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.