Blog Post

The Rise of the Web Introvert

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

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 (s amzn), paying bills online, buying songs from iTunes (s aapl) — 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.

54 Responses to “The Rise of the Web Introvert”

  1. “Up to a point Lord Copper…” (yes, probably still in copyright)

    I guess there are those who worry about security risks and having their information “out there”. However, business owners and particularly small business owners do need to be out there because they need to build trust in their communities because the global village is too large compared with the real village where every tradesperson and professional knew everyone else. Many just don’t understand social media and they tend to be the people who don’t need it.

    What people need to do is manage their on-line reputation. Surely in business it is far better to have one to get to know new people and build trust, offer help and to be seen as a valuable resource? Of course there are people who do not see a need for an online presence of significance but they are not necessarily introverts; just not social animals at all, even with familiar people.

  2. G. Jackson

    Interesting article, but I just want to have a social introversion intervention and say that being introverted does not mean being uncomfortable in social settings or shy. It means that your energy comes from solitude and after a period of vigorous socializing you’re sapped. Many introverts love socializing – on and offline. They may prefer the company of a smaller group to a larger one, but it’s a stereotype to call all introverts shy.

    A reticence to participate online is about being cautious and smart and aware of your digital footprint and its consequences-that, and just being able to find enough time to juggle it all. That isn’t introversion. It’s savvy.

  3. Anthony

    Don’t you have it backwards? I would tend to think that the most frequent users of social media are introverts, because it removes the fears and anxieties of actual contact with another person. Extroverts, on the other hand, are the ones out in the real world trying to get the most out of life, and have to meter the time spent on any particular activity. Right now, I have more time to spend online because of the cold weather. However, once spring arrives, you will not find my indoors other than to work or sleep.

  4. It’s not about being “shy”:
    From: :
    Students in another Twitter-friendly classroom at Purdue University agree that digital communication helps overcome the shyness barrier. “It’s just an easy way to answer questions in class without embarrassing yourself and raising your hand in a big lecture hall,” said one student. Studies frequently discover that greater participation translates into better academic performance, motivation, and a likelihood of adopting different points of view, which is why it is so striking that Twitter can foster that type of communication.

  5. Keith, from personal experience and from what I know about the subject, the reason many introverts don’t participate in the web is because, more often then not, there is little thought put into the participation. The free-for-all nature of interaction on the web almost seems like a party in a Tourette’s ward. I gravitate to blogs, friends and subjects that seem to have more thought and introspection. My business is working with people, organizations and companies in industries and lifestyles that have reluctantly accepted they have to get involved in the web. The key has always been when I tell them to approach social web interaction with a vision in mind. It’s how I approach much of my own participation and increases my viability in what I do.

  6. Kevin – I think you need to read a little more. Your “classic” definition is the generally believed (but incorrect) definition usuall used by extroverts (who dn;t understand us and think we just need to be drawn out of our shells).

    Introverts are not “shy”, or at least, no more likely to be shy than anyone else. The web is actually a Great place for introverts.

    Introverts are ‘charged” by alone time. We’re drained by being around people. The web lets us interact on our own terms without those pesky physical interactions.

    There are certainly people who don’t participate in the social web. But please don’t assign the label of “introvert” to them. In fact, I’d guess that many of these people are really extroverts – too busy being out, surrounded by physical people, to want to play with this “at home, on the web, you call that ‘Social??’ thing.

  7. Pssst. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a huge, better, all-analog world out there that, by comparison, makes social networks an utter waste of time. To label a quality-of-time choice as “introversion” is rather myopic.

  8. My muddle head or I could not flow with you. Are you pointing out to those people who don’t participate to social networks or to those people who participate anonymously?

    I’m much irritated with the people who disguise themselves and find almost impossible to trace their real existence. Are they too new kind of introverts?

    • @Suresh. That’s a great question. By introvert, I meant those who don’t participate in social networks.

      But those who participate anonymously I’d have to call web perverts. By definition, perversion is turning something away from its intended end. That can be something innovative and disruptive. Or it can be a waste of time.

      How I wish that anonymous web perverts could change the web into something better than it is. But until now it has meant web trolls. Wasted energy – they always makes things worse.

      • Lurker

        Anonymity is NOT the problem. Matter of fact, anonymity doesn’t EXIST, except for very rarely.

        It’s psuedonymity that creates the problem, esp. with trolls.

        True anonymity would make web discussion a far better place. Then it would be about the content of the ideas and not about the personality expressing them …

  9. In other words, social networking is just like anything else – of use to some, a time filler for others, and of no real use to the rest of us.

    The only surprise is the fact that it seems to have been assumed that almost everyone would be interested in it. There are plenty of other ways to communicate, both on and offline, that don’t require what a social network offers.

  10. The ROI issue has come up several times in this thread and quite frankly that is the key flaw in social media as far as I am concerned. I’m intelligent, well educated and retired after being professionally engaged in IT since the late 1950s – I can’t for the life of me see what social media has to offer me in return for the effort it might take to participate.

