The Socially Anti-Social

Last week Belghast raised an interesting topic. Izlain brought it up on the most recent Couch Podtatoes episode, and I’ve been thinking on it ever since. Has technology made us less social? Are we anti-social these days?


That’s a difficult argument to prove even for those who believe it. We communicate in more and varied ways today than ever. Technology has supported socialization …but a very different kind, just like all media of any given era. Radio changed the amount of speeches and book readings we could attend. TV made theater accessible to even the poor. Placing a computer in every home has also come with it’s bonuses and downsides. We’re learning to socialize in dramatically different ways. It’s not really surprising that we don’t do it in the ways we did even 10 years ago or that it’s impacts on our social lives have been so huge.

Belghast said that the idea of face-to-face communication as the norm is extrovert centric and I think that’s a fair point. I hadn’t really thought of it that way before, but that still seems unlikely. It’d be like saying the human diet is food-centric — it sounds correct, but it’s also a little absurd. It’s well established that humans are intensely social creatures, literally surviving on interactions with other humans. Can we lead rich social lives without coming into physical contact with humans? Guess it depends on how we define rich.

But usually I hear people describe how they’d rather spend their time on the internet than face to face and I can’t help but feel they’re missing something. The longer we’re alone with the internet, using it as a proxy for socializing, the more comfortable it feels and the more uncomfortable we’ll feel in face-to-face interactions. There are literally thousands if not millions of people around the world who know this feeling, and apparently it’s not too surprising. It’s just the times we live in. Studies conducted about how we use the internet and it’s impacts on our social lives show a significant correlation between increased internet use and decreased socialization. I think we’ve adapted to a certain level of anti-socialization. That’s my fancy term for saying “people like to have their cake and eat it too”. We want all of the perks of socializing with people with none of the downsides. A free and open internet delivers this, but in doing so it breaks people down into byte-size for our consumption.

What if you could have all the joys of socializing without any of the discomfort? Well …you can! The internet allows us to communicate in ever preciser doses of social interactions. We can use chat boxes when we don’t want to hear voices, avatars when we don’t want to use videos, pictures when we want to see faces. At no point on the internet am I forced to view (pictures), watch (interaction), feel (emotions) and hear people all at once which is what face-to-face interactions require. I can chose to enjoy the pieces of socializing that suit me and discard all the rest. And that’s exactly what we do on the internet. And that’s anti-social in my opinion.

This is why internet anonymity is dear to us. It is control. I can be precisely who I want whenever I want. People’s perceptions of me will be whatever I want them to be since I control the entire interaction, unlike face-to-face where we’re constantly judged by appearances, sounds and bodies. We love to socialize, and if something else controls how we do it then we’re effectively back to the way things where before the internet. Choosing to surf the net instead of going out with friends on a Saturday night is a perfectly normal choice, but the former is inherently less social than the latter. Still, there’s also really good reason to prefer virtual gatherings to physical ones.

I'm prepared for Games Tourism. Aren't you?

I’m prepared for Games Tourism. Aren’t you?

People are exhausting and it’s not really because any one of us is extroverted or introverted even though that plays a part. People literally place demands on our energy when face to face. We have to talk with them, tapping into our emotions, making us think about their ideas, adjusting to their physical presence …socializing literally requires a lot of energy. So it’s no wonder anyone could feel exhausted after a gathering, going out, party or other social event. There’s nothing abnormal about that. But what’s interesting is that in this technological time people have suddenly noticed the amount of energy that this takes, whereas before we took it for granted. And having noticed, we can now make a choice to save our energy for other things. That’s not a tough decision to make. If I can put that energy to more efficient use while getting the amount of socialization I need to get by, I’ll naturally prefer this method over any traditional way of socializing. Whether that’s healthy or not will, to some extent, depend on the person but what we do know is that too much isolation from other people causes psychological distress — and that’s not healthy. There’s good reason that solitary confinement is used as a method of torture and punishment. We know how bad the effects of loneliness are on people.

