With the arrival of Fall—and, with it, the obligatory accompaniment of germs, sniffles, and ailments—I suppose it was no surprise that I paid my dues early with a mandatory day spent in bed. And since I simply cannot sleep twenty four hours straight, it also meant spending a good amount of time with my face in a book.
My current read is a 2012 New York Times best seller—I told you I was behind the curve in my backlog of reading material—written by corporate attorney and negotiations consultant Susan Cain: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Not that I'm finished with it, already. Another aspect of my personal manifesto is that I revel in reading slowly; I want to suck all the essence out of a book. Flying through the pages simply can't accomplish that. So, in all that time since I first mentioned reading the book, I've managed to only conquer the first hundred pages. Hint: over another two hundred some-odd pages to go.
I offer that as a caveat, in case my observations today seem premature to those already in the know about this volume. Still, what the author is saying has gotten me thinking. And you know the route my thoughts will take have to do with my passion: genealogy. In particular, genealogical societies and their place in this post-Bowling Alone world.
After gleaning Susan Cain's definition of introvert—after all, any good debater must first define her terms—I happened upon a statement that made me perk up and think about its application:
Connecting people to fix the world over time is the deepest spiritual value you can have.
That statement was attributed to a man who, for seventeen years of his adult life, was a systems engineer for IBM. Before that, he confessed to interests in dinosaurs, chess and physics. One could think of a cerebral science devotee as someone likely to "fix the world over time." And yet, as Cain puts it in the hypothetical if-you-sat-next-to-him-on-the-plane scenario, he would not be one of those chatty, put-you-at-ease types of extroverts we all see as successful leaders.
In fact, his claim to "fix the world" might only indirectly have come from his skills as an engineer. That aspect provided the process, but it was the content—and the platform that universalized that content—that comprises his claim to fame. This nose-in-a-book engineer has managed to be the means for helping stranded families find homes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He was the influence behind helping New York City commuters find rides during the 2005 transit strike in that city. He has, indeed, found a way to beneficially connect people.
The man behind those accomplishments—making everyday life a little more bearable, or at least a bit more convenient—is Craig Newmark. If that's not a name you recognize, the device he created will be: Craigslist.
Regardless of what negative remarks you may have read about Craigslist users, Craigslist clocked in as the seventh-largest English language website in the world a few years back. Not bad for an introvert with a goal of "connecting people to fix the world over time."
And Susan Cain's conclusion after sharing that vignette about one introvert?
Social media has made new forms of leadership possible for scores of people who don't fit the [extrovert leadership] mold.
But what about us? You know, those genealogists who prefer sequestering ourselves in the back corners of research libraries? Are we introverts?
If introversion were a brand, its advertising buzz words might include "reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned." At least, those are Susan Cain's labels (I cheated and took a peek at the back of the book—page 269, if you're wondering). Of course, that shopping list might not be what each of us introverts ordered. Humankind spans a wide spectrum of both cultural and psychological expressions. But most of us know where we stand, whether provided with labels or not.
It seems to me that many of the people that pursue their family history fall within this more quiet realm. Granted, we can get really jazzed about finding a long-sought document that affirms connection of one brick-wall ancestor to a specific family, but for the most part—other than said shouting and Snoopy-dancing—we tend to be quiet researchers who can muster an incredible amount of concentration in pursuing our quest.
So, let's fast-forward from the genealogist, gladly plying his or her solitary research skills in the leading libraries and archives of the world, to the potential member of a local genealogical society. Assuming that said researcher is an introvert, what beneficial reasons can be offered to coax said solitary researcher into joining up with other like-minded folk to form a local society?
Does the solitary researcher get the feeling of being submerged in a sea of gregariousness upon walking into a meeting of your local society? What can be done to mitigate that overwhelming feeling?
I like Susan Cain's observation that, unlike the mode of traditional leadership—seen incorrectly by many to be the sole domain of the extrovert—social media is opening up new avenues for collaborative work, allowing introverts to become part of the conversation. Craig Newmark being a capital example.
Cain also brought up the concept of "Connectors," a term she borrowed from Malcolm Gladwell's writings, which he offered as people with a "special gift for bringing the world together." Cain believes it is possible, through a form of quiet strength, to accomplish this goal of bringing the "world" together as an introvert, too. While I have yet to encounter her explanation of just how this can be accomplished—I am, after all, just shy of devouring those first hundred pages of her book—I look forward to exploring how to conduct genealogical society meetings so that the more vociferous among our members won't co-opt those less extroverted.
One avenue I think has the most promise: special interest groups, where a subset of a society's membership gathers to explore one specific research interest. I've seen some societies offer groups focused on research techniques for specific countries, ethnic groups or regions—for instance, British Isles, or African-American. I've also noticed special interest groups focused on process-oriented goals: using various tech solutions to research, or a family history writers' group.
No matter what the research domain of the group, by virtue of its smallness and focus, it ushers in a more intimate setting allowing members to ease into a more relaxed level of participation. This is much better suited to the introvert (although sometimes a challenge for the facilitator who needs to balance the contributions of those more than willing to monopolize conversations with those whose tentative offerings could so easily be run over by insistent volume).
And what about Cain's observation that online avenues—her example was social media—can afford the more reticent of our members an equal footing in participation? With genealogical societies seeing a growth in non-local membership—our northern California group includes members from Virginia and Florida, for instance—perhaps online chats about specific topics might be the vehicle to engage members from far-flung reaches of the continent in discussion with fellow members they might otherwise never have the opportunity to meet.
No wonder Facebook genealogical interest groups are flourishing! That's a perfect example of Cain's surmising that online conversations may open doors of participation for members who might otherwise shy away from sharing their work.
While what we are doing as we explore these online utilities at our fingertips may not be as much a case of "fixing the world" as that accomplished by participants of Craigslist, for instance, we are entering a world of possibilities for expanding the services of genealogical societies. And, considering many of our potential constituency see themselves firmly rooted in the realm of the introvert, this may be a timely development for genealogical societies.
Above: "The Letter," painting by American Impressionist artist Edmund Charles Tarbell; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.