Friday 29 May 2009

The internet: social interaction for introverts?

Following a recommendation from The New Centrist (to whom warm congratulations are due, by the way, on the birth of a junior TNC), I've discovered Jonathan Rauch's website, which collects together the contrarian commentator's contributions to various print and online journals. Apparently the article of his which has prompted the most discussion is one in which Rauch poses this question:

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If this seems like someone you recognise, writes Rauch, then 'chances are that you have an introvert on your hands.' And Rauch confesses that the description fits him exactly:

Oh, for years I denied it. After all, I have good social skills. I am not morose or misanthropic. Usually. I am far from shy. I love long conversations that explore intimate thoughts or passionate interests. 

He goes on to explode many of the stereotypes and misconceptions that attach themselves to introverts. For example, they aren't shy or antisocial: unlike extroverts, they're just content with their own company:

Extroverts are energized by people, and wilt or fade when alone. They often seem bored by themselves, in both senses of the expression. Leave an extrovert alone for two minutes and he will reach for his cell phone. In contrast, after an hour or two of being socially "on," we introverts need to turn off and recharge. My own formula is roughly two hours alone for every hour of socializing. This isn't antisocial. It isn't a sign of depression. It does not call for medication. For introverts, to be alone with our thoughts is as restorative as sleeping, as nourishing as eating. Our motto: "I'm okay, you're okay—in small doses."

I would guess that much of the interest in the article has been the result of readers recognising themselves in this characterisation. And here I'm going to propose a theory, based on little more than personal experience and speculation: introverts are probably over-represented among regular internet users, and especially among bloggers. My hypothesis is that the internet enables those who tend towards introversion (and yes, I include myself among them, though I usually hate all that Jungian / Myers-Briggsian categorising of people by 'type') to express themselves, interact with others, and even make friends, without all that awkward socialising-and-small-talk business, and to do all of this in their own time and at their own pace. For some of us, the advent of email was a blessed release from the exhausting routine of having to pick up the 'phone, or worse, arrange to actually go and see someone, with all its inevitable unpredictability and open-endedness. Blogging, and commenting on other people's blogs, is a further step forward for us introverted types, enabling us to engage in full-blown, back-and-forth debates, without any awkward eye contact: indeed, without ever leaving the cosy cocoon of home or office.

I was thinking about this the other evening, as I sat on the sofa with my laptop, composing a post in which I mentioned a certain author's book. Within the hour, and before I'd even got up from the sofa, said author had responded with a comment. In the meantime, I'd been reading the latest posts by my virtual 'friends', and catching up on emails from some of my online family history contacts. Just one little snapshot of how the internet has transformed this particular introvert's life.

Seems like they only had the vaguest inkling of all this back in 1969:


bob said...

I think you are completely right. I am an introvert in the way Rauch describes it, yet the internet has allowed me to expand my base of "friends" and "acquaintances" far and wide. (Here I am, emotionally involved in the birth of TC Jr, for example, even never having "met" the flesh version of dad!) And I don't think any of my non-virtual relationships have suffered as a result, although I have heard that can happen.

TNC said...

Thanks to you and Bob too! I will post a more developed reply soon...

Martin Meenagh said...

A few years ago, a lovely debate between Joseph Ratzinger and Jurgen Habermas surprised people by breaking out in consensus and respect. Habermas talked about the exterior wisdom of traditions and engagement with social institutions; the then-Cardinal talked of reason and the sense of comparing traditions, what he called co-relationality, without resting on God or natural law. It was an argument for the courtesy and friendship that you sometimes find on the blog; I don't know if it particularly appeals to introverts, unless by that you mean those who rest on the reason behind their eyes more than the sensual impulses that emerge from outside it.

In any event (however I read in writing this) you made me think of that with this post. You understand more things in a courteous argument with friends than in any number of rows, in my experience, and I wish most of the political and media classes would learn that.

Martin said...

What a fascinating comment, Martin - and how intriguing that my post sent you off along this path of lateral thinking. But I suppose that's the internet for you - maybe it appeals to the lateral thinking / grasshopper mind aspect of the introverted personality! I shall follow up the Habermas - Ratzinger debate....You'll have noticed that I'm no great fan of the current pontiff (they should have chosen Martini of Milan, and not just because of his name), but I'm reassured by his appeals to reason and respect in argumentation.

Anonymous said...

wow, this is a great film clip you posted here. i've often wondered why no one in the golden age of science fiction back in the 1950s and 60s ever really seemed to have predicted the internet. i suppose it's because by the year 2000, we were all supposed to have flying cars; what we got instead was the cell phone and the internet. but that really has less to do with personality types (introvert vs. extrovert) and much more to do with the destruction of space by time, which is one of the things that capitalism is all about.

of course, one's use of the internet also has something to do with another well-known dichotomy: employed vs. unemployed