Two Introverts On The Internet

Paul Fidalgo wonders about the relationship between extroversion and the disconnectionists, the label he borrows from Nathan Jurgenson for those who advocate periods of disconnection from the Internet. Like Jurgenson, Fidalgo is annoyed by what he takes to be the self-righteous tone of the disconnectionists, but he also links his complaint to the opportunities for expression the Internet offers introverts like himself:

Online I’ve found a taste of liberation. Not only do I feel more free to expound upon all manner of subjects, to make dumb jokes, and to promote myself with a sincerity I could never muster in meatspace, but perhaps more importantly, I more often feel at ease in simply explaining things about myself as a person, to talk about my kids and my day-to-day life, to unpack some of the mundane stuff as well as the heavier things. Behind the screen, at the keyboard, at the flick of the scrolling display, even in the midst of the cacophony of the Internet, I can communicate without so much of the same noise within my own mind, where each synapse second-guesses the next.

I can relate to Fidalgo’s introversion, and I can understand where Fidalgo’s is coming from when he raises the following possibility in his conclusion:

I’d be curious to know whether many or most of the folks who espouse disconnection are extroverts, if they are biased by their own inclination toward revitalization through in-person human contact, all within a “real world” already largely constructed around extroverted predilections. If I’m on to something, well then of course they see the online life as valueless, or as phony. It doesn’t serve their own needs. But for me, and I suspect for my kind, the Web is the means of expression, the gateway into general society, that we’ve been waiting for. We’re damn lucky it came about it our lifetimes, and you better believe that for us, it’s real life.

Well, I can offer myself to Fidalgo as one point of anecdotal evidence: I espouse certain forms of disconnection, and I am decidedly not an extrovert. Without calling Fidalgo’s experience into question, I’ve sometimes felt that my disconnectionist impulses stemmed in part from my own introversion. I’ve also linked my inability to be at ease on Twitter directly to my introversion. That is to say, I sometimes find using Twitter to be as draining an experience as navigating a crowded and unfamiliar social setting.

Again, this is not to discount or challenge Fidalgo’s experience; it’s only to offer a contrasting one.

Perhaps talk of introversion and extroversion, conceptually fuzzy categories to begin with is not the only or best way of describing whatever dynamic is at play here. Zeynep Tufekci , for instance, invites us to consider the possibility of a condition she calls cyberasociality:

It remains a possibility that there are people for whom text is unable to evoke the same deep reaction embodied physically co-present interaction arouses. Such an inability, or an unwillingness, could be seen akin to another modern ailment, that of dyslexia (Wolf, 2007). The ability to convert alphabetical symbols to words, and then to seamlessly convert those words into meanings, is one of the more remarkable feats of the human brain and is mastered by most who are given persistent and competent instruction. However, for some segment of the population, this leap may remain unattainable and pose great difficulty even though the person in question may not suffer from any other disadvantage such as technological incompetence or inability or fear of using computers for instrumental purposes.

Whatever causes dyslexia, it would not have been detectable in a pre-literate population as among such people, words are always and only just sounds. In fact, linguists often caution against our tendency to equate words with letters and remind us that language is primarily aural and the transition to visual language is a late development. (Ong, 2004). Dyslexia emerges as a disadvantage only as a society incorporates the ease of use of the written word into the expected competencies into its portfolio, similarly, the increasing incorporation of online-sociality may expose a segment of the population that is similarly disadvantaged from being able to use these technologies as effectively as others.

Thus, conceptually, I propose a modern condition, named cyberasociality, which represents the possibility that some segment of the population remain unable or unwilling to relate to others via social media as they do when physically-present; and that this is not necessarily related to their general levels of sociality or to their competence with or use of computers or similar digital devices.

It seems to me that Tufekci is on to something important. In any case, I’m not sure why we would privilege either connection or disconnection in abstraction. Decisions about Internet use should be responsive to any number of shifting internal and external variables. While negotiating digital culture, it seems best to keep all options on the table, including the practice of disconnection … sans self-righteousness, of course.

