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.