BY MICHAEL SPAETH
Published May 20, 2012
Despite the fact that Facebook has evolved tremendously over the past eight years, its primary goal of connecting people has never changed. This social networking site is a mechanism of communication among a staggeringly diverse array of people. Whether rich or poor, young or old, creative or analytical, introverted or extroverted, the Facebook community knows no boundaries.
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Introverts gain a unique benefit from Facebook. When it’s used wisely, Facebook can be an extremely valuable tool to assist introverts as they try to navigate challenging social environments. By using Facebook, introverts can have frequent or lengthy conversations with people without suffering the social anxiety of speaking with someone face-to-face or even over the telephone. While Facebook can’t completely replace face-to-face relationships, it can help introverts begin the process of slowly forming meaningful personal relationships with other people, step by step.
Among other characteristics, Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet,” describes most introverts as people who prefer less stimulation, think longer before they act and think on a deeper level than their peers. With the exception of the video chat feature, Facebook is conducive to these characteristics. Unlike the immediacy of social interaction and the stress that comes with it, introverts can spend as much time as they want carefully crafting a wall post or inbox message. Once those interactions are comfortable, introverts can then use the chat feature to communicate in real time with another person while still having time to think deeply about their responses and avoid the social anxiety of being in another person’s presence.
The experience of communicating via bodies of text is also conducive to an introvert’s preference for reduced stimulation in his or her environment. While the Facebook website is certainly stimulating, common characteristics of social interaction such as another person’s body language, vocal tone or presence at a party, are likely to be more engaging than sitting alone with a laptop in a quiet house. With a comparatively low level of stimulation, introverts can demonstrate their true, favorable personalities to new acquaintances on Facebook, a feat that might not have occurred in person due to the introvert’s shyness or social anxiety.
Opinions of writers and scholars conflict about Facebook’s effects on social interactions. In January, Clay Shirky, a journalism professor at New York University, told The New York Times that “Digital media is an amplifier. It tends to make extroverts more extroverted and introverts more introverted.” It’s reasonable that once the development of a personal relationship on Facebook reaches the point at which face-to-face interaction is the next natural step, introverts are likely to become more introverted if they only use Facebook for communication. I’m skeptical, however, that Facebook makes introverts more introverted in all situations, since there have been multiple cases in which Shirky’s statement isn’t true.
In fact, some Internet users experience an opposite phenomenon. They’re actually extroverts when they interact with other people online. Wael Ghonim, the creator of a Facebook page that helped to spawn the uprising in Egypt last year, describes himself as a “real-life introvert yet an Internet extrovert” in his memoir called “Revolution 2.0.”
Of course, Facebook shouldn’t completely replace personal interactions. As Jenna Wortham, a reporter for The New York Times, has noted, “In many instances, Facebook and Twitter make us more curious to meet and chat with the people we’ve encountered online. Knowing them on the Web isn’t enough.” Once personal relationships on Facebook become strong, attempts at deep and meaningful communication via Facebook begin to seem artificial. One University of California, Los Angeles study conducted by Prof. Albert Mehrabian found that 55 percent of human communication is body language and 38 percent is voice, while only 7 percent consists of the spoken words. If I ever want someone to comfort me during times of struggle, I don’t want to read two lines of a reassuring comment on my status. Instead, I want somebody to sit next to me, look me in the eye and say that everything is going to be fine.
Introverts need to eventually make the transition to face-to-face interactions with people if their personal relationships are going to be meaningful and long-lasting. Facebook conversations are a valuable first step towards meaningful social relationships with new people.