Pushing and Pulling: an introvert’s view of online interaction

I am pretty much an introvert. I don’t easily start up conversations with strangers, and I don’t seek out situations where I am putting myself on the line. I don’t know if I like being an introvert; I think I do. In any case, I don’t have much of a desire to change that part of myself. It may be a coping mechanism that I used to shield people from my blatant honesty, out of politeness.

Anyway, as an introvert I find it somewhat easier to meet people for the first time online, rather than in person. Some systems are designed in such a way to facilitate this for people like me, and some systems are designed in such a way to cause people like me to get stressed out.

The main design decision to make when creating an online social site is whether the site should employ mainly “push” technologies, or “pull” technologies. An example of a “push” technology is sending an e-mail. You have to decide whom you want to receive the message, and then you have to press “send,” committing to your decision. An example of a “pull” technology is this blog. I can make posts here as often or as rarely as I like, and any person can choose to read what I write, or not. I don’t have to decide who I am publishing to, or commit to communication with them.

I find that to be much easier, because I know I’m not “bothering” anyone.

As a teenager, I made extensive use of a technology called Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which is essentially just a system of chat rooms. Anyone could join the rooms and talk, and everyone else could respond, or not pay attention. A “pull” system. There was also the opportunity to send messages to individuals, when you had good reason. But, starting out, all you had to do was type and wait to see if anyone was interested in what you have to say.

Nowadays, I don’t have the time commitment or, honestly, the patience to try to get back into an IRC community. Many of them are insular, the people having known each other for years, and I think the majority are younger kids. I mostly spend my online time instant messaging. As a “push” technology, I feel much less comfortable in this environment. I don’t want to disturb others who might be busy or just don’t feel like talking. So, I get a little more frustrated than I used to when I was young.

Lately I have been using Facebook, which is a site where people can put up information about themselves and make “friends” with anyone else on the site who you know. Mainly it’s for college-aged kids and slightly older. It’s good fun, but again, it’s in many ways a push system. You have to ask people to be your friends, and generally, you message them to communicate directly with them.

I contrast this with Grinnell Plans [my plan], which is an (unofficial) messageboard system for students and alumni of Grinnell College, my alma mater. Plans is somewhat based off the old VAX/unix system of .plan files. On Plans, you basically just have an area where you can write text, and if you write someone else’s username in brackets, it makes a link to their plan. A very pull-based system, and it works very well.

All-in-all, being an introvert means you are basically both a) ultra-polite and b) afraid of rejection. A pull system on social sites means you are polite (you are never interrupting someone with a message) and also blunts the effect of rejection (if someone doesn’t answer, maybe they aren’t rejecting you, they just never saw what you wrote.) I prefer systems where pull is the norm. So, if you are designing your own social networking site (and you should!), please provide at least some mechanism for doing things this way for those of us who want to. Specifically, for me.

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