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.

Days undocumented

eternally nostalgic

I was a child of the pre-Facebook, pre-Pinterest, pre-Skype, pre-plus-one-and-like era. Our mode of digital anticipation involved waiting for someone's screen name to show up as Available on AIM or for someone to sign into MSN Messenger. Those were the acronyms that felt relevant to us. Beyond the availability of our friends to chat and the esoteric lingo that came with those conversations, we gleaned insight from carefully-crafted Away messages. Nobody was just "Away" back then, and---because we were 16 and, no matter how much self-importance we could muster, we were not quite busy---nobody was just "Busy" either. We populated Away messages with song lyrics and quotes, inside jokes and pointed messages full of the truths and feelings we could not utter face to face. In the past few weeks, I have felt the need for an Away message to hang on the door of my life---preferably one with a witty quote or Green Day lyrics for the full throwback and nostalgia effect. For the first time in four years, I am no longer living out of a suitcase. I own shelves. I have put nails in walls. I have shared coffee with people with the confidence that we will all still be right here tomorrow . . . and in 13 days, and in 4 months. My universe has been flooded with the kind of permanence of which I once dreamed.

Permanence makes me quiet. It is my love of "process" that has fueled my embrace of transitions with relative peace. I am intrigued by the little shifts: the packed box, the new photo on the wall, the coat hanging in the corner, the new bakery from which I buy muffins in the morning. Those become the markers of a new chapter, punctuated by a different routine, marked by different milestones. I document the process of moving, the process of saying goodbye, the process of making a home and then disassembling it as though it were made of Legos. The photographs freeze those transitional moments in time to remind me that life is not just the story of neat heres and exciting theres, but of clumsy in-betweens.

This time, there are no photographs of transition. My silence has been born out of impatience: an impatience to find a place for everything, and for me, and to have those places feel anchoring enough. I have not pointed the camera at the new corners that make a home feel like me, nor have I written about the new batch of muffins. I feel firmly planted here, bound to an address, magazine subscriptions, and a barista who knows my coffee order. I own possessions that make it impossible to pack up and leave into the night. Nobody left lightly with three coffee makers in tow.

Once an embracer of process, I am now embracing the photos not taken, the words not written. I am living in a blank away message, waiting for the lyrics to populate it, and for new processes to appeal photogenically to a pair of eyes perpetually in love with novelty. Inspired by Kim and, inevitably, by the 1990s.