I think communicating face-to-face is still important, it doesn’t matter if you’re introvert or extrovert. There’s a reason we’re born yearning for a human touch and a human face. Those yearnings are part of what make us human. The internet isn’t yet mature enough to make that less important. Today we’re adapted to the current technology, we’re used to it’s demands and perks. In this case, I can chose to socialize via the net instead of in person. Either way, I still always chose to connect with people, which says a lot about what we really want. No one wants to be alone, we prefer to spend time with people, even when we chose to do it over the internet introverts and extroverts alike.

I'm personally looking forward to this. I suspect the movie The Surrogates has a special importance to humanity a warning.

I’m personally looking forward to this. I suspect the movie The Surrogates has a special importance to humanity …as a warning.

And that’s why VR is going to explode all these concepts of introvert and extrovert! Those same people who call themselves introverts (me included) will be the first with virtual avatars, walking through Janus or going to VR travel agents …and they’ll do it so that they can see other avatars and be in their presence. I personally want to see how extroverts react to this, because I have a feeling they’re less likely to embrace it than the same introverts who prefer the net to real faces. We love being around people more than we care to admit.

I enjoy being alone and I love being in the company of people, the former more than the latter. Before I married I was spending an inordinate amount of time on the internet. I remember feeling crazy some nights being alone. Some part of me enjoyed the silence, but some other part of me felt it wasn’t enough, the feeling of something missing and not in the “I want a partner” sort of way. It wasnt’ loneliness or unhappyness, it was just the feeling of something …missing. A bit off. One way or another, I found excuses to be around people I enjoyed or went out to meet new people to enjoy, even though I still spent the majority of my time alone and even though while in the company of people I didn’t tend to interact with them in any way at all. I need to experience the presence of people. I found the balance for me and I suspect everyone finds that balance for themselves. I think it’s a very strange idea that life can be rich without the strong presence of people, even if it’s just a handful of essential people. That’s tough to imagine because in some ways people are what make my world feel large and full of possibilities.

A really unfortunate side effect of the internet age is that while trying to spend our energies socializing more efficiently, we’re objectifying human interaction. In our minds, we now have Human Interactions in nice little packages of varying sizes and shapes which we can go to the internet and “shop” for. Feeling anti-social? Turn off the social media or ramp up my inner-troll (consequence free!). Want to feel voices around you? Hang out on Twitter. Need someone to talk to? Open Skype and pick any of the dozens of impossible numbers of “friends” on your list and strike up a conversation. We didn’t aim for this state of affairs, but when you think about it it’s all kinda anti-social because we’re just looking for pieces of others, the pieces we’re comfortable with. We want the perks of interacting with people without actually interacting with people. Socially anti-social.

In this crazy age of cyborgs we view each other less and less as necessary and I don’t like the idea of people becoming unnecessary to one another, so I tend to think that at some levels, internet socialization is harmful. But I suspect many of us think that. We just don’t know where to draw that line or at what point we’ve crossed it. At what point is preferring the company of virtual people anti-social? Can we really socialize with pieces of people? How we understand the word socialization is changing, but so are we.

I’ve rambled on enough here. This subject is endless, like the droves of billions of humans around the planet. We’re not in a danger zone yet, I don’t think. But when people say that the internet is making us anti-social, I suspect they feel that the line between socializing and anti-social is being blurred or crossed for them. They’re afraid, like many of us, of people forgetting people and I think that’s a healthy and well-founded fear to have.

7 thoughts on “The Socially Anti-Social

  1. As a very strong introvert, I get plenty of extravert style face-to-face interaction in my daily life in the working world (or even when schooling.) That totally tires me out acting in that fashion where others might feel recharged from it.

    So at home and during one’s leisure time, it’s much nicer to interact in styles that make more sense and more relaxing to me. I type more fluidly and coherently than I talk – it’s a more introverted reflective style – and lo and behold, on the internet, you can find people who are interested in this style of discussion, on specific topics of interest, as compared to talking about the weather, or sports, or where you live, or what was on TV in the general workday world at large.

    • I can’t judge your personal circumstance, I don’t know you well enough. Instead I’m just going to explain how introversion generally works in general. Of course, people are unique and we’re a mix of a LOT of things, especially when it comes to behavior. So I’m not in any way trying to tell you what YOU experience. Just trying to explain that one sector of our behavior that’s attributed to introversion.

