I Want to Be Alone and Online: Introverts and Social Networks

When I was teaching college composition courses, the text I used included an essay lamenting that Facebook “friends” were replacing real-life relationships with actual friends. I honestly can’t recall the essay because in the intervening time I’ve read so many words about how social media are turning us all into distracted, shallow, disconnected drones. I began thinking about this again when I read a critique of Noam Chomsky on the blog Cyborgology.  There, Nathan Jurgenson takes up the split between specialist-controlled media such as broadcast TV and book publishing and open, user-generated content on Twitter and other networks. I see something unrelated but interesting in this story that I want to address. Chomsky had stated that social media’s limitations force human interactions to become “more superficial, shallow, evanescent.” Inherent in this critique, which Chomsky is not the first to voice, is that face-to-face interaction must be more substantive, more rich, indeed even more real than digitally mediated relationships. For the record, my students really didn’t buy any of these arguments. To them it would be like saying relationships conducted over the phone are more shallow because we’re losing the exchange of cartes de visite.

The problem I see here is an assumption that one mode of interaction is more authentic than another. What is the difference between a conversation that takes place in person and one that takes place over Gchat? For me, and other introverts like me, the difference is that face-to-face interactions can often be tiring, stressful or dull, while a digital interaction allows the user greater control over the length and depth of the conversation. But before I delve too deeply into this distinction, I’d like to address the issue of introversion and its place in our social hierarchy.

Shy, Snobby, Cold and Lonely

What is an introvert? When I first read Anneli Rufus’ book Party of One I became an evangelist for it. Until then, I had partially believed that society was right about me; I must be shy, stuck-up or lonely. Only, I never felt lonely when I was by myself, while I often held a lingering feeling of disconnection in a roomful of others.  If the right topic came up, I didn’t hesitate to jump into the conversation. Introverts, as Rufus described them, were people who have limited need to engage in social exchanges. Extroverts may find themselves exhilarated by spending hours at a party. An introvert in that environment will feel like a drained battery at the end of the night. Introverts need time alone to restore a sense of psychic equilibrium. Introverts get bored by small talk. Introverts would love to talk to you about a favorite book or idea or a pet project, but will find their thoughts drifting if the conversation hovers around gossip, or name-dropping. Introverts are often highly imaginative, but not very outwardly responsive or emotionally expressive.  In short, introverts are loners. In the media, introverts are portrayed as cold, damaged, or sick. Consider the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: abused into a sullen, silent rage. She was hurt so much that now she hates everyone, and that’s why she won’t put you at ease with talk about the weather.

As Rufus did so well in Party of One, I want to dissociate the introverted from the lonely. Introverts often have full inner lives. It is this internal space that the introvert prefers to inhabit. The presence of others impedes the introvert’s pursuit of her own fascinations. As a loner, the introvert finds solace and peace in being alone. The shy or lonely person may not be a loner at all. The shy person is afraid of looking foolish in front of the people whose approval he seeks. The lonely person wants those human connections, but may have difficulty forging bonds with others. The last thing the lonely person sees in their solitude is comfort. While often unconcerned about social status, loners do tend to have a small number of very close friends. These friendships often revolve around shared interests. Introverts do like to talk, if you are willing to engage with them and their interests. Introverts are geeky like that. They love conversations that contain knowledge.

Many pixels have been spilled by introverts. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, for people who like to be left alone, we feel a need to explain ourselves; to make sure we are known, even if only to dispel common misconceptions. You won’t find as much information on what’s it’s like to be an extrovert because a)most people are extroverted, hence the definition of extroversion for extroverts is simply “normal” and b)introverts spend more time in contemplation. Extroverts are too busy planning parties or carpools or box socials to spend hours contemplating and decoding their own ways. Society privileges the extroverted overall, and in certain spheres, the extrovert is the persona all must wear to succeed. When I did some online searching for this piece, I found that there is now a wealth of sources to guide the introvert through the minefield of career networking. Clearly, being an introvert at work is a problem in need of remedy.