    The whole thing rather reminds me of the superseded communications technology called ISDN – the knockers among the geeks of that time reckoned that ISDN stands for It Still Does Nothing. In my opinion that cap fits the social media just as well

  11. I agree with the article. I use the internet extensively. I’m also on many major social networking sites such as twitter, facebook, Orkut, Linked in etc.

    But I mainly use these as a means of maintaining Pseudo-contact – To keep tab of the people I know whom I may lose touch with, otherwise.

    At the same time, I do not find the need to bare my soul on the ‘Walls’ and ‘tweets’. Some dumb note that I post because of a fleeting emotion at a point of time stays on the web forever. And I do not want the entire world to know my thoughts.

    I use tweets to share my blogs, any articles / news that I found interesting etc. But no personal thoughts. I share photos with my friends using Picasa or Flickr, but do not post them publicly in Facebook or Orkut. I want to be in control of who I communicate with and who I share my feelings with.

  12. I’m very much an INFJ. The Internet is a great way for me to be social and not hit that uncomfortable feeling that I get when I’m in a large crowd. Meeting people online has also given me the motivation to go out and do more social things like tweetup — knowing that I already know people in the room.

  13. Very interesting, I never thought of it that way. Facebook and Twitter are definitely going to have to step up their game if they want to win users over, especially with all these privacy controversies flying around (between Google Buzz and Twitter letting people search you by email address and phone number).

  14. I’ve always called this classification “lurkers” but it seems like you are making the case for services that will cater to a market for those simply uninterested or abjectly opposed to sharing a social graph.

    Indeed, try saving any kind of advanced preferences or settings on popular websites. Google search is a great example. If you want to have anything persistent you have to give up your social graph it would seem.

    • I always thought of “lurking” as community specific. I visit YouTube, and sometimes read the comments but never add to them. I suspect the most avid contributor to Twitter, say, would refrain from posting on a lot of other sites.

      Still, this may be a drag on Google Buzz. I have accepted Google will watch my searches and Gmail. It’s probably futile, but I just don’t want them sniffing my Facebook updates – even though they are far from profound.

      • “I just don’t want them sniffing my Facebook updates”

        This is where a possible pay for privacy might come up later. You pay Facebook (or something like it) a nominal fee and your experience is ad free or data sniff free.

  15. This is so true.After reading this article i’m recalling some of my friends.Whom i often say be there on Facebook.The reply comes like this “I Don’t Want Me To Be Public” Albeit we all know that this good sites like Facebook and Twitter have privacy settings.But it’s hard to make extrovert person understand about social media.
    A nice read indeed.

  16. The only thing this article got right is the first sentence: “Over the past several years, the web has been kind to extroverts.” True, but that is despite things like Facebook which seems to cater to those who don’t actually know how to make friends.
    Facebook is the furthest from “social networking” that I can imagine. It is specifically for those who lack web smarts – the ones that can’t figure out how to use that web space that they got free with their internet account. Or worse, don’t even know it’s there.

    You are never going to find me on Facebook, but I am far from a web introvert. I have lots of on-line friends, various blogs and web pages and – I’m old. This article doesn’t make any sense to me.

    • You’re wrong here. My daughter joined FB when it had first started – maybe 100 members. She has been using the computer since she was two. She also keeps me up to date on what is happening with other family members.

      And with blogs, who needs FB? They- FB, Twitter and MS are practically synonymous IMHO.

      btw- With sites like Tagged, everyone should be wary of so-called social networking sites.

  17. boris vecker

    there are lots of good reasons to be a web “introvert”, and i count myself as a proud web introvert

    first and foremost, the more you say online, the greater the chance that you will say something dumb, and there’s a decent chance that dumb thing will stay close to your name in google until you die. if you say nothing online, you are saying nothing dumb online, and hence nothing dumb shows up when people inevitably google you.

    secondly there is the ROI issue as others point out. i think we’re well past the stage where one must engage every new fad online to demonstrate that you’re in tune with the tech economy. i equate twittering with reading People magazine or watching Entertainment Tonight…the mental exercise is about the same. facebook to me is just an electronic version of bored housewives chatting over the fences in their backyards. is this you? its not me, which is why i am not on facebook.

    99.99% of the yack online serves no purpose other than its own echo chamber. there’s no shame in ducking out on this.

    • @Boris. I am glad to see you call yourself a proud web introvert. I talked to a lot of people who weren’t active on social sites and they expressed the same sentiment. There’s an kind of self-assertion to this mass silence – not a defiance, exactly, although it sometimes is that – that has been ignored by social network companies.

      But not to get to clever here, what’s the difference between making a thoughtful comment to a blog post and making a thoughtful tweet, or update, and so on?

  18. 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.

      • 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

    • @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.

  21. Frank Rizzo

    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?

  22. 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.

    • @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.

  23. 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.

  24. David Mercanus

    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.

  25. 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.