Introverts on the Internet

I was on my way to a first-time meet-up with some women I’d been admiring quietly online for a while. I loved their work and believed so much in what they were doing. And then, when the opportunity arose to meet in real life, well, it seemed too good to be true. Of course I would go. Except, the thought of meeting in person also set my already overactive worry machine spinning. I’m sure most anyone would get butterflies at the idea of meeting her idol. But it was deeper than that. It was the worry about kale in my teeth or saying something awkward, but it was also the worry about being disappointing or disappointed.

And so, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do: I phoned a wise friend for advice. Here is what she said.

Arrive early, and pretend that you’re the hostess. Make it your job to make sure everyone else is having a good time.

At first, it seemed counterintuitive. What about being fashionably late? Isn’t it awkward being the first one to arrive?

I took her advice, though, and it worked like magic. I arrived at the hip (and rather intimidating) bar just as the door was being propped open. I gave the bartender a shrug—“I guess I’m early?”—and played musical chairs among all the empty stools until I found the one I liked. After perusing the menu for a long while, I knew just what to order and what to recommend.

By the time the others began trickling in, I felt at home, and I wanted to make sure everyone else felt that way too. I made a point of saying warm hellos and of staying late for the last warm goodbyes. For the whole middle of the event—the part with overlapping voices and jostling for attention—I was a quiet observer, taking note of social dynamics and the ebb and flow of conversation. Meaningful bookends to the evening were my first priority.

In Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, she recommends a similar approach to parents of introverted children. When it comes to large gatherings, she says, “It’s much easier to be one of the earlier guests, so your child feels as if other people are joining him in a space that he 'owns,' rather than having to break into a preexisting group.”

I’ve taken this advice to heart for in-person gatherings, but I’ve often wondered what to do about introversion online. Unless you’ve just started your very own community with yourself as the first member, it is nearly impossible to ever feel that you’ve joined an internet community or conversation early. How often have I come across a blog post that’s months old but feels as if it’s speaking directly to me, right now. Then, my excitement gives way to disappointment as the end of the article begets a “conversation” in the comments that’s 800-posts long. My initial impulse to respond and connect over the topic is shut down by the sense that the party was way too big, and more importantly, is long over. How could I possibly come up with anything interesting to contribute?

It happens too with online communities. An internet space you’d never heard of catches you off-guard, and you smile with anticipation while creating an account. But the process culminates in one of those inevitable “Who to Follow” pages, complete with an illustrious welcoming committee of celebrities and internet personalities. A rock lands in the pit of your stomach. Oh, no! I’m already late, and everyone else is already here.

I felt that way when I first joined Twitter. I remember remarking aloud that it felt like shouting in a crowded room. Why is everyone yelling? I thought. I couldn’t actually hear them, of course, but something about the fast-paced stream updating in real time seemed loud and overwhelming. It was as if I were standing on the sidelines of a chaotic race, looking hard for an opening to join in too.

It took some listening and observing, but before long, I caught the rhythm of the conversation. Fast forward to today, and Twitter is just another one of the many ways I communicate. It has its own rituals and idiosyncrasies, like any community, but by now, it feels familiar. I wonder, though, about my fellow introverts, especially those on the sidelines of internet conversations, waiting for an opening or an invitation to participate.

If the internet had a doorway, I’d love to stand at the entrance with a sign that says, “Welcome, quiet people.” We could gather at the entrance to stare at each others’ shoes and then work up the courage together to make our way toward all of the commotion. I’d want to make sure that every voice was valued, even (and especially) those who need some time for reflection before jumping into the fray.

A Post about a Book about the Internet

When I picked up a copy of The Digital Divide at a conference last fall, I didn’t realize the essays had been published elsewhere, in print and online. As I dipped into it on the plane ride home, I only wondered for a moment if I should have just waited to search for each of the essays and read them in their original contexts. By just a few pages in, I was already thankful that the collection had been curated for me in the particular form of a printed book. It seemed that simply based on my purchase and my subsequent satisfaction with it, perhaps I had already come down on one side of the debate at its core. The articles date from the nineties to 2011, when the book was published, and rather than digging deeply into current debates about the internet and its relationship to culture and social life, the collection offers a historical perspective on the way these debates have changed over the past decade or two. As we wonder about whether social media is helping or hindering our social lives, it helps to be reminded of a time---not particularly long ago, in fact---before it even existed. I have to admit that I find it difficult to remember what was different, or the same, about life before Facebook was invented in 2004.

My favorite essay in the collection is one of the last, “The End of Solitude,” by William Deresiewicz. It is wonderfully poetic in its exploration of the history and evolution of solitude and its role in art, literature, and religion. Deresiewicz begins his argument for the power of solitude this way: “In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity.”

What, you might ask, does all this business about solitude have to do with the internet? Deresiewicz argues that in some ways, our contemporary conception of loneliness—the negative side of the solitude coin—was invented with the help of the internet. He compares this phenomenon to the relationship between boredom and television. Television offers the potential to snuff out boredom and silence. If you like, you can always have a bit of background entertainment filling your living room, restaurant, or airport. But in turn, the potential for constant entertainment breeds a fear of quiet. In the same way, Deresiewicz argues, the internet provides the potential for constant connectivity, and its dark underbelly is a fear of being alone.

Certainly the feeling of loneliness has a much longer history than the internet, and the connectivity of the internet has been, in Deresiewicz’s words, “an incalculable blessing” in helping us to find and communicate with others who share our dreams, interests, and experiences. The relationship between loneliness and the internet is not a question of the chicken or the egg, but rather a shift in balance. As Deresiewicz explains, “not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.”

As I consume article after article urging us to get away from our screens in order to be more creative, energetic, and productive, I wonder if the underlying charge is to simply create space for solitude, an uncomfortable but valuable state which is easier now than ever to avoid.

I suppose this is part of what drew me to the book as a printed book, rather than as an interactive series of links and comments. While I love letting my curiosity carry me from one link to another, I thought it might be interesting—and it was—to read about the internet, for once, alone.