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What does it mean to be an introvert online?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Photo by AshtonPal, CC. Click on image for license and information.

Did you take public transportation today? And where did you sit? Did you take the seat on the end?

What about your phone at work? Did it actually ring today? Did you let it go to voicemail? In fact, do you prefer responding to emails over talking on the phone?

Or maybe you went out—and quietly made an exit once you had had enough socializing?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, to some degree you’re probably an introvert: someone who prefers less physical and social stimulation. News and media relating to introverts is pretty prevalent these days. There’s no shortage of information dispelling myths about introverts and offering advice on how to succeed in an extroverted world, how to better organize offices for introverts, or how to identify an introvert. (A quick Google search also turned up an article on caring for your introvert so the information seems both oriented to the self and the other.) But what are introverts like online? Particularly in the realm of social networking? Do they still need to pull away and recharge after perusing their feed?

Computer-mediated forms of communication, including email and instant messaging, allow for a degree of distance. Email gives you a chance to read and respond at your leisure; and while instant messaging puts you within the realm of immediacy, it removes you from face-to-face contact. Though your name is likely present in these communications, there is also a degree of anonymity because you’re not interacting personally one-on-one with the other person(s). But this has also long been a criticism of these forms of communication—the ideas that reducing direct contact actually hurts relationships. We know that these media are not well suited to fully capturing the nuances of a conversation. But for introverts, they might actually be ideal because they offer the chance to control the interaction.

This changes once we enter the realm of online social networking. We’re far less anonymous in these environments because they’re designed to very much promote a sense of identity. The photos we choose as our profile pictures, the information that makes up our member profiles, and even the material we share and comment on all contribute to an online identity (which may or may not be accurately reflective of our offline identity—but that is a story for another day). This varies across the spectrum of course. Facebook in particular is a very demonstrative arena, which can generate a stressful experience for introverts who tend to struggle with self-promotion. Additionally, more than other social networking sites, Facebook encourages the user to be “on” through personal status updates, and sharing of information. This may happen to a lesser degree on Twitter as well, however, the pressure to socialize can be dampened because there is no requirement to respond, nor really is the interplay of conversation heavily emphasized.

So what do introverts do on these types of platforms? They lurk.

Introverts aren’t going to be the friends who Like everything. These are the people by whom you’re surprised to hear from. They’ll peruse their feed and respond at length to the items that resonate most strongly with them. The rest of the time, they’re absorbing information about others—reading updates, viewing photos, and thinking about the shared content and comments without responding publicly. This information doesn’t necessarily go to waste; it can be leveraged in subsequent face-to-face interactions. While there’s a chance that highly introverted individuals may find that having lots of personal information about another person is overwhelming especially in a one-to-one interaction offline, others may be able to use this information to ease their off-line interactions. It provides a basis from which they can navigate social encounters because it gives them something to know; it helps foster a connection so it reduces the stress in establishing a relationship.

You might be thinking, “Well, if they’re introverts, why are they on social networking platforms to begin with?” For the same reasons extroverts are: to socialize and connect. Introverts aren’t anti-social. Rather, they’re social in very controlled ways. With the prevalence of online social networks, it’s helpful to understand that these spaces aren’t a one-size-fits-all experience. And while they do function as their own ecosystems, complete with their own suggested code of conduct, there really isn’t a single way to be online.

Are you an extrovert? Do you notice lurkers online? What about you introverts—how are you using online spaces?

Referenced:

Rauch, S., Strobel, C., Bella, M., Odachowski, Z., & Bloom, C. (2014). Face to Face Versus Facebook: Does Exposure to Social Networking Web Sites Augment or Attenuate Physiological Arousal Among the Socially Anxious? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17 (3), 187-190 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0498

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Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. tarsier 12:51 pm 03/27/2014

    Certainly the research splits extroversion and introversion into categories on some definitional tipping point across a gradient. But there is some phantom axis missing. My husband and I sit on that gradient. He seeks out face to face social situations and enjoys the company but lurks silently when he gets there. I avoid social situations, though idealize them, am out-going and personable when I am there,but feel exhausted and in needing healing when I retreat. Online, I am similarly extroverted to a point, then withdrawn. My husband on the other hand is very consistently chatty online.

