Monday, August 29, 2011

A Gregarious Introvert on Social Media

"Happy New Year." That's what they say this time of year on college campuses, as a new academic year begins. Since we're appropriating a phrase from January I thought I may as well engage in a tradition undertaken at the beginning of the calendar year and make a new year's resolution.

Here it is: I will be less social.

I've already gotten started over this past summer. It seems a paradox, that with more time on my hands I've engaged in social media less. But during the school year, when the frenetic demands of a professor's responsibility require my being almost constantly plugged in, monitoring and contributing to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. is a natural extension. But in the summer, a time when I enjoy being offline, outside, and more heavily into literature that exceeds 140 character bursts, I have found it easy to be absent from the surge of status updates, the legions of links, the torrent of tweets.

I have also found it delightful, refreshing, and increasingly, necessary.

A university administrator complimented me late last year by saying my extroverted nature made me well suited for additional administrative responsibilities. My first thought was that when administrators compliment you like this, it generally precedes more work. But more importantly, I wondered how it came to be that I am considered an extrovert.

There are two common misconceptions about extroverts and introverts. One is the definition, that extroverts like to be around other people and introverts like to be alone. Not true. In fact, it's not about liking other people or not, but the manner of drawing and renewing energy. Extroverts get charged up by social interaction, and introverts regain energy with time alone. The second misconception is that people are either one or the other, when the reality is that people fall at many points along an extraversion-intraversion continuum. In other words, people have bits of both characteristics to differing degrees.

It's interesting to me how this may play out on social media. The most active tweeters and updaters and commenters may be those closer  to the extraversion end of the scale. This is something for PR professionals with social media responsibility to think about as you engage and segment your publics online.

As for me, I have determined I'm an interesting blend, a 'gregarious introvert.' I truly enjoy social interaction. But at the same time I need more time alone. Maybe I should make the lyrics to "Cool Change" by the Little River Band my mantra, or my ringtone.

It was an unintentional experiment this summer that led me to this conclusion about myself. I dove into a stack of books, both novels and academic tomes. I did projects in the yard. My daily runs were longer. I spent more time on a kayak or bike than in the office. I had more lengthy conversations with my wife (who, by the way, is one of the most social people I know but who so far has refused a Twitter or Facebook account). In all the above activities, I checked email and therefore social media less frequently.

The shocking outcome? I am the better for it. I felt both more calm and more energetic. I felt my thought processes improved.

Actually, this should not be a surprise. The benefits of solitude and deep cognitive activity have long been advocated. Here are a few examples:

I notice now that I've been getting back into the swing of things that social media of course has many advantages in terms of information flow and maintaining distant relationships. But it also has a dangerous negative effect in its cacophony of childish voices. At the beach recently I saw children screaming "watch me!" and then they would do something entirely unremarkable and receive their parents' effusive yet obligatory praise. Too often, that's social media. I found much greater benefit being alone atop a dune, getting reacquainted with my inmost thoughts and true self. In view of the Lake Michigan horizon, the words of the ancient psalmist floated through the modern clutter: "be still, and know that I am God." Indeed, what don't we hear when we think we're "engaged"?

So, Happy New Year. After a brief summer break, you'll be seeing me more active again in blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and other forms of media and personal interaction. But I will also seek more balance and time offline. I'll be thinking deep thoughts, reading long texts, and recharging myself. I know I'll be better for it.


Perry-David van Dillen said...

Good for you! I definitely think it's important that we take care to ensure that Social Media is a tool we wield and to not let it control our lives.

I find it interesting that your inclination is to say that the "most active tweeters and updaters and commenters may be those closer to the extraversion end of the scale." I wonder if there is any research into that. Since extroverts are charged up by being around people wouldn't social media by definition be something that fails to charge them up? They are interacting with people, but if it manages to charge them up, then might interacting with a machine (i.e. a chatbot) charge them up just as well?

I think of writing as something on the introvert side of the scale, so couldn't engaged thought and expression potentially be something more for introverts? Perhaps their engagement wouldn't be made public in the form of comments, tweets, and/or updates, but I wonder.

Tim Penning, APR said...

Thanks for your comment. I also hope to look at any research into introversion/extroversion and social media behavior. Extroverts may find social media does energize them since it may not necessarily be "being around people" but interacting with them, and CMC (computer-mediated communication) may suffice.

I also wonder about writing as an introversive activity. Certainly it requires some solitude and deep thought, but the output is expressive which satisfies extroverts. Social media such as blog writing enables feedback and writing as part of dialogue. So it could be both--but what could be measured is how dialogic a writer is as explained by introversion/extroversion.

I have to add all this to my research agenda :-)