13 thoughts on “Two Introverts On The Internet

  1. “Meat space” :)

    I suppose I would be one of those introverts who finds the internet to be a place of freedom and expression. For one thing, I find that in ‘meat space,’ people rarely ask about myself–but somewhere just shy of a hundred people would read about my foibles if I blog about them. Here I can get a word in edgewise.

  2. I would also put myself forward as an introvert with disconnectionist inclinations. (Although I have once described myself as an introvert who learned to be an extrovert.)

    In the comment above, geralynwichers refers to the experience of blogging, whereas Michael refers to the experience of using Twitter. I agree that Twitter does require one’s more extrovert style skills to be involved with the interaction. I haven’t used Facebook in awhile, but when I did, that also felt like it required a largely extroverted interaction style.

    I also find the term ‘meatspace’ to be fascinating. Its quite a sad view of the human body to see it only in terms of meat; a real disrespect for all of biology, in fact. Jurgenson’s essay adds ‘blood’ to this rhetoric of bodies as meat:

    ‘The smartphone is a machine, but it is still deeply part of a network of blood; an embodied, intimate, fleshy portal that penetrates into one’s mind, into endless information, into other people.’

    We could add lymph, bones, and cell membranes, and maybe we’d start getting somewhere…

    In any case, blogging and Twitter are different forms of communication with different pros and cons, challenges and benefits. We might also bring in the recent cyborgologist post by Jenny Davis on the telephone:
    I find it strange that she judges this medium of communication so harshly. Personally, I find it a very useful medium, though certainly stressful in some circumstances.

    1. Boaz,

      You raised a couple of good points here. First, “meatspace” (and similar terms) are terribly derisive of the human body. That kind of language is particularly prevalent among the trans/post-humanists, who of course seem to have nothing but contempt for the body. Second, rather than considering “the Internet,” it would be more interesting to look at how particular platforms are more or less hospitable to introverts or extroverts, etc. Also, at issue might be distinguishing shyness, social anxiety, etc. from introversion/extroversion. Overlapping categories, perhaps, but slightly different. And, as Davis’ post points out, this sort of question can be just as easily applied to other communication media. I wouldn’t hesitate, though, as she does to identify face-to-face as the “gold standard.” Perhaps “gold standard” is too loaded a term, we might just say it is the baseline of human communication.

      1. Thanks Michael. I agree that there are many good reasons to privilege face to face communication over other mediated forms.
        Regarding the technology of phones, I recently read this 2011 post of yours:
        and I appreciated having some of the positive social sides of landlines brought to the foreground.

        I was thinking of your use of the term “platform” in your response above. In comparing it to the technology of a landline, what is clear is that one doesn’t really think of a landline telephone as a platform. Texting is another technology that we don’t really think of as a platform. It feels like a more direct communication, and we don’t think of archiving our texts so much. I think what I miss as people move away from using direct voice based communication (landline, or even cell phone calls) is this style of communication that is not a platform.

        If we are really to continue to think of the whole “digital dualism” vs. “augmented reality” thing, then the platform style communication seems to be more in the digital dualism side of things. Even if your profile and collection of text and images on some platform reflects a single person and not multiple selves, it is still much heavier and time consuming than the simpler and more direct modes of communication like text messaging, telephone, etc. The term “platform” suggests an arena of interaction that exists outside of the space and time of the individual users.

        1. I suspect some might want to use “platform” to designate all of these types of communication tools, but I definitely see the distinction that you’re making. This reminds me a bit of McLuhan’s hot/cool media distinction. If I remember correctly, telephone conversations are classified as cool media because they require a lot of participation from those involved. Transposing this onto the introvert/extrovert discussion, I can see how someone who is more introverted might opt out of a phone conversation when possible since it requires more participation, more social energy, than say a text. Twitter is a cool medium too because of how much participation it requires of users, particularly in terms of making sense of the communication involved, given the minimal context and cues that it affords.

          By the way, glad you appreciated that land line post from a couple of years ago. It’s one of those posts that I rather liked but that never got much attention.

          1. I hadn’t heard that about McCluhan’s hot/cool media distinction. It does seem to describe an important element of different media.

