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An introvert in a digital world: How technology is empowering the quieter half

Read Time 9 Mins
Learning & Development

Many learners, creatives, entrepreneurs, and thinkers are introverts by nature, and the digital age is finally giving them a chance to shine.

It was a young Mary Shelley who keenly wrote: “Solitude was my only consolation – deep, dark, deathlike solitude.” To some, this may sound poignantly off-putting. To an introvert like me, it’s just another Friday night.

The day I learned the word “introvert” my entire life flashed before my eyes. Suddenly, this obscure and unknown piece of myself was no longer elusive but had a name. I could say it. I could taste it. I could almost reach out and touch it. In one of my favorite television series, Penny Dreadful, the main character, Vanessa Ives, also a lover of deathlike solitude, says: “I’ve always felt you have to name a thing before it comes to life.” And here it was, alive and breathing and beautifully mine. Brewing inside me were overwhelming feelings of excitement and curiosity; but most of all, freedom.

I spent the day reading every article and taking every test on introversion I could lay my eyes on. The sky could fall and I wouldn’t care; I finally knew the answer to the question that had followed me like a shadow my entire life: Why are you so quiet? I could lean back, smile and proudly say: I’m an introvert.

The body of introversion

The idea of introversion-extraversion goes back nearly a century. We can thank Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist, for first coining the term “introvert” – inward-looking – and its antipode ‘extravert’ (spelled with an “a” by Jung) – outward looking in his 1920s work, Psychologische Typen (Psychological Types).

I spent the day reading every article and taking every test on introversion I could lay my eyes on. The sky could fall and I wouldn’t care; I finally knew the answer to the question that had followed me like a shadow my entire life. Share on X

Jung likened the types to ancient archetypes – introverts to Apollo, the God of the Sun, who was insightful and reserved, and extraverts to Dionysus, the God of Wine and Spirits, who was social and active. Jung’s theory isn’t quite what is used today to interpret introversion and extraversion (in the Jungian system, extraverts experience the world as object and introverts experience the world through their own subject); but it is one of many. Modern personality modalities, including the ever-popular Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Big Five Aspects Scales, are behaviorist in nature and use traits such as sociability and loquacity (how chatty you are) to test for introversion-extraversion.

However, new research is exploring what truly defines someone as an introvert. In an upcoming paper, Dr Colin DeYoung identifies the “reward sensitivity theory”:

“People who score low in Extraversion are not necessarily turned inward; rather, they are less engaged, motivated, and energized by the possibilities for reward that surround them. Hence, they talk less, are less driven, and experience less enthusiasm. They may also find levels of stimulation that are rewarding and energizing for someone high in Extraversion merely annoying or tiring.”

This isn’t all theory.

Scientifically speaking, the difference between introverts and extroverts (to use the more common spelling) can be seen in the body, specifically the size of brain structures responsible for sensitivity to rewards, such as the medial orbitofrontal cortex, which codes the reward values of incoming stimuli (#bornthisway). According to a theory by German psychologist Hans Eysenck, differences in behavior in introverts and extroverts are due to differences in cortical arousal (the speed and amount of the brain’s activity). Compared with extroverts, introverts have naturally high cortical arousal, and may process more information per second.

Dr Perpetua Neo similarly explains that “introverts have a lower threshold of dopamine sensitivity than extroverts” and are more easily stimulated (dopamine is responsible for the differences in brain sensitivity to rewards and according). Other studies have included measuring differences in cerebral blood flow, neuronal activity, reticular activating system (RAS), social stimuli, and language.

Quiet integrity

Before the twentieth century, introverts lived comfortably secluded, only emerging from their dark lairs for an occasional social gathering or necessary interaction. “America used to be a paradise for introverts. If you weren’t a lone cowboy riding the range in a driving snow, you lived on a farm miles from town, opening your front door onto a field of seven-foot-tall corn stalks,” writer Philip Bump humorously explains.

America used to be a paradise for introverts.

