A husband and wife sit companionably over bowls of cereal, heads bent not toward each other but to their smartphone screens. Three teenaged girls in sundresses gather in a friend’s living room, silently typing missives into their respective gadgets. A businessman attends a meeting but fiddles with his smartphone under the boardroom table.
These are the images of disconnection presented by Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, in her widely viewed TED talk. Turkle argues, as many now do, that wireless communication is a poor substitute for social interaction and human connection. She’s right, of course; we’ve all felt the power of a pinging smartphone to pull us away from conversations with a friend, a colleague, our partners and children.
But our online gadgets have arguably enhanced the social lives of one large swath of the population: the introvert.
Introverts are often brimming with thoughts and care deeply for their friends, family and colleagues. But even the most socially skilled introverts (of whom there are many) sometimes long for a free pass from socializing en masse or talking on the phone. This is what the Internet offers: the chance to connect — but in measured doses and from behind a screen.
When I was researching my book, QUIET, I noticed that many of the introverted academics I corresponded with were much warmer via e-mail than when we finally met in real life. The keyboard and screen allowed them to express their caring and friendly natures.
Similarly, when you’re blogging or tweeting, you don’t have to wade through small talk before you get to main point. You have time to think before you speak. You can connect, one mind with another, freed from the distractions of social cues and pleasantries — just the way readers and writers have done for centuries.
And you can do all this from the quiet of your own home. “Sitting at home in the dark, on Google+, with my 1.6 million followers … is perfect for me,” Guy Kawasaki, the seemingly sociable entrepreneur, founder of alltop.com, and self-described introvert, told the crowd at a tech conference earlier this year. “Social media allows me to pick my times for social interaction.” (As of this writing, Kawasaki has over 2.6 million Google+ followers.)
Of course, not all introverts see the Internet as a godsend, and not all forms of social media are alike. Some introverts have told me they prefer Twitter to Facebook, for example, because it emphasizes the exchange of information over chatter and photo-sharing; a 2010 study published in Computers and Human Behavior suggests that users of some social media sites have become increasingly extroverted as online anonymity decreases.
Still, a distinct breed has emerged: call it the “offline introvert/online extrovert.” That’s how Mack Collier, a social media strategist, describes himself on his Facebook page, and there are many others just like him. Chris Guillebeau, the author of the popular blog The Art of Non-Conformity, calls himself an introvert, and so does Lisa Petrilli, a leadership strategist who co-hosted a “Leadership Chat” with fellow introvert Steven Woodruff on Twitter every Tuesday evening for almost two years. One of their topics? The power of the introvert in cyberspace.
A wired world can be alienating, but its great virtue has always been democratization. When we bathe in the blue light of our gadgets, we’re doing many things: surfing, working, gaming and, yes, tuning out the world. But we’re also hearing ideas from people whose voices might not have carried in the pre-wired era, who might not have broken through the chatter. One of the most unremarked advances of the online revolution is that we now hear loudly from the quieter half of the population.