            It seems like Fidalgo has found a balance in life that works for him. He describes his use of the internet as a means of expression and reflection on his “kids and my day-to-day life”. Although he uses the term “meatspace” as we mentioned, obviously he can’t think too much in those terms if he is to successfully navigate family relationships and many other things in his local life.

            For myself, my internet use seems unhealthy when I perceive a lack in my day to day life, (by which I mean mostly local interactions, but not necessarily) and that it is in some way filling in a hole and not addressing the lack. And when the thoughtful interactions one can have (for example by reading and writing on a blog like yours!) start to give way to more thoughtless and trivial interactions (maybe more likely on Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook, though certainly not always), then one starts to feel that one’s time is probably better spent away from the screen. And one can resent the smallness of the worlds that the internet platforms can bring one to.

            I guess what I’m saying is that I think there are elements to Fidalgo’s life that make his internet use less problematic for him. He describes his non-internet connected interactions as meatspace or physical space, but I suppose this is a quite crude description of quite a lot that he takes for granted, though obviously I’d have to know him better to know this for sure. So, from my experience, I’d say that different internet platforms give introverts some great tools to communicate with others and to interact with the world. But the power of those tools, and the fact that they are bundled together within one’s software environment with many other less healthy tools (or even less healthy aspects of the same tools) means that the internet also has its dangers for introverts, and reducing use may thus often be important.

  3. In my experience, online profiles tend to reflect their realisic counterparts. I.e., the most popular people I know, who are extroverted and socially capable, are also the people who are more “visible” online with more Facebook friends, twitter followers, etc. But that’s only a small glimpse into what’s going on.

    1. This is a good point, the same reticence that I exhibit offline, I exhibit online as well. In the early days of the web, I think there was an assumption that everyone would go off and be this radically different sort of person online. Turkle’s “Life On the Screen” deals with these sorts of cases. And maybe there would be more of it now if it weren’t for the personalization of the web. In any case, that isn’t my experience.

  4. I am an introvert by nature. However, as a CEO of a company, I had to be more extroverted at least in the beginning stages. But since I now have employees that have better personalities, I can go back to being the full introvert. A lot of people think introverts are anti-social and nothing could be farther from the truth. We do like our space. We prefer small circle of friends. We tend to be homebodies. Susan Cain has a great TED Talk and book about this very subject.

    I will concur Fidalgo about the internet feeling as a place of liberation. I like social gatherings but the internet is something that I can participate in at my own leisure. Even as introverts, we have to step away from the internet after a while because for most of us it is akin to being among people face to face.

    1. Indeed, I think both introvert and extrovert tend to be used to refer to a variety of different traits or qualities. I’ve heard Susan Cain give a couple of interviews, and I appreciated her perspective. I’ll have to look up that TED talk.

  5. I find this to be an interesting discussion, and as a self-diagnosed introvert, I’ll add my two cents. I think it’s important to distinguish between the different types of technological connection. I believe blogging is different from other social media sites and feel that blogging can be a boon for introverts who otherwise might not get heard in a society that values extrovert tendencies in the arenas of public speaking and social interactions. However, I feel that facebook and twitter and the like are more apt promote some grandstanding personality traits, which most introverts tend to be uncomfortable with. There is also the issue of creating a “personal brand” in which you promote yourself and your life as you would perhaps like to be online as opposed to how it really is. I think introverts tend to be more sensitive to the balance of what feels right for them and what an energetic and emotional drain being connected technologically can sometimes be. I have a teenage daughter who is an extrovert, and observing her, I can’t figure out if it is her extroversion or just the social norms of her generation in general that cause her to feel the need to be constantly technologically connected. I do worry about her and her generation though, as sometimes it seems that they are so busy documenting their lives for others to see/hear, I wonder if they are actually living them; I’m not so sure that a life well documented is a life well lived.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. The distinctions you drew between blogging and other forms of social media ring true in my own experience. I feel more at home on this site than I do on FB or Twitter. A few comments up I mentioned Marshall McLuhan’s discussion of hot/cold media with reference to the degree of participation required from the communicator. I’ve been thinking of expanding on that in some future post; I think it helps account for what we’re sensing about these various platforms. Love the closing line, too.

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