This era, referred to as a “culture of character,” was defined by morality and quiet integrity (think Abraham Lincoln). It was only after the Industrial Revolution, when people flocked to the cities and big business boomed, that we morphed into a “culture of personality,” one defined by charismatic personalities, shiny movie stars, and bold leadership. Letter writing became telegraphs, then telephones; long travels were truncated by cars and planes; dark lairs became open-plan offices – all leaving little room for quiet integrity.

Silence in the classroom

Classrooms also shifted, increasingly designed to cater to the extrovert: children sit in groups and are rewarded for working together, speaking up or asking a question. Aptitude is equated with engagement and engagement with how often a student speaks up or participates in class. My own mother constantly tells me stories of receiving report cards with straight A’s accompanied by docks for participation and notes such as “too serious” or “needs to participate more.” Anecdotally, my story reflects that of so many others: despite academic success, introverts are often penalized for who they are – some even have to “pretend to be extroverts in order to fit into the system,” as I so often did.

While this cultural shift pathologized introversion, it didn’t eradicate the introvert. Studies show that introverts make up one-third to one-half of the US population and are often the brains behind history’s great creative accomplishments and innovations. According to studies by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist, the most creative people in many fields are often introverted. Perhaps because solitude, which is often the catalyst to creativity and innovation, is where introverts are most apt to thrive.

Studies show that introverts make up one-third to one-half of the US population and are often the brains behind history's great creative accomplishments and innovations. Share on X

Look at Steve Wozniak, for example. The Apple co-founder and self-proclaimed introvert writes in his memoir: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone.”

The new power players

If any solution is to exist, a new discourse must be written, one where introverts are raised “to know their own strengths.

In fact, many of the self-described introvert power players in technology are doing just that. Google CEO Larry Page is “personally reserved, unabashedly geeky, and said to be introverted.” According to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, “Introverts can do quite well. If you’re clever you can learn to get the benefits of being an introvert.” A natural introvert, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer proclaims: “I’m just geeky and shy and I like to code.” Speaking of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg says: “[He is] shy and introverted and he often does not seem very warm to people who don’t know him, but he is warm.” Even Sir Isaac Newton was said to be “a deeply introverted character and fiercely protective of his privacy.”

We know that introverts make great leaders and communicators, but are all introverts built the same? The MBTI says no, categorizing introverts into eight separate types built around characteristics such as sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling and judging/perceiving. In the world of tech, Professor Luiz Fernando Capretz reports in his 2002 study that introversion is about 10 percent more common in developers than the general population and that, in terms of the MBTI, developers are twice as likely to be -T- (thinking, rather than feeling) compared to everyone else.

The benefits of bashfulness

No two introverts are the same – some are feelers and some are thinkers, some use more intuition and some are more sensing – but introversion itself breeds unique strengths that help introverts excel in the digital era. Cheryl Conner explores them in an article for Forbes. A few particularly stick out to me:

Introverts create remarkable content

Being quiet comes with a few perks: watching, listening, and processing. This, coupled with the ability to thrive in solitude, makes introverts uniquely gifted in storytelling and communication. The ability to capture a reader with authentic and insightful content is what makes an introvert a power player in the information age.

Introverts get straight to the point

If you equate communication with extemporaneous speaking, it would hold that extroverts would be better communicators than introverts. But communication is more than a great conversation. Having spent all their lives avoiding small talk, nobody knows better than an introvert how to communicate authentically and hold attention through issues and stories that matter, a great skill to have in an era of information overload.

Introverts love to share

With social media becoming more and more about sharing information, ideas, and opinions, it’s no surprise that introverts who naturally live in their heads and love interacting with new ideas will excel at sharing content and information. I always find that I learn new ideas faster by listening. It’s also a lot less taxing. And because the introverted brain is wired differently in that its reward systems are triggered by different stimuli, introverts aren’t as motivated as extroverts by “outward rewards” such as recognition or professional advancement, giving introverts an authentic edge.