“Smile, baby”

Socially, extroverts have a privilege over introverts. How could it be otherwise? I semi-facetiously wrote above that extroverts are too busy networking to explain extroversion. There is a power dynamic in play here. It’s no coincidence that introverts have produced a body of literature explaining their perspective while there is not a similar phenomenon among extroverts. Socially, introverts occupy a subordinate position and as such feel compelled to attempt explanation or justifications in the hope of altering the behavior of the privileged class. The notion that “if only you knew what it was like, you might treat me differently” pervades introvert apologias such as the well-circulated “Caring for your Introvert.” It is up to the introvert to conform to the behaviors that make others around her more comfortable. (Oh, and as a separate topic that I’m also working up a head of steam on, the gods help you if you’re an introverted woman. If the subtitle above made you break out in Hulk rage, you know what I mean.) The introvert is the recipient of much advice on how to camouflage oneself as an extrovert. The sort of relationships introverts have, in which exchanges of knowledge or other mental pursuits take the place of emotional bonding, are seen as distant and insubstantial to others.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Net.Goth

As a youth with internet access in the 90s, I found an outlet for interests that people in my geographic region did not share. My former students will likely never know what it was like to be strictly limited to your block or your neighborhood for companionship. If you had some obscure interest, your best bet before the internet was to join a fan club or have a pen pal. This type of communication was slow and laborious. The internet allowed me to talk to people that I never would have met otherwise. The mediation of the computer has a further advantage for introverts; it allows us to express ourselves in a medium through which we are more relaxed and articulate. I don’t normally use half this many words in an average day. The people I talked to online were people who were interested in the same music or comic book or whatever nerdy interest we were on the BBS to discuss. These were exchanges of knowledge and substance for me, even though I often wouldn’t know the other participant’s full name. I still have a copy of Neuromancer that some college kid in Alabama sent me after we exchanged messages on an industrial music BBS. Trent Reznor (or someone impersonating him) sent me a VHS of the banned “Happiness in Slavery” video. A woman on usenet introduced me to the works of Angela Carter–who became my favorite writer. My point is that these experiences could not have happened if it weren’t for socializing over the internet. I discovered an entire world of possibility when I visited alt.gothic. The internet was a major factor in the development and spread of gothic culture in the United States. Goths, who were already often geeks of one sort or another, used their incipient social networks to spread fashions, distribute zines or send unavailable items to one another. Memes were passed around and elaborated upon, such as alt.gothic.fashion’s cryptic, collaborative Gundy saga–which I never really could comprehend. I recall a shirt with the logo: “Net.Goth: Give me money, give me sex, give me [??] and net access” the slogan a modified version of a lyric from the Virgin Prunes song “Baby Turns Blue.”As a kid in a small town who had an interest in this stuff, it was like finding the proverbial oasis in the desert to find people who would share their knowledge with me. I didn’t care that I’d never meet them in person.

Let’s be “Friends”

I use Facebook, Twitter and other sites because I do want to talk to people about ideas, share things I’ve read; see what others are reading too. I also get to control who I expend my social energy on. But more importantly for me, the relationships I engage in through social media tend to be exchanges of ideas rather than pleasantries. I suspect this may be why Chomsky and others view online social lives as “shallow.” The connections tend to be one track and perhaps a bit compartmentalized, but this is exactly how the loner forms connections in the first place. These relationships are not about emotions or shared experiences as much as they are about shared mental space. Intellectual stimulation feeds the introvert. The characterization of online relationships as “shallow” assumes that without extrovert-style interaction—the human conversational churning and unstructured facetime that is labor for the introvert—relationships have no substance.

I am well aware that lots of people use the internet for exactly the sort of boring verbal sleepwalking that I mentioned above. I can’t make any claims about the vast majority of internet users. When I see another article claiming that virtual relationships are not authentic enough, not of any substance, making us shallow, I wonder how these people define a relationship. What, exactly, am I supposed to be sharing in order to legitimize my relationships? I also know that my interactions with people I’ve known for years would likely look quite this way from the outside, though they add more to my life than any box social ever could.

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4 Responses to “I Want to Be Alone and Online: Introverts and Social Networks”

  1. It definitely depends on the type of person you are and what type of person you’re friends with. I have friends who only use Facebook to post pictures of their kids but they have full day-to-day lives. Then I have friends who like to be online a lot. Sharing basic ideas, books, movies, etc is just so dang convenient. It makes it more authentic to a degree. Just knowing someone and chatting about this and that doesn’t mean you have a deep connection to them. Online eliminates that facade and lets you know what the person is like.

    • I often have tons of stuff I store up, like “Oh I should tell X about this funny thing I saw,” but once I have X on the phone or at lunch, I forget them all and make lame conversation.

  2. Awesome. And I love that I can just be direct and to the point with you. Bullshit is exhaustive.

  3. I work in a corporate office by day and the amount of small talk I have to make is exhausting. I play it off like I’m “shy” but really…I don’t really care about your kids. But if someone offers any nugget like “I saw ‘Inception’ this weekend and didn’t get it” THEN I can draw out a proper conversation.

    I do feel like a freak tho because I work with a long time friend of mine who is good at navigating the extroversion of the office and we are both goth rock gals. But I am the one that has the sardonic remarks and doesn’t smile and won’t put up with people’s crap.

    So THANK you for this.

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