Social Media for the artistic introvert

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When tech-guru John Gruber publicly called Klout “utter vainglorious masturbatory nonsense” I took it personally. It’s my nature to take things personally, but rushing to Klout’s defense is a rather new concept for me. You see, only a few years ago I might have used similar words to describe Facebook or Twitter. That’s because I’m an introvert. I care deeply about the opinions and feelings of others, just not in groups. From the moment Twitter was created to answer the question, ‘What are you doing?’ it seemed obvious social media was not conceived for people like me. Yet, I’ve come around: it seems increasingly clear that introverts and social media were made for each other.

“Why do you want to know what I’m doing?”

Social media was invented to allow extroverts to network, stay connected, and broadcast who they are. It also allows me to bypass direct interaction, redraft my tangled web of thoughts or feelings and deliver a better, curated version of myself. This personal-with-an-asterisk approach protects me from confrontation, judgement and other harsh elements that come with public self-expression. In this conditional spacesuit, I have adapted to thrive in a social media world where you don’t have to hang out with anyone to have friends.

My story starts with Twitter, the Tamagotchi of social media. Small, easy to tend to–and though the demands of interaction increase exponentially over time, no one dies if you don’t read all of the posts. In fact, Twitter’s lack of commitment makes the whole experience quite zen; no pressure of being liked, just post whatever you want and watch it disappear into your timeline, never to be read again. It’s quite cathartic actually. Just write something you really care about and watch it float away in a stream of group consciousness. The rest of Twitter is a paradise for introverts; a magazine rack full of headlines and articles to flip through, free of all costs but your time.

All perfectly safe, until from the abyss of articles, retweets, voyeuristic photos and updates, an art form emerged. Comedy writers, photographers, poets, absurdists started to draw their own lines on the roadmap. These angels of my better nature changed ‘what are you doing’ to ‘what are you thinking’ which was a revelation for someone that doesn’t actually do anything outside of work and whose world is constructed mostly from what he’s thinking.

Through the anonymity of scale (and my obsessive attention to detail) I forgot about the people who were reading. I focused on poignancy, then laughs, then overhauling the mechanics of how I write. Every word slid neatly in a row of brevity on a small bookshelf of novel sentiment. To this day, most things I post to Facebook are first written in the tight constraints of Twitter. If I can’t write it in 140 characters, then maybe it’s not thought out enough to be shared.
Before you declare me cured of my introversion, I should add that I didn’t really belong in Twitter, I just worked there. I was writing, but not conversing; using social media, but not being social. It was around this time I told everyone I worked with that I would never join Facebook. I had exactly what I wanted and nothing of what I didn’t.

The All-Knowing, Un-Blinking Timeline of Judgement

Facebook is introvert hell. It’s a cross between “This is Your Life” and the security booth at a casino, complete with a ticker-tape sidebar that broadcasts your every action to everyone you’ve met since birth. The more you participate, the more meaningless updates bombard you. Any post with 10 or more comments is a sign that either someone has had a life event (Happy Birthday!) or is arguing bitterly about religion or politics. Everything on Facebook must be judged, either by being liked or ignored. If that’s not enough extrovert pressure, there’s also the story of how I came to join:

Before John Morrison became the Social Media Manager at Camera Plus Pro, we worked together at Apple. He’s fearless, filterless–and like most of my friends–the total opposite of me. He loves social media about as much as I love writing, and apparently did not take my Facebook declaration lying down. During a Chicago Cubs game, right in the middle of the recession when even published authors weren’t getting published, he took a sip of beer and said, ‘You know, if you ever want your novel to get published, you’re going to have to join Facebook.’ The next day I joined.

Facebook was designed by Willy Wonka. At first it’s a surreal wonderland of old and new, but after a few hours it’s apparent that no one can leave. Instant responses! automatic updates! Live chatting! Blueberry pie! Everything is specifically designed so that nothing gets buried, increasing the chance for a response and ruining the zen of writing for writing’s sake. The root of my introversion comes from anxiety about what people think of me. The more people, the worse it gets. Even when someone does respond, I only notice the things that failed to get a reply. It’s just easier for me to avoid people than to deal with this stress, so I stopped using Facebook almost as soon as I joined.

Pictures from an Introvert’s Perspective

Now I connect with Facebook every day. I wish my change of heart was the realization that there’s no such thing as a dislike button or that just because someone doesn’t like something doesn’t mean it’s a failure, but that’s simply never going to happen. Instead, my revelation came incrementally through the slow emersion into social media’s judgement system I found using the photo sharing app Instagram.

Instagram is Twitter for people who don’t like to write. Photography is the perfect solution to the problem of introversion. It’s a chance to express one’s self through perspective, style and subject matter without ever having to step into the frame. On Instagram, there are comments and likes, but it feels easier to separate yourself from a photo than from something you’ve written.

Most importantly, Instagram let me get to know people I worried so much were going to judge me. Through the pictures they took, I looked through their eyes and lived in their big moments, full of smiling friends and the private moments that humanized them from the crowd. Instagram expanded my field of vision, narrowed by anxiety and let me be a part of something on my own terms.

Every morning I take 20 minutes to review every picture I missed from the night before. I like almost every picture I see. I relish each pictures for their artistic viewpoint, personal perspective, even pictures of people being, well, social. I now have friends I’ve never actually met face to face and they seem to appreciate who I am.

Instagram became my proving ground to cope with judgement, until I was comfortable enough to withstand it, analyze it, and see it for what it really is: feedback. I began to feel comfortable experimenting with my pictures and writing, taking more risks to see how people would respond. Instead of fearing what people would think, I could see clearly how they felt through in the number of responses I receive.

If you search #creepyvans on Instagram (keep in mind I cherish the safety of kids), you’ll see one of my longest running jokes. Despite its humble beginnings as a photo a rusty blue van I quipped had corroded from trapped children’s tears, this series of darkly comedic images is one of the things I’m best known for. This could have only happened among people I trust to know when I’m joking and that’s means a lot when you consider the number of people involved.

Over the last two years, I’ve taken hundreds of photos and written as many quips below them with the goal of changing the meaning of what you’ve just looked at. I published my first year of Instagram photos in book called “Sucks to Be You” and have gotten my fair share of hecklers, jokesters–even one “dislike” in the comment field. Yet people I barely know who followed me on Instagram seem to treat me like a friend; The way I always wanted to be treated, but had never shown enough of myself to them to deserve.

I use Klout to better understand the bigger picture of all the feedback I get. I consider it a running score card of how my efforts impact others. The judgement I once feared is now an essential element that has emboldens me to keep posting new thoughts and pictures as they emerge from my reinvigorated sense of daily life.

Social media was made for introverts. I get to express myself, feel a part of a group and indulge in my curiosity of others all while keeping a safe distance. Thanks to Twitter’s brevity and Facebook’s audience feedback, I am a better joke writer and storyteller, while Instagram has changed the way I look at the world. John Gruber thinks Klout is nonsense. Fortunately for me, the silver-lining of taking things too personally is extracting deep, personal meaning from nonsense.

James Vest is a writer currently living in San Francisco and online at He is the author/photographer behind “It Sucks To Be You.”

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