Introverts build strong relationships

While extroverts are great at driving conversations and contributing to brainstorming sessions, introverts tend to listen closely to others and carefully observe as events unfold. While these qualities can also be exhausting and limit the number of relationships they have, they also mean that when an introvert invests in a relationship, social cause, or business venture, those engagements are all the more meaningful. Also a reason why introverts make great leaders!

Introverts thrive online

While open-floor offices and team projects may be where extroverts shine, give an introvert a laptop and an empty room and they’ll be in paradise. For many introverts, the Internet is the solution to a lifetime of wanting to share ideas and thoughts with others. And because of this, they have an edge over extroverts who may not be as comfortable navigating the Internet solo for longer periods of time. Introverts don’t know the meaning of cabin fever. Because of this, an introvert can lead a team, whip up a report, article, assignment, or project, or read and share those of others, all in the quiet comfort of their bedroom.

Technology and the “Golden Age for introverts”

“What some describe as an always-on society is, in fact, becoming a Golden Age for introverts, in which it has become easier than ever to carve out time for oneself while meeting the needs of our extroverted friends,” writes Philip Bump. This “mask of extraversion,” something every introvert keeps in their closet, is suddenly a lot less suffocating. It also has a shiny new mouthpiece.

Contrary to stereotype, introverts do have a voice – it’s just packaged a bit differently. What technology offers introverts is the chance to connect on their own terms, in “measured doses and from behind a screen.” For introverts like myself, engaging with people takes A LOT of energy. It’s tiring; not because we don’t like people or don’t have anything to say, but because of our biology. Technology not only offers different communicative options that do not require constant face-to-face interaction, it helps us create an illusion of connectivity: a way for introverts to appear connected and “living out loud” while still living on their own terms. Cue the dark lair.

What technology offers introverts is the chance to connect on their own terms, in “measured doses and from behind a screen.” Share on X

Other things on an introvert’s wish list, such as the eradication of the telephone, are now possible. The phone call, which demands immediate response, is all but extinct, passing the torch to its more humble cousins: the email, text message, and occasional tweet. With technology, introverts can read emails, texts, posts, comments, articles, and messages and still have the time to comfortably process information and respond.

In fact, communication is now akin to information sharing. The pressure to think fast and talk faster is replaced by an ability to think before speaking and connect with others without social cues, pleasantries, or small talk. This is a discourse based on sharing information and content and listening to the ideas of others, and engaging, if so desired.

In classrooms (and even workspaces), incorporating online and other methods of reducing stimulation overload from group work and constant discussion can create space for introverts to engage. You just have to look beyond the waving hands. Teachers and supervisors can create safe spaces for introverts to participate. Learning isn’t one size fits all, nor is it black and white; if participation is absolutely required, look for the gray. Increase the wait time between question and answer to allow the quiet ones the opportunity to process and formulate answers. Or give people time to rehearse their answers by writing them down, which will decrease anxiety and stress and alleviate the “fight or flight” response many introverts feel when put on the spot. Asynchronous learning opportunities give introverts space for self-study: to manage interactions and discoveries on their own.

The other half

Communications expert Cheryl Conner calls it the “revenge of the nerds.” Psychology Today: “Revenge of the Introvert.” I call it a “reclaiming.” And even more so, a “rebranding.”

In classrooms (and even workspaces), incorporating online and other methods of reducing stimulation overload from group work and constant discussion can create space for introverts to engage. Share on X

“One of the most unremarked advances of the online revolution is that we now hear loudly from the quieter half of the population,” writes Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. This is a far cry from the “culture of personality” that emerged after the Industrial Revolution and allowed for the biggest and loudest to carve their way up. We are now in a “culture of connectivity,” one that has the power to rebalance the scales. We are learning that we don’t all fit into the mold of the social animal or charismatic CEO; some of us are solitary coders or quiet leaders.

While extroversion may still be the stick we are all measured against, the digital age has empowered the quieter half of the population and created new power players by facilitating their unique strengths. In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”

Of course not. You can’t have a party in deep, dark, deathlike solitude. But you can definitely tweet that you are.