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Summary:

The social web has given rise to all sorts of new behaviors and personalities, not least of them: the web introvert. And in time, they are going to present a problem to the growth of sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Over the past several years, the web has been kind to extroverts. Social networks have offered a new platform for people to broadcast their thoughts, connect with each other and expand their contacts in the online realm. The social web has even ushered in a new kind of extroversion, in which people who might be shy or uneasy in traditional social settings can express themselves online.

Much less noticeable is another trend: the rise of the web introvert. But while some web introverts might be introverted in the classic sense — that is, uncomfortable in social settings — many of them aren’t shy at all. They are simply averse to having a public presence on the web. And in time, they are going to present a problem for social sites like Facebook and Twitter, whose potential growth will be limited unless they can successfully court them.

Web introversion isn’t a question of technophobia or security concerns. Anyone who has tried to build out their online networks on Facebook knows that there are a lot of people they know in real life that they can’t friend online. Many people who have been involved in technology for years — or who are entirely comfortable shopping at Amazon, paying bills online, buying songs from iTunes — will have nothing to do with social networks. Others see it as a chore necessary for their jobs. Still others have accounts languishing on all the major social networks.

If you ask a web introvert why he or she isn’t into social networks, the response often comes down to a matter of trust – or rather, a lack of it. It’s frustrating enough that each social network has its own etiquette to master, but many people are loathe to make the effort because of the unpleasant reality that there is no such thing as privacy on the web.

And typically, the more that web introverts understand the nature of the web, the less willing they are to expose themselves on it. For while you might start off thinking you own your tweets, you really don’t. And if you don’t want your Facebook information open to the public, you need to follow closely that site’s constant privacy changes. Moreover, regardless of the site, a casual comment that, in an offline conversation would be forgotten, is preserved for years on the web — and could come back to haunt you.

For extroverts, this is all just part of navigating the social web. But enough people are uncomfortable with social networks that it’s going to become a barrier to growth in the coming years. For now, Facebook’s growth is continuing simply because there are more and more extroverts signing up. And Twitter is still in the stage of experimenting with ways to make money.

Eventually growth rates will slow and these companies will see web introverts as an alienated part of the market that they need to court. Each introvert, after all, is a lost opportunity for revenue. But it may be that these characteristics are so inherent in the social web that such people simply can’t be courted.

Image courtesy of Flickr user creatingkoan.

  1. I think the ceiling for growth will actually rise over the long run. A significant factor in web introversion may be generational gaps. It seems that people who grew up with only traditional media, say Generation X and below, tend to trust the open nature of social media much less. Younger people gain exposure to the nuances of social media much sooner, and develop a greater level of comfort. These newer generations of media users continue to develop and are bred as the next wave of consumers.

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  2. Trust is something of a problem….but boredom is a factor as well. I’m on Facebook, and hardly ever log on, except when there’s some kind of relevant note, which is rare. I tried Twitter, and am on LinkedIn. I buy online all the time. I am not shy and have always been an early-adopter type.

    I and others find the whole SM phenomenon highly overrated. Just as Friendster disappeared, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if Facebook is barely used in 5 or 10 years.

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  3. Listen to this lawyer loud and clear: Yes, phrases of any length that have any creativity or originality at all are copyrighted. Essentially any sentence that isn’t just one that people have said a million times before counts as “original.” So, “I’m hungry.” Not copyrighted. “I’m hungry for an elephant sandwich.” Copyrighted.

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    1. But any writer (or artist or developer) would then ask, what is “original”? I can imagine this question coming up in the courts, and the wrong side prevailing.

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  4. Those people who sign up for Facebook, Twitter, etc. are not extroverts. They simply have a need to be in constant touch/communication with people they know – or know about.

    You were describing me in that I have been involved with computers since the 1970s, programming and teaching programming as well as computer literacy. And I have no problem paying practically all of my bills (and donating to Katrina, Haiti, etc.) on my computer. But I find that I have no need to chat with people I know. If we need to communicate, I can e-mail or call them. Others do not have to be in on the conversation.

    That comment about Gen-X is beyond me. These are the people who speed when they think they can get away with it. These are the people who don’t stop at stop signs if they think no po-po are watching. These are the people who will be using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking. Going forward, I would expect that the people who have no need for social networking (like me) will always exist, independent of their ages.

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    1. @macdad.

      “They simply have a need to be in constant touch/communication with people they know – or know about.”

      I make no claims of having much understanding of psychology, but how is that not extroversion?

      “But I find that I have no need to chat with people I know. If we need to communicate, I can e-mail or call them. Others do not have to be in on the conversation.”

      This was a feature of so-called web 1.0 that was appealing to many people who made it work: You get to control your communications. It’s still – sort of – true in web 2.0 (or wherever we are now) but every day it seems less and less true. And it’s less true already than many people are comfortable with.

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  5. I don’t think it’s an issue of trust, it’s an issue of ROI. As in, what do I really get for spending countless hours making sure all of my social network profiles are up to date?

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    1. @Lou. I looked over the post you linked to, and its main point seemed to be that introverts can have a way to express themselves on the web. Which I agree with, and made pretty quickly to move onto a second point – what we traditionally think of as introversion (a reluctance to engage socially) is manifesting itself for different reasons on the web.

      Because the web should be able to provide a haven for introverts, there shouldn’t be as many. Some research says 25% of the population are introverts. I’d bet there is a larger percentage of the web’s population avoiding social networks because of the reasons I outlined. I say “I bet” because I haven’t been able to find data on this, although I would love to see it.

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  6. Yeah, I wrote an essay about this subject, based it on a David Foster Wallace essay re TV and introverts – http://madebyfight.com/2010/01/dear-marketers-the-web-is-not-a-tv-channel/

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  7. I had a really bad experience a couple of years ago. I had a cyberbully following me, making fun of my family, etc. From then on, I never ever publish anything personal in public. I used to share pictures and thoughts with my family in Facebook (private settings) but not anymore. Since they are now more open now, I proceeded to erase everything because I don’t trust them anymore. Now I only use the site to promote my blog.

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  8. i’m one of these folks, but i wouldn’t say i’m an introvert. i could care less about FB, Twitter, or the others. email & the phone are all i need to manage my social network.

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  9. To be sure there are people who are averse to social networking, but IMHO that is hardly the showstopper this post seems to perceive. Half the human race is not a potential customer to lipsticks, and the cosmetics industry doesn’t seem to be in a panic that this will restrict growth. There will always be more than enough extroverts – and with the world’s population growing fast, their number will continue to rise.

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    1. Yes, but a lot of companies that sell lipstick to women (and drag queens) also sell deodorants and razors to men who don’t buy lipstick. There is no deodorant to counter-sell Facebook’s lipstick.

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      1. Good point, Kevin. Still, I think Facebook still has many target users to add at present; by the time they run out of new users hopefully they’ll think of something… or be driven out of business by some other factor or competitor.

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