I am an introvert who has learned to live in an extrovert world. On the outside, I have a bright smile for every new person I meet, but on the inside my discomfort levels are skyrocketing. But let me clarify for those of you who now believe that I am someone who lives in constant fear of social interaction.
The best way to define introverts and extroverts is the way they accrue social energy, rather than how they use that energy. After all, there are extroverts who can be shy and introverts who can be outgoing! However, extroverts gain energy through social interaction: the more they chat and hang out with others, the better they feel. They are fueled by parties, get togethers, dates, reunions…anything that can get them talking. Introverts, on the other hand, gain energy from themselves. Socializing, while fun at times, ultimately drains energy from an introvert, and there’s only so much conversing that an introvert can do before he or she needs to retreat to their happy place and recharge. Social interactions are not inherently scary to me, but the thought of how much energy will be sapped out of me for every new interaction is what gives me pause.
In reading “The New Social Operating System of Networked Individualism” (wow, what a mouthful), my introverted lightbulb went off. I initially had no rational reasoning for why I preferred texting someone over calling them, or writing them a letter over meeting them face to face. I chalked it up to irrational social anxiety and called it a day. But there is an inherent easiness to using Facebook or text message over striking up a real life conversation, and that easiness comes from the lack of stress having to deal with real-time interaction. No longer do I have to worry about what my voice sounds like, if I look interested enough, or if my brain can’t think of the right words to say in that exact moment. I get the time to craft my exact message in the comfort of my own computer, with a screen between me and my conversation partner.
And in reality, this is the case for a lot of introverts. The quieter kids at school find outlets online where they have the safety net that social media provides. Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, you name it; suddenly, another large population has a louder voice than they did before. It’s empowering. And while Wellman and Rainie do mention that online networks require much more active participation on the part of the individual, introverts feel more comfortable with this kind of work. With the barriers of social anxiety down, introverts can find the confidence to seek new followers, retweets, friends, and relationships through their own content.
And for better or for worse, certain social expectations and courtesies also go out the window. Someone doesn’t respond to your Facebook message right away? They’re probably in class or they fell asleep, and you let it go for the time being. Your high school friend hasn’t talked to you in a while? They’re probably incredibly busy with their own lives, but they’ll most likely be happy to chat with you as soon as they have the time, and they’d still like to know what’s going on with you. Wellman and Rainie believe that online social networks can be socially taxing because maintaining relationships requires more active participation on the part of those who want that relationship, but at the same time, that list of friends on Facebook won’t change unless you unfriend someone. Your computer will remember your friends for you, and more often than not, your friends will be grateful for that. For introverts, online networking goes at its own pace and in its own style, and that’s perfect for those who want to slow down a little bit.