This article originally appeared on VICE US, and is part of the VICE guide to 2030. Reach more here.
At the end of each day, in a palm-sized lavender notebook, Julia* scribbles down what it's like to be an introvert in a world that prizes extroversion. But the notebook isn't the final resting ground for the 22-year-old's thoughts. Once edited for clarity or spelling, they'll go on her Instagram, @thegermanintrovert, alongside introvert memes re-posted from other accounts.
Many of her posts are funny: "I would rather starve than go get lunch with co-workers." Others express frustrations: "Forcing an introvert to say something is like putting duct tape on an extroverts mouth." And in a post from last August, Julia touched on a reason why introvert memes are appearing in droves online: "I like virtual worlds so much because I'm always able to just leave. Meanwhile nothing changes and soon as I'm ready, I'll just come back."
These qualities of social media—its come-and-go nature, its voluntary participation, and relative anonymity—have made Instagram and other platforms a gathering place for communities of introverts, who share memes about being introverted. And as people across the world have become confined to their homes because of COVID-19, introvert memes have also begun to celebrate how an introvert's innate qualities can be an asset to public health.
There are currently more than 250,000 Instagram posts tagged #introvertproblems and over a million with #introvert. Accounts like @Introvertstruggles or @Introvertdear have hundreds of thousands of followers. r/introvert, the introvert subreddit, has more than 200,000 members who share memes and experiences.
Through these memes, younger generations of introverts are discovering that they’re not alone in feeling the ways that they do, and finding acceptance of their own introverted qualities. And by using social media, introverts are fostering a new, more fluid and nuanced sense of what it means to be introverted—by doing the very thing that introverts claim they don’t like: socializing.
In Julia's suburb near Munich, Germany, people don't talk much about introversion. She'd always felt like a "weirdo," and couldn't understand why. She started her Instagram page in March of 2019, to connect with other introverts. It happened nearly immediately.
“It made me so happy when I got messages from my followers saying they could fully relate,” she said. “It showed me that we, as introverts, have many things in common and don’t need to feel alone with everything we have to face in life.”
For many older people, their first experience with an introvert community was Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, published in 2012, which quickly became a sensation. Her book had a similar impact as introvert memes do for younger people. “I cannot tell you how many letters I get from people saying that if only they'd had this information, this outlook, when they were younger, the whole shape of their lives would have turned out differently,” Cain said.
Younger generations don't feel as great a need to conceal their mental health issues, and want to bring them into the open through social media. The American Psychological Association's Stress in America Survey found that while Gen Z is the least likely to report having excellent mental health—that's paired with a propensity for help-seeking: They're more likely than other generations to have been in therapy. Last year, when VICE surveyed a group of its Gen Z readers about the future, 65 percent of respondents predicted that going to therapy will be more common within the next 10 years, and 3 in 10 even predicted that everyone will be in therapy by then. More than half of Gen Z respondents said they expect all workplaces and schools to have on-staff mental health counsellors in the coming decade.
While some experts have nodded to social media as another stressor that’s driving mental health issues up, small pockets of people, like introverts, have found it to be a tool to help validate their personalities. This simple act of seeing memes that mirror your personal feelings can be transformative, said Yair Amichai-Hamburger, the director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology in Israel, who has been researching the internet and well-being for 20 years. “The internet creates a psychological environment that never existed before,” he said. “One factor it creates is called ‘finding similar others.’ I think that’s very powerful.”
The first introvert Instagram page that Abby, a 25-year-old in Dallas, started following was @Introverts.Are.Us. “When I came across that page, it was like a whole new world opened up,” she said. She started her Instagram page, @IntrovertDepot, in June 2019.
Abby said she's been an introvert as long as she can remember. “I have never been a huge talker, I have always liked to sit back and people watch,” she said. “I have always preferred to observe rather than participate. I am a homebody to my soul and my bedroom is my sanctuary.”
When Abby is having a rough day, she’ll look at memes to feel better. “They're funny because they are telling the truth, and for whatever reason laughing at the truth about yourself is weirdly cathartic,” Abby said. The memes gave her a better understanding of herself, and the idea that the way she is isn't wrong, just different. “Before finding out my personality type, I thought I was weird and mean. Come to find out, I just process my emotions differently and I don't react the same as others when it comes to particular things.”
