Introversion has been a popular, albeit poorly understood, cultural meme for the last few years, generating both a TED talk and numerous articles like the Huffington Post’s “23 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert.” Whitney Boesel has recently claimed that the introversion meme is rooted in “disconnectionism,” a position that treats offline interactions as inherently morally and aesthetically superior. That is, being an extrovert is denigrated because it is the analogue of being online: shallow, frenetic and inauthentic. Her argument is, on its surface, plausible, but ultimately does not stand up to scrutiny. She too quickly glosses over the fact that online spaces and other digital means of communication are highly amenable to introverted sensibilities. Why would the fetishization of introversion be rooted in the fetishization of the offline when socially wary introverts seemingly like or even prefer to interact online?
To be fair, Boesel is entirely correct in her characterization of how introversion is very often misconstrued as intellectual depth according to the “introversion meme:”
“In meme caricature, “extroversion” is marked by superficiality, triviality, insubstantiality, and a preference for frenetic, empty sociality.”
However, she is wrong to connect this characterization with the ostensible privileging of offline interactions. Although there appears to some commonality between the “frenetic, empty sociality” assigned to extroversion and the “always on” character ascribed to social media and many contemporary digital devices, it is a mistake to presume these ascriptions spring from the same source. One need only examine the differences between extrovert and introvert personality characteristics and the affordances of digital technologies carefully in order to recognize this. Digital communication technologies afford the slowing down and individualized control of social contact. As one writer puts it, “The internet has become an introvert's playground.”
Let us return for a moment to the introversion meme. An example of it can be seen in the blog post of conservative radio host, Matt Walsh, who describes his introversion as the antithesis of small talk:
“I love ideas, I like people who love ideas, and for this reason I hate small talk. I hate it with a blinding passion. Small talk exists simply to cannibalize silence, and I cherish silence because it’s the best environment for thinking”
In sum, extroversion amounts to “incessant chatter” bereft of important informational content.
Although Boesel might draw a connection between the emphasis Walsh places on the infiltration of silence as a reason to connect the introversion meme with “disconnectionism,” I think it is the lack of informational content that is more important. Self-described “introverts” like Walsh would likely not object to incessant conversation if rich in the ideas they would prefer to hear.
Furthermore, because the introversion meme ascribes so much weight to the need to be away from other human bodies and their undesirable tendency to demand communication, I doubt those championing it would find more easily controllable interactions vis-à-vis digital communication devices as equivalently intrusive as face-to-face networking or a cocktail party. Indeed, the reason that many introverts might like digitally mediated communication is that the mediating devices allow users to ignore social contact, filter out “small talk” and tincture their level of intimacy, as Sherry Turkle so aptly demonstrates in her recent work.
Therefore, Boesel’s connection between the introversion and disconnectionism seems tenuous at best. A more direct linkage between the introversion meme and the affordances of the Internet seems more plausible. As a further example, consider the growing tendency to dismiss social etiquette as an inefficient nuisance among cyber-savvy folks. Forms of etiquette are much like the small talk that introversion-meme introverts claim to detest: They are informationally poor.
However, it is a big mistake by purveyors of the introversion meme to confuse informational content or efficiency with importance. As Evan Selinger points out,
“etiquette norms aren’t just about efficiency: They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.”
Etiquette is about social bonding and caring to show others that they matter, not the movement of data. The equation of information density with depth or usefulness is a product of a culture that privileges informational efficiency, something that seems more connected with the digitophilia than disconnectionism.
In his prescient 1998 book, John L. Locke laments the tendency in information-oriented societies to misconstrue all communication as about the transmittance of bits of data, rather than as a means of social connection. Intimate talking is very often bereft of “important” information, being the evolved human vocal equivalent of the grooming practices that apes use to solidify their group bonds. Locke worries about the psychological consequences for humans when they develop societies that provide too little occasion for or actively discourage seemingly aimless social talk.
I think it is the privileging of efficient information that we need to be on guard for rather than the “disconnectionism” on which cyborgologists are wasting so much digital ink. In the same way that Nicholar Carr worries that his thinking patterns are being changed for the worse by thinking most of the time through digital devices, I worry about how expectations for social interaction might be altered in undesirable ways when socialization occurs more and more through devices whose affordances and constraints match up poorly with face-to-face, talk-driven social bonding. The fact that digitally mediated spaces are becoming increasingly dominant in people’s social ecologies would appear to be a boon to those who personally relate to the introversion meme but not for those who prefer embodied social interaction.
Like all conversation, small talk is a skill. Even though I am also an introvert, I would prefer to be in a world with lots of it than with little. Although I find small talk sometimes exhausting, I recognize its pleasures and its social value. The introversion meme’s measuring of conversation against the informational standard of online communication loses sight of the importance of talk for social bonding. Unlike Boesel, I am not so worried about the fetishization of introversion leading to the romanticizing of offline interaction but its denigration. The introversion meme is a sign of the “social work” of practices like small talk becoming devalued, something that I think human civilizations do only at their peril.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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