in writing than to say. So send it.
Curating the mass of entertainment time people now face is a challenge we need introverts and infovores to help us with. What are the best documentaries on YouTube? How can I learn Finnish? Is this how I baste a chicken? We have been making our own bread for years and recently the shelves are empty of flour. People might suddenly not be so bored when I talk about that.
Your contribution might be as simple as reviving the art of the telephone call for some of your relatives and acquaintances. Perhaps they are finally open to hearing about the wisdom of philosophy. You might be surprised how much more receptive to supposedly arcane ideas people are in a crisis. Sending music videos on WhatsApp is another good one. Sharing art you enjoy is another.
In short, you are better at entertaining yourself at home, so help others with that. You are also better at finding good information. Send it to people. Get them in front of reliable sources.
I expect we will see a rise in non-GDP-measured digital activity and value creation. Be part of it. Send those newsletters. Share your creativity. You might not be able to find a vaccine or change public health policy, but there are going to be a million other niches where valuable work can be done. There are margins everywhere and 'the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.'