IntroversionI have often thought of myself as an introvert, and the topic of personality has always fascinated me. This is probably why I have a new favorite book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. An early chapter on the history of personality in America had me hooked, because the author describes a shift in our cultural understanding of what makes a virtuous person. The movement she describes is from “a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.” [1]This language is borrowed from cultural historian Warren Susman. Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.), Kindle … Continue reading This shift is obvious because “The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of ‘having a good personality’ was not widespread until the twentieth.” [2]Ibid., 504 The following quote blew me away:

“In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private…But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them…’The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,’ Susman famously wrote. ‘Every American was to become a performing self.'” [3]Ibid., 504

The idea that everyone must act as a performing self made me think about how the Internet gives us a bigger stage on which to perform. They say we are no longer famous for 15 minutes, but that everyone is famous to 15 people. Since we now have an audience, its hard not to perform. To succeed in the new theater of the Internet, a person has to record and document whatever puts the self in best perspective. Some have described every young person as busily making a documentary about their own lives. Could it be that there is now such a thing as e-xtroversion? Symptoms may include frequent selfies, obsession over building your platform, and a close watch on your SEO.

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Its hard to do anything without self-conscious irony when you have a camera aimed at you. Yet, at the same time, we know everyone else is also putting their best foot forward, and so we don’t really trust our self-presentation or the presentation of others (this is probably why Snapchat is so popular). All of this self-conscious irony makes me think about the boy who cried wolf, or the tale Kierkegaard told about a clown:

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

I like Kierkegaard’s parable because it describes our extroverted world today. Most of us aren’t even self-conscious of how ineffective our efforts to perform actually are. My suspicion is that we think our self-presentation is perceived the way we want it to be, but I am suspicious that our efforts on the Internet give us more satisfaction than they really should. If that is true, what is the best way to combat performance based e-xtroversion? Some tech critics argue that we should avoid posting things about ourselves, and others recommend a tech sabbath. My suggestion comes from the wisdom of Jesus: practice doing good deeds in secret instead of celebrating yourself online: “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”

Recommended Books:

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Introversion and E-xtroversion: How the Internet Makes Us all Extroverts


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