Introverts and the Internet

If you live in San Francisco, it’s hard to justify traveling anywhere else, since you already have a bed in the postcard-perfect place that 16 million other people go out of their way visit every year. Still, sometimes you just need to get the hell out of Dodge. That’s why I drove up to Napa Valley last weekend and spent Sunday night at the Vintage Inn in Yountville.

This trip wasn’t about vineyard tours or wine tastings or restaurants. I picked the property because I just wanted to read a book, free of interruptions and distractions, and I knew that most of the rooms have a pleasant little window seat looking out on a burbling fountain.

In fact, I had a specific book in mind, and it meshed with my travel plans. It’s called Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Written by Susan Cain, a former corporate lawyer and consultant, the book presents itself as an argument for greater balance between two age-old cultural types: the “man of action” and the “man of contemplation.” In business, politics, and education, Cain says, we too often expect leaders to fit the “Extrovert Ideal,” the Dale Carnegie image of the salesman with a magnetic personality.

I originally bought the book because I wanted to see what Cain had to say about how introverts can also make good leaders, or how we might reshape our very definitions of success (in business or other realms) to better reflect introverts’ strengths and preferences.

And the book has much to offer on those points. As soon I discovered, though, Quiet is actually something more—it’s part of the syndrome, eloquently diagnosed by Boris Kachka in New York Magazine last week, in which all the old publishing categories like business, psychology, and social science are gradually morphing into something closer to self-help. In the same way that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is a paean to being single (at least, until Gilbert gets to Bali and meets her true love), Quiet is bursting with evidence that It’s Okay To Be An Introvert. More than that, Cain liberally sprinkles the book with suggestions that Those Extroverts Might Just Be a Little Too Smug For Their Own Good.

The window seat at The Vintage Inn -- occupied by my dog Rhody (an extrovert when he's not sleeping).

My window seat at The Vintage Inn in Yountville -- occupied by my dog Rhody (an extrovert when he's not sleeping).

But the pep talk was okay with me. Like a lot of loners, I’m a little defensive about my introversion, so I’m not averse to some validation once in a while. In fact, that was probably the real point of giving myself some alone time, in a cozy setting, to read a book about introversion. I wanted to “nourish my inner introvert,” as I put it in a Facebook update.

But here’s the thing: I wasn’t really alone. I took my iPhone and my iPad with me to Yountville, not to mention my extraordinarily outgoing dog. I checked my e-mail and Path and Facebook just about as often as I always do. I posted some photos and replied to some comments. Obviously, I wasn’t feeling so introverted that I didn’t want to share my little holiday with all of my online friends.

So the question I’m left with, having finished the book and returned to San Francisco, is about the interplay between introversion and technology, especially the mobile Internet. While I’m happy being an introvert, I’d like to find the right balance of introversion and extroversion in my life. If I’m letting my gadgets sway me too far in one direction or the other, I’d like to know.

Am I naturally more social than I think, or even less? If I hadn’t taken my communication tools with me last weekend, would I have felt cut off—or, on the contrary, freed? Is the Internet an enabler, giving me leave to take my introversion to unhealthy extremes? Or, viewed the other way around, does it actually keep me tethered to the world while I let the introvert in me get things done? (I do feel, after all, that my introversion is one of the main sources of my productivity.)

Cain doesn’t really address these kinds of questions. In a funny way, her book feels like it’s from the pre-Internet, pre-mobile era. There are a few pages, drawing on Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, that discuss the Internet as a playing field for “Connector” personalities like Craig Newmark, Guy Kawasaki, and Pete Cashmore, all self-professed introverts. And there is a section on the paradox of the open-source software movement, which is the creation of millions of mostly introverted programmers who work separately—yet together—over the Internet.

But that’s about it. While there’s plenty to like about Quiet, I realized I’d have to look elsewhere for insight about the Internet’s role as a facilitator of, or antidote to, my natural introversion.

So I picked up Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology And Less From Each Other, published last year by my friend and former teacher Sherry Turkle. A psychoanalytically trained psychologist at MIT, Turkle has been observing how people use computers, robots, games, and networks for decades. She’s deeply concerned that in the name of convenience, we’ve allowed texting, e-mail, chat rooms, and Web surfing to replace authentic human communication.

Turkle writes of parents so lost in their BlackBerrys that they don’t speak with their children at dinner; of teens so caught up in texting and cultivating their Facebook profiles that they have to make appointments with each other to have real conversations. Her title, Alone Together, evokes the idea that in a networked world, people can be together in the same physical place, but still alone, immersed in their electronic devices. (It’s a common enough sight in the lecture halls and corridors at any technology conference.) But at the same time, Turkle says, we’re all together in cyberspace, tethered to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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