Can we be mindful in the 21st century?

Introverts make up at least one-third of the population—maybe as high as one-half—yet in so many ways the world feels as if it’s made only for extroverts. How can it be that our social systems benefit one type of person while alienating the other?[^alienation]

Pop culture often presents the introvert as being inadequate and odd, a type of person to be fixed or merely tolerated when possible. Introverts are often described as antisocial, but it would be more accurate to say introverts have a different threshold for social interaction. I, as an introvert, recognized this distinction during the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, I thought I’d be fine in isolation. But forced social distancing revealed that I craved interaction. Interaction itself wasn’t the issue—the quality and frequency of interaction were the real questions.

And those questions of quality and frequency have led to my questioning online interactions, mostly via social media. This extroverted world expects us to be everywhere online at all times. Digital tools are available to help us scale, to be present at many places at once. But operating this way leads to the problems of the quality and the frequency of conversation. We’re told to keep the conversation going so that the social media engagement algorithms1 favor us and push our content to more viewers in the name of promoting the conversation—conversation we may not even want to be part of.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking2, Susan Cain argues that introverts need seclusion to recover after interactions. Introverts tend to perceive more than extroverts, Cain says, so introverts have more to sort through after social situations. This always ‘ON’ world of social media means introverts have an endless wave of interactions to process, all of this in addition to their offline interactions.

But what about the physical world, the one we live in without the need for screens? Where’s the concern about making sure we’re present there, and that we can process all happening around us? How can any anyone hope to process anything when new events are constantly dinging for our attention? We’re constantly connected to the world at all times. But why? Do we want to be? Should we want to be?

Questions like these are the ones that have been floating in my head since I started reading Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now3 by Douglas Rushkoff. What exactly does ‘present’ mean? What is the true present moment? The tangible present, or the virtual present?

Are these questions as concerning for extroverts? Or, do they feel the more presents, the better? If you see an issue, you must then consider the costs, both the costs of being so present and also the cost of not being present. You must find your own balance and determine when and where you want to be present—or have the energy to do so. Some will try to convince you that you must be everywhere. But if you’re everywhere, are you really ever anywhere? This is the same question I ask of those hoping to scale their presence with the help of AI. Doesn’t being everywhere in such fashion cheapen the worth of your time and presence? Isn’t your scarce availability the true value of your presence? Is there any added value in our truly being present? Will anyone know the difference?

The promise of ‘community’ is supposed to be part of the appeal of social media and the modern web. But so many digital platforms seek to be a one-size-fits-all solution for the masses. ‘Community’ and ‘masses’ are often conflicting terms. How often can we have community if we invite the masses? To be noticed on these platforms often requires appeasing to the masses while ignoring your potential true audience, meaning the masses then distract from the true community.

Our presence is more than a simple commodity. Or is it?

By embracing digital extroversion, not only are we giving away our attention and our presence—we’re also giving away data, which recently may have been used to train generative AI models we now fear may take our jobs4.

Living as an extrovert introduces noise, both literal and figurative, into your life, which is fine if you’re up for it. But the extroverted web doesn’t want you to slip away to recover and rejoin when you’re ready. The extroverted web says you’re missing out on the endless firehouse of content that will be outdated and irrelevant by the time you learn about it. You’re also missing out on exposure, as the most crucial part of the online growth formula seems to be consistency, meaning you must constantly churn out content so that your audience doesn’t forget you.

These days, there’s far too much content to stay current on. And what kind of audience do you have—and what’s your relationship with them—if the volume of your output is exponentially more valuable than the quality of your output?

The tech giants have built their platforms on our content. They’ve simply given us a place to connect, but we do the hard work of creating content that keeps eyeballs on the page or on the app. No wonder the tech giants love the extroverted model.

Eventually, digital extroversion turns into neediness, in the form the need to be liked and accepted, to increase the chances of being watched. A need to be interesting without offending, for fear of having your content demonetized or shadowbanned. This neediness risks becoming a need to fit in, to be like everyone else online—an NPC5 in a vast sea of unimaginative homogenization where imitation is often the safest path to success.

For some, this formula may not be a problem, especially if the main goal is to be popular. But the rest of us likely find ourselves sucked into this way of thinking because it’s so prevalent—we don’t even realize we’re influenced by it. So we end up chasing a goal we may not even want. We no longer create only for the sake of it. We create for likes and views and follows, making the internet far less interesting and dynamic.

Offline, introverts often get out of their shells to put themselves out there and meet the world halfway. But to have meaningful sustained discourse with introverts often requires pursuing them to some degree. Maybe this is how it should be online as well. Offline, we have the option to go to so many parties that we never attend. Maybe this is how it should be online too. We can try the parties every once in a while when we feel up to it, but the rest of the time you can find us at our websites and email addresses. Reaching us may take a little effort on your end, but hopefully it’s worth it.

  1. Social media engagement algorithms and the illusion of choice on ↩︎

  2. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain on (Affiliate link) ↩︎

  3. Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now* by Douglas Ruskhoff on (Affiliate link) ↩︎

  4. X may train AI with its users' posts. Are other social media sites doing the same? on ZDNet ↩︎

  5. What Does Is It Mean To Be Called An NPC? The Gen Z Insult and Slang Term Explained on Know Your Meme ↩︎