When people write about my generation, they usually categorize Gen Yers as outgoing, hyper-social and endlessly self-promotional. I’m a 23-year-old, social-media-hating introvert—and there are thousands more like me.
Last month, Toronto co-hosted Social Media Week, a global event spanning 12 cities from Singapore to San Francisco with talks and networking opportunities crammed into every hour of the seven-day program. One event in particular caught my eye, so on a slushy Thursday afternoon, I made my way over to a pub in the entertainment district that was hosting a casual event called “Social Media Friendships, Anxiety and You.” As I slid into a chair near the back, I noticed a terrifyingly bubbly girl off to the side with a bleach-blonde pixie cut, laughing and twirling in a short black skirt and huge platform wedges. (“You gotta meet her,” a woman gushed to her companions one table over.) The room settled down as the girl followed three other panelists to the front, engrossed in her smartphone even as the first speaker began her introductions.
Casie Stewart is a 29-year-old blogger who was recently featured in an article in The Walrus by Maryam Sanati called “Brand Me,” which shone a spotlight on the major players among Toronto’s “Gen Y personal branders.” These professional internet personalities have managed to generate the success and attention they quite openly—and shamelessly—seek, simply by transcribing the minutiae of their existence online. “Because Stewart’s peers have not known self-doubt as much as we have,” Sanati, a self-identified Gen-Xer, writes, “and because they’re so much better at maneuvering in the digital age than we were, they feel perfectly at ease.” That may be true for Stewart. When it came time for her to speak at the pub, she described herself as “hyper-social.” In fact, the only time she admitted feeling less than socially fluent was during her offline hours.
“Social media’s really, really cool but what can be overwhelming is the offline component,” she told the audience of mostly thirtysomethings, who sat with laptops and iPads at the ready. “I share so much of my life online—I always talk about my mom, and I post pictures of my friends, and then I’m on Foursquare, and I’m on Pinterest, and I Instagram, and I’m on Facebook, and I have a Tumblr blog and a WordPress blog. And because I share all these parts of my life all the time, people expect that I’m like, ‘Hi! I’m Casie!’ Every day! But you know what? Sometimes I’m not happy. Sometimes I don’t like things. Sometimes I get really mad at stuff.”
When journalists write about my generation (I’m 23), the person they seem to have in mind is a lot like Stewart. You know the one: immersed in social media; able to simultaneously blog, tweet, watch TV and write a PhD dissertation; endlessly self-referential; and eager to socialize like it’s her job. Hey, maybe you are this person. Sanati writes that young people like Stewart “live out life in public,” while her generation “chose to lurk in the shadows, scared shitless about what others thought of us.” But all this generation defining does twentysomethings a disservice by assuming the current personal-branding mania speaks to some sort of deep self-assurance that exists in all of us. We’re not all striving to become the best brand we can be. We don’t all even know if we want to be a brand. True, technology has enabled us to be the most hysterically social generation in history—and for many, that is an advantage—but some of us have our doubts about the transformative powers of social media. Some of us just want to hear ourselves think.
Nine years ago, The Atlantic published an article by Jonathan Rauch titled “Caring for Your Introvert.” It was a witty primer on the needs and habits of possibly the most misunderstood group of people in North America. Here’s the short version: At least a quarter of people are introverts. (I’m one.) We are not anti-social freaks. We don’t (all) play Dungeons & Dragons or live in our parents’ basements. Introverts are not necessarily shy or misanthropic—although we would appreciate it if you would just stop talking for a minute. “After an hour or two of being socially ‘on,’” Rauch explained, “we introverts need to turn off and recharge.” On the other hand, extroverts—those gregarious social butterflies clearly put on this earth to make people like me feel like sour-faced gremlins—are wired to handle “information overload,” which tends to overwhelm the rest of us.
When Rauch wrote this article, it was treated as a manifesto, a hell-yeah sermon praised by introverts everywhere ready to stake out some boundaries. But that was 2003, before Facebook and Twitter wormed their way into our lives in an all-consuming and irreparable way. “Before social media, we were under pressure to socialize when other people were around,” Rauch told me recently. “Now, thanks to social media, we’re also under pressure to socialize when other people are not around.” He doesn’t have a Twitter account, and views these tools “as another part of the extrovert conspiracy to make contemplation difficult.”
