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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

What does it mean to be an introvert online?

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

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