      What you describe is exactly what I mean when I said that it’s perfectly natural for anyone to be exhausted by face-to-face encounters. It’s not really got anything to do with being introverted, because introversion doesn’t mean people wear you out. It’s about enjoying solitary activities, not loathing physical ones (a subtle but critical distinction). While it’s true extroverts thrive on group activities, they don’t suffer from doing solitary activities. It’s similar for introversion, it’s not defined by our energy around people, just our preference for being alone with ourselves. Introversion is simply about the preference for being alone. It’s like defining the word run as “not walking”. That’s not quite what it means even if “not walking” is an accurate description.

      Instead we find solitude more rewarding than group activities, but we’re not defined by anxiety or having our energy sapped around people. That’s not introversion and I know it’s sort of popularly thought to be that way, but that’s something else. We (introverts) like analyzing things and we don’t like situations where we don’t get quality time to do that. Being face-to-face interrupts that analytical process and we don’t like it, but that’s got a lot more to do with our preferences for thinking than anything else. Introverts may not prefer to be around people, but it’s not because people drain them. It’s because I can spend that energy better without them.

      Honestly, there’s a funny mix of things going on when people say they don’t want to be around other people on a consistent basis. There’s the introvert factor which isn’t so much about not wanting to be around people as it is a preference for being alone. Then there’s social anxiety, where people are prone to avoiding others because they don’t feel well around (whether due to physical factors like nervousness, anxiety or mental ones like negative thinking). Then there’s the internet where people have a lot of freedom and control over our interactions. Put anyone on the internet for a few years and they will change their behavior around people. So untangling these things to figure out why I might feel uncomfortable in the presence of people isn’t as simple as blaming introversion. There’s a mix of things in this picture that need unpacking to be understood.

      • I’m going to have to jump in on that description of introversion that you are going with, Doone. The most accurate description of introversion and extroversion around, is centred on energy levels. Introverts absolutely are drained by social interaction; extroverts gain energy by it. Introverts recharge by being solitary and/or quiet (not necessarily alone, per se, e.g. reading in bed with your partner is fine); extroverts find solitude and quiet to be where their energy falls – they need social interaction to recharge.

        But introverts do not “prefer to be alone”. They prefer to regulate their social interactions in order to not become too drained. Thus they are more likely to want to control the spaces where they interact and be able to leave those spaces when they feel close to their limit. This doesn’t even need to be a final departure – you could just need a 10 minute breather outside before heading back in to the party. Face to face interactions are usually more difficult to extricate yourself from without offending others or inviting expressions of concern, which becomes awkward and even more stressful or draining. But online interactions are still draining, just easier to control. That is why they are more appealing to a lot of introverts.

        • That’s not quite correct, but I see what you’re trying to say. It’s true extroverts seem to get their energy from being around people. But it’s also true that when the word “introvert” is said, people are actually saying a lot of things, especially that this individual doesn’t like being around people. But this isn’t actually what it means. Introversion/extraversion has less to do with being in groups than it does with mental modes or attitudes of being. I’m no psychologist, so I’m not used to explaining these and I apologize if my point is obscure. My point is that the way people use the terms in popular jargon is not what the terms actually mean.

          I’m also introverted so I have no dog in this fight, I’m not trying to pick on other introverts.

          Introversion (I)

          I like getting my energy from dealing with the ideas, pictures, memories, and reactions that are inside my head, in my inner world. I often prefer doing things alone or with one or two people I feel comfortable with. I take time to reflect so that I have a clear idea of what I’ll be doing when I decide to act. Ideas are almost solid things for me. Sometimes I like the idea of something better than the real thing.

          The definition is in the word. “intro” is to turn inward. It’s not to “turn away”, but to turn inward and that’s the distinction few people make when they use the term. They see introversion as turning away from people, instead of turning inward to oneself. The term was coined by psychologists to describe individuals with a strong preference for introspection. Introverts are NOT defined by how we behave around others, but our preference for analyzing and thinking things through. A subtle, but critical difference to make.

