Saturday, May 24, 2014

The System is Not Set Up for Introverts, Reconsidered

The recent public shaming of several public figures has brought to mind several aspects of the culture that irritate me as an introvert. The internet is merely exacerbating behaviors I didn't like as a kid. Below are a few more reasons why the internet-fueled media culture is not set up with introverts in mind.
  • Sharing comments originally intended for one person. Perhaps you've spoken in the heat of the moment, but obviously not intended for the entire world. I'm not going to even speculate on Mr. Sterling's state of mind, for example, but I know that the reason I trust the friends I have is that they don't share my angry comments with everyone. Not saying what Sterling did was right--clearly he's said similar things in the past. That's a discussion for another day. For the moment, let's de-Sterling the conversation and make it about me, you, or someone close to you. Let's say I've said something rather rude, like "I think X is an blankety-blank jerk and I can't stand him." I say this to a friend in confidence, but said friend, for whatever reason, has started recording our conversations and posts my diatribe on YouTube. Or they don't even have to record it; they could just repeat the comment to someone...maybe the subject of the comment himself, creating unnecessary hard feelings with that person and creating embarrassment for me. No, I probably shouldn't have said what I said, but my "friend" probably shouldn't have repeated it, let alone recorded it. That's a level of low that's hard for me to process.
  • Ganging up on someone. Are you perfect? Have you said only kind, culturally sensitive, perfectly politically correct words with every single solitary person you've ever met? Never mind, let's cut to the chase: no, you haven't. I haven't. No one has, not even those who decide what's socially appropriate/polite and what's not. So let's say you're better than average and you only slip up once a week or once a month. Take your most obnoxious comment and imagine having it shared with everyone you know. With perfect strangers. Multiply that by a factor of a few hundred million. You know what you did was wrong. Now so does everyone around you, and every self-righteous scold now wants to pile on and tell you how to change your behavior. Or maybe you're not sorry for what you said or did, but you're now surrounded by a lot of people who detest you for it. The loneliest minority in the world is a minority of one, and it becomes nearly impossible to live a normal life with your beliefs intact if you believe that the entire world hates you because of one comment.
  • Bringing up old issues. This has been happening in human relationships for hundreds of years. Person A says or does something stupid or hurtful to his or her significant other, and that significant other brings it up in the heat of an argument months or even years later. The internet allows not just Person A to bring it up but anyone who has seen or heard what you did. And the internet never forgets. Years later, decades later, anyone can go back to that moment of ill-timed stupidity and throw it in your face. I read an article recently that brought up the fact that forgetfulness is one of the human attributes that allows us to forgive others and to heal. The internet does not allow anyone to forget and does not allow the perpetrator of social faux pas the right of forgiveness. (Let's assume here that I'm not talking about high crimes and misdemeanors.)
  • Always being "on stage." This is a particular pet peeve for introverts. We usually don't enjoy being the center of attention. I write on the internet and usually go out of my way not to post pictures of myself unless I deem it necessary--in fact, I once asked a friend to remove a photo. My standard internet avatar is the gopher armed with a machine gun. And most authors (unless they're major money makers) manage to enjoy a bit of anonymity not possible for actors, actresses, or other media figures, whose faces tend to be everywhere. Different introverts respond to the internet--particularly Facebook--in different ways: 
    • Carefully control or limit the amount and type of information shared.
    • Create an online "persona" that resembles, but isn't a 100% representation of what the individual is actually thinking.
    • Not participate at all.

  • Many of my friends take the first approach. My parents take the last approach. I favor the middle approach, where I share humor, opinions, or stories that interest me. However, I usually don't share all my personal information (address, financial status, relationships, etc.) about how I live my daily life. So far as the internet knows, I'm a sarcastic, cerebral introvert with an odd writing career and gopher for an avatar. Is that "me?" Yes and no. I've seen in some places that "You are your data" now, and that anything you do that interacts with a computer is kept somewhere and explains who you are and what you are like. The internet is gratifyingly free of Bart Leahy-related videos. Part of that is the result of not doing much worth capturing on video; part of it is from a studied effort not to put myself in front of the camera. As a t-shirt now says, "I'm glad I'm old enough that all the stupid stuff I did as a kid isn't on the internet." So if you read my data, you might get some insight into my interests and how I spend my time and money. Does that mean you "know" me? No. You don't know what I'm thinking right now. You don't know what my facial expressions are. You don't know how I react when I'm happy or hurt. You don't know who all my friends are or how they feel about me.

    It used to be that only movie stars had this problem--fans thinking that they "knew" the celebrity in question because they've read every tabloid and newspaper story about them. On the flip side of that, the celebrities themselves found themselves in a fishbowl, unable to find a moment to themselves to just be a regular person because any unguarded moment was captured by a voracious paparazzi.

    Now we're all paparazzi, if we choose (I usually don't because, quite frankly, what other people do with their personal lives is usually none of my damn business). Yet if our face and data are out there on the internet, we're "celebrities" whether we would wish it or not. This is a doubly problematic issue for introverts: we don't share ourselves as easily as extroverts. The assumption of the internet is that if you post anything "out there" (or someone posts something about you) people assume that they know you. Yet I am sometimes taken off guard when I talk to someone who has been following my doings on Facebook and comments on them when I see him or her in person. Mostly that's a function of forgetting what I've posted...but, again, the internet remembers.

    Right now it's just my words and occasionally my pictures out there. How will I behave if I think "the camera's on" every moment of my life. George Orwell considered a horrific form of constant surveillance in 1984, as I do. Yet in 2014, we're doing it to ourselves. I don't know why people worry about the NSA spying activities sometimes when so much of people's lives is being shared. Some people "ham it up" if they know a camera is on. Others, like my parents and me, become very still and very quiet.
  • If the camera is on all the time, the extroverts will win. Introverts need time to compose arguments refuting bad things that are said about us or what we think. This is why many of us become writers--because we aren't as adept at the think-on-your-feet interactions required for public debate. We're self-conscious about being the center of attention. We have to expend a lot of energy to interact with lots of people at once, and that can impact how effective we are as public speakers--it's not the quality of our thoughts that is lacking but our confidence in speaking about those thoughts. We might have very well-thought-out reasons for doing or saying something, but sometimes it takes us a while to work out that reasoning--at which point the topic has changed. TV and the internet are all about the now.

    I might be wrong, but I think a lot of those people who think up great retorts an hour after the argument ends are introverts. I'm one of them, to be sure. And, again, video is all about what's happening now, in the moment. If it looks like an introvert is losing because they're pausing to think out their answer, the extrovert will be perceived as the winner. A brilliant response two hours later does the introvert no good--the extrovert will be perceived as the better debater and better speaker now. I can't help wondering if that's why televised presidential debates have shaped the presidents we have gotten over the past 50-odd years.

    To close this essay, I'm left to wonder how introverts will find advantages in a culture that is increasingly driven by the immediate, the verbal, and the "live action." I'm open to suggestions. Right now, however, I need to turn off this machine and go take a walk.

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