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 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.

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

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