Introverts and the Internet

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the global mind in a way that changes the meaning of “alone” and makes true solitude impossible unless we turn off our smartphones—and who has the courage to do that?

Turkle is worried about the effects of ubiquitous networking on the developing personalities of young people. But as I soon discerned, her book doesn’t really dwell on personality types like extroversion and introversion, or how the Internet may abet or soften them.

There are, to be sure, telling passages that made me wince with self-recognition. “Being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption, on your screen,” Turkle writes. That’s certainly how I feel much of the time. And it echoes something in Quiet: Cain spoke with Jerome Kagan, the renowned developmental psychologist at Harvard, who theorizes that introverts are “high-reactives” who feel stimuli more acutely. “He notes,” Cain writes, “that many high-reactives become writers or pick other intellectual vocations where ‘you’re in charge: you close the door, pull down the shades, and do your work. You’re protected from encountering unexpected things.’” Again, that’s me.

But I was back at square one. I saw that if I wanted to know whether I’m using my Internet devices as a way to minimize face-to-face interactions, or whether, in fact, they provide some needed balance in my life, keeping me more connected than I would be otherwise, I was going to have to figure it out on my own. (As usual.)

Here’s what I think so far. While extroversion and introversion have been defined in many ways, the key thing, to me, is this: extroverts find social situations energizing, while introverts find them draining. If I spend n hours hanging out with people, even people I love, I generally need to spend n+1 hours recharging alone before I feel balanced again.

It’s not that I dislike being with other people—on the contrary, I find that going out and doing an interview or meeting someone for coffee can be the perfect way to spice up an otherwise blah day. It’s just that these situations are so stimulating to my “high-reactive” brain, to use Kagan’s term, that I only need them in small doses.

And being on the Internet, in my experience, is not like real socializing. I’ve read accounts by people who feel that the Net is one big Extroverts’ Ball—“social media drains me like a large party might,” journalist and blogger Joanne McNeil wrote in 2010—but it has never affected me that way. The time I spend connected to my devices is not time that I must make up later by disconnecting. If it were, I think I really would have left my iPhone and iPad behind last weekend. (Well, not my iPad, since I was using it to read the Kindle edition of Quiet.)

Rather, I think my devices let me share my alone time, in a controlled, metered way. It’s fashionable to disparage Facebook as a privacy-devouring swamp of superficiality. But I actually like it—and its quieter cousin, Path—because they let me broadcast what I’m up to, and find out what my friends are up to, in short bursts that don’t necessitate a complete shift in focus. I can keep doing my work, and be part of the larger world.

Of course, this pattern, taken to its extreme, is part of what alarms Turkle. “When we Tweet or write to hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends as a group, we treat individuals as a unit,” she writes. “Friends become fans.”

True enough. But I make a point of connecting with my real friends in a genuine way as often as I can (though perhaps not often enough). And when I do that, I notice something interesting: because we’ve been following each other on social media, we don’t need to spend a lot of time “catching up.” We’re already aware of one another’s day-to-day activities and gripes and worries, and we can dive right into the real stuff of friendship.

“You know, I think you are very social,” one of my friends commented on Facebook after I announced my retreat to Yountville. And he’s right. But he only sees me in person when I’m making a point of being social. The rest of the time, I’m “alone together,” and I think that’s the way I like it. I’m no hermit, but the Internet lets me regulate my encounters with other people, who can continue to be as extroverted as they like without costing me any psychic energy. Which seems like a good compromise to me.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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5 responses to “Introverts and the Internet”

  1. I once had a telling experience related to this topic. I was working on a pretty dysfunctional team mostly composed of Extroverts. The President of the company (our boss) had us all do a two day retreat to try and coalesce. The prep work included some pretty rigorous analysis to determine our Meyers-Briggs profiles. I tested out as an E (extrovert) NTJ. But the people doing the testing had been working a lot with this team, and me, and they refuted the outcome saying, “We find a lot of I (introvert) women in business take on E (extrovert) behaviors to be successful at work. Those behaviors become so routine that you no longer behave the way you prefer or would naturally do.” And they told me…”You are definitely an ‘I’.” We went into the retreat with this new self-awareness about our profiles and it was extremely helpful and the richest conversations were around the differences between Extroverts and Introverts. We actually became a much better team. Not perfect, and not the best team I have been on, but much better.

    Since then, my motto is “fellow introverts unite!” Thanks for sharing your own introspective journey. It made PERFECT sense to me. I’m actually sitting in a sunny reading nook on Nantucket relating very directly to your weekend holiday! In fact, this is where I first met you Wade…it comes full circle.

    • Wade Roush says:

      Jules — I am so happy to hear that my article was on your Nantucket weekend reading list! Full circle indeed — I really enjoyed that Nantucket Conference back in 2009.

      Your experience is really interesting. Do you remain comfortable with the idea that you are an “I” at heart? Have you evolved non-stressful ways of being an “E” when you need to? (“Quiet” is useful partly because it has some good tips on that.)

      I think it’s a really good idea for work teams to go through the Myers-Briggs profiling process. For one thing it helps you make sure that every project team includes a balance of I’s and E’s, It also equips you to be more patient with your teammates when don’t perform exactly the way you’d expect or like.

      • I am totally comfortable with being an “I” at heart but it is important to me that my company co-founder is an “E”. It is powerful for team development and diversity. (ie. we know how to recognize and support both profile types.) I don’t find it stressful to behave as an “E” at times as long as I get to balance it out with “I” time. (Just like you wrote about yourself.) So, speaking publicly, pitching to a group, leading meetings etc. take a lot out of me, but when they go well I can get some of the same energy that a true “E” would derive. But if I have an endless diet of that activity I feel assaulted.

        It is funny you ask about this as I have been thinking that I need to pro-actively carve out “I” time on my calendar for reading, writing, planning. I have been letting people independently see and schedule into my Google Calendar and it it is starting to become an issue of “E/I” balance. I also have to be careful how many nighttime weekday events I do as they tend to be of the speaking variety and they can take a lot out of me. It try to do no more than two a week. One is better.

        • Wade Roush says:

          Jules, I’m just like you,”E” when necessary for short periods, such as the big public events that Xconomy produces. But I could never let anyone fiddle with my calendar. I have enough trouble limiting my commitments as it is.

  2. Michelle says:

    Thanks for this Wade. I was pondering this very subject myself yesterday after listening to Susan Cain’s TED talk and here you are discussing it!