Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 4 / April 1, 1995 / Page 8

Revenge of the Introverts

by Jeb Livingood (

The future looks superficially grim for society's introverts. With the continuous enhancement of pagers, teleconferencing, cellular phones, and the development of personal communicators, a growing verbal inferno threatens to engulf the world's quieter individuals. Yet, silent as they may be, introverts can have a lot to say given the right forum. They've found that the internet can help them communicate in their preferred manner; a written dialogue with time to pause for thought and analysis.

"It makes sense theoretically, and from my empirical studies, that there is some subjective evidence that introverts use e-mail to a larger extent than extroverts," said Janet Thuesen, co-author of Type Talk, a book about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

In MBTI terminology an extrovert is not necessarily someone who is loud or vocal. Instead, the MBTI defines an extrovert as someone who prefers to interact with people and the outside world. They tend to enjoy high-energy, outgoing professions like marketing, sales, journalism, or child care. Conversely, introverts prefer an inner world of concepts and ideas. Their energy comes from quiet thought and introspection. Typical professions preferred by introverts include health technicians, writers, lawyers, or researchers.

On the Internet there are mailing lists for many of the Myers-Briggs "types." The number of introverts on these Myers-Briggs mailing lists is five times greater than the number of extroverts. However, in the United States at large, introverts are a minority group comprising only 25-30% of the total population. "Computers are the friend of the introvert," Thuesen said.

She is quick to point out that "introversion or extroversion are only preferences...." Introverts often exhibit extroverted behavior when society or the work place demands it, much like a left-handed person learns to use the right-handed numeric keypad on a computer keyboard. In office settings even strongly introverted individuals hold, mediate, and actively participate in meetings and team discussions.

Peter Cullins is the director of the Management Information Systems (MIS) department at The Retired Officers Association in Alexandria, Va. He routinely holds meetings with his staff and other computer users from around the association. Still, after the meeting, it's back to his office and a waiting quality control program on his terminal. Few people think of this swaggering cigar-smoking Rear Admiral as an "introvert," but Cullins himself admits it: "Most of the people in my department are introverts, myself included. People that crave conversation and human interaction don't last long programming computers. You need people that want to crawl inside a program and not come out until it's working."

Thuesen agrees, "Extroverts often seem too impatient for computers; they get frustrated. They would rather be out talking to someone or performing some action."

Conversely, introverts readily adapt to using computers as a communications tool. Perhaps this is because traditional verbal exchanges can frustrate introverts when more outspoken individuals dominate a conversation. An Internet user in Australia recently wrote:

"I used to spend so much time thinking about what someone had said, determining all the possible repercussions etc., that by the time it came to contributing to the discussion, the "moment had passed," so to speak. People then assumed that I had nothing to say or that I wasn't interested, simply because I never actually said anything!"
However, introverts are "talking" on the Internet. Two tools they use to communicate are electronic mail (e-mail) and Newsgroups.

From an introvert's perspective, the wonderful thing about e-mail is that the introvert can respond to e-mail messages when and if they want to. Electronic mail also allows an introvert to go through multiple drafts before sending a response. An introvert said, "I ...take forever to finish a typical e-mail message, and proofread it, making changes, before sending it." Electronic mail also provides this introvert with a chance to voice her opinions without interruption by a more extroverted personality. She realized the reason interruptions bother her so much is, "I don't always have a lot to say in the first place; and when I do have something to say, I'll forget it if the other person keeps babbling and interrupting. That is what makes me seem quiet, not that I don't have opinions on the subject."

Traditionally, humans form relationships with other people because of their geographic proximity. But on the Internet people meet other users because they have similar interests regardless of where they physically live. Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community and a user of San Francisco's WELL system writes, "It's like having the corner bar, complete with old buddies and delightful newcomers and new tools waiting to take home and fresh graffiti and letters, except instead of putting on my coat, shutting down the computer, and walking down to the corner, I just invoke my telecom program and there they are. It's a place."

These new "corner bars" that Rheingold describes are places suited to an introvert's personality. An introvert lamented in an e-mail message, "Without many E's (extroverts) promoting widespread communication, us I's (introverts) would be very content to live as hermits in the wilderness." But another introvert responded, "Now, as a happy hermit, would you have at least one companion? If not, I'd be one depressed hermit! To me, introversion means needing time to myself to recharge and think things over. Time to contemplate and read is very important to me, but I don't really like extended periods away from friends and family. I don't think I'd be a very happy sequestered juror!"

The Internet gives introverts a way to remain a little isolated from the hustle and din of society, yet still communicate with other Internet users on topics of mutual interest. Newsgroups and mailing lists are generating pools of "group knowledge" that introverts not only enjoy participating in, but may also use to gain some competitive advantages in today's information society. Introverts are likely to increasingly go "on-line," relying upon the growing hordes of internet users as a knowledge base. Rather than displacing them, today's technology is giving introverts new ways to express themselves. They are connected, they are communicating, and they are comfortable in the new world of cyberspace. ¤


Jeb Livingood, a left handed INFJ, is a full-time computer programmer and part-time freelance writer living in Alexandria, Virginia. With the assistance of Otto Kroeger and Associates, he is currently conducting a survey of Myers-Briggs types and their use of computer-mediated communication.

Copyright © 1995 by Jeb Livingood. All Rights Reserved.

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