Social Media Introspection

I spend a lot of time staring at my phone. Like many people I’m checking my messages, looking for news, sharing photographs, reading articles and hoping that I can connect with other people so that I can share the things I am interested in. Maybe exchange ideas. It’s a way of connecting with people who are in the same world, who share the same outlook, and who have the same framework of expectation.

While I’ve been in Nantes I’ve noticed this experience has been more pronounced and intense. I’m out of my comfort-zone, in an alien culture of which I don’t speak the language. On the one hand my smartphone is a lifeline. I can easily follow the on-line maps that I need. I can translate words and phrases on the go, and in real time. I can keep in contact with distant friends by sharing my experiences with regular photo-updates. As a functional set of tools this opens-up the world to me in a way that was never possible before.

The downside is processing all of this information requires an intensity of thought and concentration that can be quite overwhelming, and if I don’t ration myself, quite destructive. So, this got me thinking about what kind of skills and capabilities do we need to manage this experience well, while retaining some sort of control over it? How do we prevent information overload? How do we reduce the sense of isolation that excessive smartphone use can generate? How do we make sense of it all?

We live in a world that increasingly values and places an emphasis on social connection and intercultural communication. But it’s not always possible to just walk into a bar and strike-up a conversation with just anyone. In France people tend to socialise in small groups and with people that they already know. Being an outsider carries the problem of not knowing how or when it is appropriate to intermix with people. In the U.K. it is simple. Go to a pub and stand near the bar, and its inevitable that one can get talking to somebody. Café culture in France doesn’t invite that.

Different strategies for being social are called for. Don’t ask me what these are yet, because that is what I am here to learn. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of my time using my phone to figure out what I should be doing, saying, where I should be going, and so on. It’s got to the point, however, that it’s started to drive me crazy, and has actually been counter-productive.

Rather than sitting with people, listening and observing, my phone has given me an inner-sanctuary that I can use to escape from the direct experience of the situation. After the phones’ initial usefulness and the functionality of what it lets me do, it offers diminishing returns. I’ve realised that I have to put my phone away and step back into the real world.

Our use of smartphones and mobile computers is not going to go away, though, and we perhaps need to figure out how we can get the best out of our use of them, and not succumb to the negative and anxiety-inducing effects of social media. We need to think about how we can use smartphones in a way that is more enriching and fulfilling. Who, though, can we turn to for help in achieving this?

About seventy percent of the population are regarded as being extrovert in their social disposition. That is, they have a preference and ease for being with other people, and they draw their energy from social situations. The remaining people are introvert in their disposition, which means that they draw their energy from a more inward-looking experience, and find social situations more of a drain. We all have to be able to work in both realms, but one is preferred over the other, so getting the right kind of balance is important.

Introverts are people who can live in a world of inner-experience. They can be absorbed in a world of ideas, stories and concepts that are lucid and extensive, sensual and deep-rooted, but which are primarily formed from inner-thoughts and reflections. Whether it is playing by oneself or spending hours engaging in a solitary task, or reading a book, introverts have no problem being by themselves. Indeed, most introverts struggle with gregarious social situations that are noisy and busy.

The sensory overload can be overwhelming and very tiring. Extroverts thrive in these situations, not being able to sit still for long periods without interacting or exchanging tacit acknowledgements of each other’s co-presence.

We live in a world, however, that focuses almost exclusively on extroversion as an essential social attribute, to the point where natural introverts are often made to feel dysfunctional and retarded. Be more outgoing is a phrase that is often given as sound advice, in an attempt to encourage introverts to engage more in the social world. As if maintaining one’s popularity and extended social connectedness is a virtue that can be explained purely on its own terms.

Yes, social connections re important, but most of what passes as social communication between people can be useless chatter that doesn’t really add a great deal to the grand scheme of things.

When I use social dating apps, for example, the conversations usually start by saying ‘hi, how are you?’ So often, however, they never go anywhere else beyond that, because many of the people chatting have nothing to say.

My problem is the other way around. I have far too much to say and finding an outlet for more extended discussions can be difficult. Hence why I journal and blog. I read often, I listen to music most days, walking about with my headphones on. I enjoy solitary walks, and I find I can spend long periods of time working alone with no undue side-effects, other than getting bored with my own company eventually. I don’t mind the rich inner-world of ideas that I am immersed in, and I suspect that most other introverts are the same as well.

So, being an introvert strikes me as being an advantage in the social media culture that we are increasingly immersed in. Introverts will be able to teach extroverts something about coping and strategizing time spent in a largely symbolic and mediated environment. Those hours spent reading, drawing, writing, sewing, planning, coding, designing, are hours well spent. Being immersed in mental work isn’t easy, and it isn’t for everyone, but there are some useful skills that introverts can pass on to our extroverted brethren that can help them to come to terms with this mental activity.

How do we learn to manage the thought processes, the inner dreamscapes and the imagined possibilities that form the valuable core of introspection? Introverts probably take these processes for granted, in the same way that extroverts take their social interaction for granted. What we can learn from each other, then, is to draw from the active engagement techniques as well as the inner-reflection techniques that both the extrovert and the introvert has to offer.

We all need to engage in both modes of operation, and neglecting one at the experience of the other, is itself a problem. But the next time we use our social media apps, consider for a moment what the world is that we are being drawn to, and how it’s ideas and patterns of communication take shape, because these experiences, in the words of George Harrison, come from both within us and without us.

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