          Does this mean there aren’t introverts who do become drained due to the the presence of people? Or who also get social anxiety? I don’t recall denying it. What I said instead is that people inaccurately pass this off to introversion, and that’s not introversion. It’s very easy for us to experience several things at once or to be several things at once.

          As they are popularly used, the term extraverted is understood to mean sociable or outgoing, while the term introverted is understood to mean shy or withdrawn. Jung, however, originally intended the words to have an entirely different meaning. He used the words to describe the preferred focus of one’s energy on either the outer or the inner world. Extraverts orient their energy to the outer world, while Introverts orient their energy to the inner world.

          We’re usually several things at once. What we can’t do is chalk up our social behavior to introversion/extraversion. There’s a lot more going on there than that. That’s also why I think people are going to see introverts flock to VR so that they can get their digital bodies inside the net and act in all the ways they claimed they didn’t like before 🙂

        • “Jung, however, originally intended the words to have an entirely different meaning. He used the words to describe the preferred focus of one’s energy on either the outer or the inner world. Extraverts orient their energy to the outer world, while Introverts orient their energy to the inner world.”

          This is exactly what I was talking about. When introverts have to focus their energy to the outer world (i.e. social interaction), it taxes them in a way that it does not tax extraverts. When extraverts are alone, or have to focus their energy inward, it taxes them in a way that it does not tax introverts. That’s what I mean when I talk of being drained.

          I agree it is not the mere presence of people that drains introverts or recharges extraverts. It is the interaction with those people that causes it. It’s why I can be perfectly happy in a crowded lecture theatre, listening to a teacher, yet feel significantly less energetic after the same amount of time in a tutorial class where discussion is expected. Or feel more exhausted by the BBQ event on a Saturday than the trip to a live sports game on the Sunday with a couple of friends or family.

          You are right that introverts are not defined by the way they behave around others. But to say that the way energy is focused is not a major factor in how people plan or spend their time is very misguided, I think.

  2. I remember feeling crazy some nights being alone. – Doone

    Just to point out something. This is purely how you felt being alone, not a representation of how all people, or all introverts feel. I usually qualify calling myself an introvert by saying I am not shy, socially awkward, or suffering social anxieties, and I am also a natural loner. The only time I get antsy alone, it isn’t about being unable to socialize. It’s about a lack of physical contact, someone to curl up next to. That only happens about once a month or less. If someone were to come over at that point and they wanted to talk (aka socialize), that what would make me feel crazy. I relish and seek as much alone time as I can get. I go to movies alone (by choice), to restaurants alone, to sporting events alone, hiking alone.

    It’s why I can be perfectly happy in a crowded lecture theatre, listening to a teacher, yet feel significantly less energetic after the same amount of time in a tutorial class where discussion is expected. – Dahakha

    One hundred percent this. I’m totally happy in a crowd of 28,000 walkers and runners, packed in … there’s a high energy level, but I don’t have to socialize. I can just absorb, for lack of another word, the excitement. Put me instead in a bar with less than 100 people, half of them people I know, and I’m looking fo an excuse to leave or carefully narrowing my attention to no more than three or four people at a time. I feel drained by the time I leave, even if I have multiple good conversations, enjoy meeting several new people, and would later say I had a great time. Mentally, spiritually if I must use that word, I am wiped out and will go a week or longer without social outings to get back to a sense of equilibrium.

    I would definitely not leap into a VR opportunity to socialize out-of-body because my primary need from socializing is physical. A fake touch, no matter how seemingly real, is no better than squeezing my teddy bear hard when I want a person to hug. I do leap into ways I can socialize online because, as you point out, I have control of how much and when. But pre-technology, I already did the same. Letter-writing was sporadic with penpals based on when we felt like conversing. Answering machines allowed us to avoid calls from people so we didn’t feel obligated to go out. Getting out of the house before there were mobile phones meant escaping from people. A book on the bus (much like those newspapers) was not just a way to catch up on reading, but a way to avoid being sucked into pointless small talk conversations. (That last is something many introverts can’t take … “Hi. How are you? Good. Me too. Looks like it will be warm today. Did you have a good weekend?” Repeat that every day for weeks and you want to gag the other person rather than socialize with them.)

    EDIT by Doone: Fixed your blockquotes.

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