Once an introvert sees that others share in their desire to stay in or avoid socializing, something somewhat remarkable takes place—they aren't necessarily tied to their introvert identities so tightly. Online, at least. One of Amichai-Hamburger's first studies found that introverts behaved like extroverts when interacting in anonymous environments like the internet. “The internet lets introverts enjoy both worlds,” he said. "They’re using an extroverted method, but enhancing their introverted personalities."
"It's a kind of paradox, that the more comfortable you feel in your own introversion, the more successful you're going to be in your outward-facing activities," Cain said.
Jack Stanton, a 16-year-old in Utah who follows r/introvert, had a similar experience. He's always been quiet, and enjoyed personal time to himself, he said. "I stumbled across the subreddit and I was like, 'Wow, there’s a lot of people like this,’" he said. Merely seeing how many other introverts online gave him more confidence to be himself, IRL, or ask other people if they are introverts.
“Just knowing that there are a lot of people who are introverted online made me realize, well if they’re on here, then they’re definitely out there too," Stanton said.
Meanwhile, the surplus of introvert memes and online content has created a kind of social capital tied to being an introvert. On an introvert meme page, it's cool to be introverted. Introversion-promoting brands and businesses have cropped up online reflecting this even before the new coronavirus, like Girls Night In, a popular newsletter that celebrates staying in on the weekends, and delivers links about self-care, mental health, and the joy of a less-social, though still active, life. Unsocially Inclined is an online service that helps introverts market themselves —it promotes that you can succeed in business, not by being less introverted, but by embracing introversion qualities and allowing them to shine.
Once the pandemic came to the U.S., Girls Night In launched a new social distancing website, Stay Home, Take Care, to assist people who are finding themselves spending the night in, even if not by choice.
Yet at what point is an introvert socializing, marketing themselves, and building an introvert brand, not so different from being an extravert? These thriving introvert communities are in a position to challenge old notions of what introversion exactly is: If an introvert can express extraverted qualities online, what is it that makes them an introvert?
For Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst who first came up with the concept of extraversion and introversion, extraverts were simply people who were more socially oriented. That's it. Colin deYoung, a personality psychologist at the University of Minnesota, said that other traits that people have come to ascribe to introversion or extraversion—such as openness and agreeableness, or a lack thereof—are usually separate personality measurements.
“We all need [a social life]," Julia said. "We just need a different dosage on a daily basis. We need time to rest afterwards and even rest before it to have the energy before it.” This is increasingly apparent during a global pandemic, when no one can go out even if they want to— introverts and extroverts alike have been struggling, missing friends and family.
A lot of the memes capture this complexity nicely. Some memes point out how there are certain situations where introverts can be very social. Or, they mention how their desire for alone time is misinterpreted as a lack of sociability at all, when that's not the case.
Since running her introvert page, Abby's ideas about what being an introvert means have gotten more complicated. “It has shown that introverts are not just the stereotypical quiet, shy, anxious people that most believe us to be," she said. We may have those traits, but we are so much more.” And so the unifying sentiment in introversion, and its memes, may not be one single personality trait, but just a feeling like they don't belong.
Julia spends about two hours a day on Instagram, posting, commenting, and liking other posts on introvert accounts. She also DMs with a handful of people who message her to say that they appreciate her content.
“After that first message, we start to talk about what struggles they face, or they ask me how I would react in this and that situation," she said. "I always say, I'm not a professional. I'm just a random girl, but I try my best regardless. Sometimes from that comes a wonderful friendship and someone who I will talk to on a daily or weekly basis.”
Julia is still an introvert through and through. She prefers a couple of close friendships over a large group and enjoys her alone time. But her account provides a conduit for relationships in ways that don't feel false or untrue to herself. Inherent in the introvert memes is that they reflect the way people are, not something to change or that can be changed.
Instead, accounts like Julia's reveal a greater truth about the complexities of introversion, and neurodiversity in general: Everyone has an environment in which they thrive, and for many people, their day-to-day world isn’t it. Instead of accepting that at face value, introvert communities are one example of how young people today are using the internet to create the space in which that trait is celebrated.
"Engaging with these people helped me to see that my personality isn’t wrong and that I don’t have to pretend or force myself to change something impossible to change," she said. "Since starting my Instagram account, I've become more happy with the person that I am, and I‘m so grateful for that."