    Link to this
  2. 2. What does it mean to be an introvert online? - ... 9:42 am 03/28/2014

    [...] What does it mean to be an introvert online?  [...]

    Link to this
  3. 3. Record of the Week (Week of 24 March 2014) « STS Turntable 10:44 am 03/30/2014

    [...] What does it mean to be an introvert online? [...]

    Link to this
  4. 4. What does it mean to be an introvert online? | ... 1:27 pm 03/30/2014

    [...] Did you take public transportation today? And where did you sit? Did you take the seat on the end? What about your phone at work? Did …  [...]

    Link to this
  5. 5. URLs of wisdom (30th March) | Social in silico 6:50 pm 03/30/2014

    [...] What does it mean to be an introvert online? Krystal D’Costa is back with the Anthropology in Practice blog. Not sure I agree with this argument that introverts are the lurkers of the internet. Thoughts or studies about this? [...]

    Link to this
  6. 6. What does it mean to be an introvert online? | ... 2:58 pm 04/1/2014

    [...] Did you take public transportation today? And where did you sit? Did you take the seat on the end? What about your phone at work? Did it actually ring today? Did you let it go to voicemail? In fact, do you prefer responding to emails over talking on the phone? Or maybe you went out—and quietly made an exit once you had had enough socializing? If you answered yes to any of these questions, to some degree you’re probably anintrovert: someone who prefers less physical and social stimulation. News and media relating to introverts is pretty prevalent these days. There’s no shortage of information dispelling myths about introverts and offering advice on how to succeed in an extroverted world, how to better organize offices for introverts, or how to identify an introvert. (A quick Google search also turned up an article on caring for your introvert so the information seems both oriented to the self and the other.) But what are introverts like online? Particularly in the realm of social networking? Do they still need to pull away and recharge after perusing their feed?  [...]

    Link to this
  7. 7. brian1625 8:38 pm 04/2/2014

    Introverts – may – actually be MORE outgoing than their extroverted counter parts online. In depends on the individuals version of introversion and what they want out of their environment. They may finally be able to flex their ideas. Flex who they really are. (See the Apple commercial when the loner kid showed how much he loved his family though didn’t show it in an normal extroverted cultural environment)

    This is the non laymen version of the idea.

    To use the Jungian understanding (The originator) Introversion\Extraversion is a an individuals habitual response to an object. Introverts attitude has a propensity to want power over an object because of an acute sensitivity to it. When one is on social network they may enjoy the ability to write and not be interrupted, think and not be intruded on by someones else’s thoughts, feel and be able to synthesize that. Some introverts may see social networks as overwhelming as real life, (Especially now that it’s hyper localized) others may see as a chance to finally to have power and finally be able to connect.

    Link to this
  8. 8. What does it mean to be an introvert online? | ... 4:19 pm 04/3/2014

    [...] Did you take public transportation today? And where did you sit? Did you take the seat on the end? What about your phone at work? Did …  [...]

    Link to this
  9. 9. hkraznodar 3:12 pm 04/4/2014

    I personally prefer to be a silent member of a small social group. Too many people and I get down right hostile. As for social media, I rarely use it. I prefer not being spied on and my personal habits sold to strangers that don’t care about anything but getting my money away from me.

    I prefer to chose what I look at or experience and what I decide to spend or not spend my money on. What Facebook calls a friend I call an acquaintance.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Around the Web Digest: Week of March 23 | Savage Minds 11:54 am 10/8/2014

    [...] Krystal D’Costa has written two excellent pieces at Anthropology in Practice – the first on how “hyper-connectivity” has altered our work day, and the second on how it enables my introversion. (Anthropology in Practice: First and Second) [...]

    Link to this

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