The scariest part of this shift towards living life in public, at least for an out-and-proud introvert like me, is how quickly it became mandatory to contribute to this collective online diary. We all have those friends—who may be perfectly lovely people—who insist on documenting every thought, experience and meal they’ve ever had. Shying away from loud, public forms of expression can quickly brand you a buzzkill (I’ve been told that I’m “allergic to fun”). And yet disengagement is even more dangerous. To opt out of social media altogether is essentially to opt out of a social life.
Personally, I dreaded joining Twitter, but I did it to increase my visibility online, which is admittedly not great. Every time I go to tweet, I overthink it and then hate myself immediately afterwards. I use Facebook to communicate, but I don’t often post status updates or upload pictures. I dread the day I’ll get a smartphone, but I know that’s coming, too—because, unfortunately, opting out of the social network doesn’t just brand you an anti-social hermit; it can hurt you professionally.
More and more, we’re told that to have any success in an increasingly crowded, competitive marketplace, we need to amp up our online presence. When I graduated from university, I thought, Shit, do I need a website now? Do I need a logo? What font should I choose? What does Cambria say about me?
And that’s the problem: Even sour-faced gremlins like me are vulnerable to the Fear of Missing Out—that tension between wanting to be a part of it all and needing to disconnect, even if only to go to the bathroom. FOMO, as it is called, because everything in the digital age has to have an acronym, has gotten so out of control that it begs inclusion in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And it’s not just media-savvy twentysomethings who are susceptible to this. You don’t need to be young to feel the sting of waking up to a photo album of your friends at that awesome party you missed last night because you were marathon-watching The Bachelor. But while FOMO is what keeps some people plugged in at all times, for me it’s the opposite. The more tweets, photos, videos and status updates come my way, the more I want to turn my computer off and retreat into the safe, relatively manageable world of In Real Life.
Blame Mark Zuckerberg. When Facebook went public at the beginning of February, its doe-eyed CEO released a letter to investors describing it not as a company, but as some sort of religious sect, which would make Zuckerberg, its leader, a kind of social missionary. Facebook, he wrote, “was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected.”
Zuckerberg famously champions workplaces with open floor plans and glass walls as a metaphor for the world as he dreams it. This is one example of how the free-for-all nature of social media is seeping into real life—and it’s a problem for those of us who liked the walls where they were. In Susan Cain’s recent bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the author writes, “Introverts and extroverts often need very different levels of stimulation to function at their best.” Introverts benefit from nooks and crannies in which to hide away, she writes, so we’re able to focus our energy on the task at hand and work in peace. I guess there aren’t many introverts working at Facebook.
There are those who argue that, because introverts often find meetings and gatherings exhausting and easily tire of other people’s company, social media can provide a welcome respite from face-to-face chit-chat, small talk and other gruesome social obligations. It gives you options: At any moment—say you want to Facebook-stalk your ex-boyfriend’s girlfriend’s ex in peace—you can simply set your status to “offline.”
It’s also probably true that introverts can benefit a great deal from using social media as a tool for controlled self-expression—many people who have trouble speaking up in large groups have no qualms about disclosing intimate details of their personal lives when they’re all alone with their computers. One introverted friend of mine told me it’s easier for her to socialize online because, she said, “I can selectively choose what I share, and figure out how to respond to something in a way I’m comfortable with. Whereas in ordinary conversation, I often don’t know what to say, and always think of ‘normal’ things a ‘well-adjusted’ person would say afterwards. I think my internet persona is more me than the IRL me.”
Even Rauch says social media isn’t entirely evil. Sometimes it can be a pretty good tool, he says, like when an old friend unexpectedly pops back into your life, or if you need to overthrow an oppressive dictatorship. But he warns, “This thing comes with a cost. And as is so often true, introverts pay a disproportionately large share of it—and extroverts don’t often understand that there is a cost.”
So what, am I just feeling sorry for myself? Well, yes. But I’m tired of being told to get over it and get on board. And I know there are thousands of others like me who resent the fact that our social and professional existence depends on our participation in something so chaotic, time-consuming and ultimately vapid. Social media is making an extroverts’ world even more extroverted and creating a further divide between us and them—and it’s clear which side is winning. ♦
Next page: 9 places in Toronto to find a little Me Time