In the last few years, identifying as a nerd has become the seemingly cool thing to do. Along with a badge of nerdom, there is also a growing number of teen girls (and guys, but primarily girls) labelling themselves as “socially awkward” and “introverted”. On tumblr, especially, it has become the “in” thing to do in many circles, with extroverts being criticised and ridiculed.
As someone with an official diagnosis of social anxiety, and a legitimate placement in the introvert camp (with the family history to prove it), this has been interesting for me to watch. On one hand, I think it’s excellent. Being socially awkward is never a fun thing to deal with, and it makes you feel so very alone. So when you find yourself in an online space with thousands of others just like you, well, it makes you feel good. That’s the whole idea of fandom and online communities; you want to find somewhere you belong, and people who understand what you’re going through. And that’s excellent.
On the other hand, however, it’s also dangerous. Lately I’ve been increasingly noticing that Tumblr romanticises mental illness and introversion. The idea of the damsel in distress is heavily present, with every girl seemingly waiting for the perfect guy to fall into their lives and save them from their awkwardness/sadness/whateverness. It’s what happens in books and movies, right? The broken character gets saved from their demons and they live happily ever after. It’s the most common trope I find in fan fiction. But it’s not reality.
It’s also dangerous because many of the teens throwing around terms like “anxiety” and “depression” are not actually suffering from the disorders. This is bad because it makes light of serious issues and those who actually suffer from them, and it also shows a dangerous flaw in our culture. Why would somebody want to claim they were suffering from a mental illness? It’s not pretty, and anybody who has ever actually experienced a mental illness, or seen one first hand, would be able to attest that it’s not something you want to romanticise. Because absolutely no part of it is romantic. Maybe fiction is again to blame. Just look at recent films that deal with mental illness, such as “It’s Kind Of A Funny Story” or “Silver Linings Playbook”. What’s the common theme? The broken character finds love through their flaws. But this is not real life, and unfortunately many teens seem unable to make that distinction.
These issues cross over into fandom, with declarations of “*insert celebrity* saved my life” being common, with some fans going so far as to actually tell the celebrity in person. But this is dangerous. Because it was the idea of the celebrity that saved you (if, they did, in fact save you at all. I believe a vast majority of people who throw this phrase around are vastly exaggerating), or their character, or the concept of them you’ve constructed in your mind. The actual celebrity did nothing, and even if they’re kind about it to your face, will probably be sufficiently weirded out by the exchange. And you are going to gain nothing from the conversation. Maybe it will feel nice to get it off your chest, but you’re likely to be left feeling disappointed because your favourite celebrity didn’t live up to the daydreams where they took you under their wing until you were cured.
But let’s get back to introversion.
Introversion and shyness are not the same thing. Shyness is a behavioural disorder, often linked to anxiety. With shyness, you have physical trouble interacting with others. Introversion, however, is different. You may have excellent social skills, but being social is tiring. Unlike shyness where it feels like you’re hitting a brick wall when you try to be social, introversion means you get exhausted being around people. Shyness and introversion can work together (and often do) but the two are not one and the same. Social Anxiety is different again, but let’s just focus on the distinction between these two for now.
On Tumblr, many users seem to believe that enjoying reading, being indifferent to partying, and generally being an intellectual equal being an introvert. And so they slap on the badge and wear it with pride. A lot of them aren’t actually introverts, but that’s not the biggest issue here. The issue is how they treat extroverts. In Tumblrland, being an extrovert is akin to being a murderer. Admit you like partying? You’ll be sure to find yourself on the edges of tumblr society. Tumblr has developed this twisted idea that enjoying social situations is a major character flaw. It comes down to the “us and them” mentality held by many users (who were most likely bullied at school or felt isolated from the “popular” and therefore “extroverted” [but actually just confident] others) and the belief that what they’re feeling is right, and because it’s right it’s the only way to act.
Being an extrovert is not bad (say it with me now, Tumblr, being an extrovert is not bad). Some days I would give anything in the world to be able to be in a social situation for longer than fifteen minutes without becoming exhausted. My mum is a huge extrovert, and I envy her ability to not only mingle with large groups of people, but to thrive off it. Being an extrovert is an excellent personality trait to possess, and I feel that the alienation of extroverts on tumblr by introverts is often a kind of “if you can’t be them, kill them” mentality. It’s a case of jealousy on behalf of the introverts, and through using strength in numbers, they’re pushing and pushing their positive traits to try and overcome the perceived threat that they feel comes from the extroverts.
Somewhere along the line, Tumblr users’ ideas of healthy behaviour have become very skewed. It started with the rise of the thinspo blogs, and can now be seen through the apparent celebration of mental illness. What these teens need to realise is that being flawed or broken is not going to ensure their prince will come (because I honestly believe this behaviour all boils down to the idea of wanting to be loved, but then again, doesn’t everything?). Fiction encourages this idea, and maybe it’s why this particular group of girls have fallen victim. The nerds, the socially awkward, the introverts, they’re the ones who are much more likely to spend their time reading, watching movies, watching tv, and wishing their lives were a story. And so they’re the ones who turn to their online sounding boards to show off their apparent flaws and broken behaviours. Maybe when one girl does it, it’s not so bad, but when thousands and thousands and thousands do, we begin to have a real problem. Because maybe you see one girl saying she’s an introvert and she likes to read, and hey, you like to read, so you call yourself an introvert. And soon it’s an ugly spiral where people are just slapping definitions on themselves, placing their personality into narrow boxes they don’t fully understand, and shutting out all of those who don’t fit in with the reality they have adopted.
If you believe you truly are suffering from a mental illness, the best (and really, only) thing you should do is seek professional help. Talking on the internet can help, but I promise that it can’t cure you. If you’re just throwing around terms for serious conditions because you want to fit in, or seem fascinating to some boy, then stop. Please, stop. It’s dangerous, and really quite sad. One day a boy will come, and he will love you for who you are, not for the scars you may or may not be bearing. I just wish every teen girl I see reblogging poems about depression or being “saaah socially awkard” could realise that. Girls need to learn to live to their potential, to shine for the beauty that they have inside, and that’s never going to happen if they’re stuck at their computers self-diagnosing their personalities with terms they don’t properly understand.
There’s an interesting discussion on the idea of Internet fandom culture and being socially awkward (and the dangers of it) in the episode of Becoming Youtube, “Why is a Nerdighter? (And So Can You!). If you have time, I thoroughly recommend watching it all, but if you just want to check out what they have to say on the idea of labelling yourself “socially awkward” (and similar terms) skip to 8:34:
frangipani princess xoxo