Why Social Technology is Good for Introverts (and Business)

I recently finished listening to Susan Cain’s book - Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Since one out of every two or three people is an introvert, it’s worth understanding what introverts have to offer and how they best contribute. If you have twenty minutes, watch this TED Talk.

On the surface, social and introversion sound like words that just don’t go together. To get a perspective on what the world thinks “social” means, I searched for it on Google image search. As you might expect, the majority of the images look something like these pictures:

In general, pictures of “social” show lots of people all connected or grouped together. So how can this be good for introverts? After all, introverts are fundamentally defined by how they respond to stimulation. These images seem to convey a pretty healthy amount of stimulation.

But the great thing about social business software is that the value and the experience don’t need to work the way these images suggest. Yes, at their core, all social business solutions need a representation of how people relate (a “social graph”), but that doesn’t mean that an individual using these systems constantly needs to feel like they are in a non-stop, gigantic conversation. In fact, the value from a social platform often comes from exactly the opposite experience. Many times, social technology lets more introverted people contribute where they previously would have been excluded.

But before we jump into how this works, it’s worth talking about why we care. The broad assumption in most Western cultures is that being outgoing and extroverted is “good.” In many cases, this is true, but there a couple of key problems with the blind promotion of extroversion as a virtue. First, extroverts tend miscalculate risk, while introverts have a better knack for knowing when the level of risk in a decision is just too high. Second, groups of people working together can be much less effective than individuals. As Susan points out in her book, there are over forty studies since the 1960’s that show people working alone created more ideas and higher quality ideas than when they did “brainstorming” in a group.

So the issue for a lot of introverts is, when working together in a group, humans are wired to mirror the behaviors and beliefs of the group and to follow the most dominant person. But, of course, there’s no correlation between the person who talks the most and the person who has the best ideas. This does not mean that all group collaboration or extroverted behavior is bad. It just means that if companies want to have the greatest levels of creativity and productivity from a significant portion of their workforce, they need to provide solitude.

So how does social technology provide solitude? The answer comes down to what the technology really does. It takes the action of one person and leverages it for the benefit of others. So in many cases, social solutions actually look more like this picture:

When an individual creates a valuable contribution, the social business solution can spread the value of that contribution to more people. The person who started this wave of value doesn’t have to be in the middle of a giant graph or packed into a crowd like the first images indicate. This is true whether the individual starts the process (maybe by submitting a great new product idea that gets comments and votes) or if the individual responds to something (maybe by posting a great answer to a question). One thing is true across a great number of social networking solutions – they provide an outlet for people who would not normally get involved in a face-to-face discussion to contribute. The chance for them to organize their thoughts and present them without having to fight for “air time” is very empowering for introverts.

As we move forward down the path of what social means in an enterprise, I’m really excited about the notion that social might mean less noise and more thinking time. It may sound like an oxymoron, but a truly intelligent, enterprise-class social networking solution should understand the human being and know what that person needs to be effective to get their work done. Sometimes, that’s going to mean intelligently blocking out interruptions and noise to let that person create great things.

It’s easy to get caught up in assumptions. It’s easy to assume that “social” means being loud in a crowd, and that social business solutions are just more ways for people to “talk.” It’s easy to believe the stereotype that introverts are shy and can’t contribute as much as extroverts. The truth is very different. After years of research, we’re still learning about introversion, and we’re still learning how social concepts can bring value when applied correctly. What we can say today is that for the one-half to one-third of the population who is introverted, social technologies can be very empowering. So while I’m not going to get “R-O-W-D-I-E” about all this (you have to watch the video to get this), I am really excited about the good that social can do.

Do you agree?


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