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Quit Social Media

September 21st, 2016 · 25 comments

Anti-Social Grumblings

I recently gave a deliberatively provocative TEDx talk titled “quit social media” (see the video above). The theme of the event was “visions of the future.” I said my vision of the future was one in which many fewer people use social media.

Earlier this week, Andrew Sullivan published a long essay in New York Magazine that comes at this conclusion from a new angle.

Sullivan, as you might remember, founded the sharp and frenetic political blog, The Daily Dish (ultimately shortened to: The Dish). The blog was a success but its demands were brutal.

For a decade and a half, I’d been a web obsessive, publishing blog posts multiple times a day, seven days a week…My brain had never been so occupied so insistently by so many different subjects and in so public a way for so long.

In recent years, his health began to fail. “Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”, his doctor asked.  Finally, in the winter of 2015, he quit, explaining: “I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.”

This might sound like an occupational hazard of a niche new media job, but a core argument of Sullivan’s essay is that these same demands have gone mainstream:

And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific.

As he summarizes: “the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.”

As I noted in my talk, one of the most common rationales for social media use is that it’s harmless — why miss out on the interesting connection or funny ephemera it might occasionally bring your way?

Sullivan’s essay is a 6000 word refutation of this belief. Social media is not harmless. It can make your life near unlivable.

Sullivan attempts to end with a note of optimism, saying “we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs,” before adding a more resigned coda: “if we are even prepared to accept that there are costs.”

I agree that we’re not yet ready to fully face this reality, and cheeky TED talks by curmudgeonly young professors like me probably won’t move the needle. But when heavyweights like Sullivan join the conversation, I can begin to feel a cautious optimism grow.

25 thoughts on “Quit Social Media

  1. Alex says:

    Social Media has helped me to create and maintain new friendships. Otherwise we would all be stuck with our friends from high school or our neighbors. People need to meet like minded people and they usually don’t live next door, thus social media can help you find them and build whatever relationship you want to build. SM is also a great tool for raising Political awareness. Politicians cannot hide like they did in the past, voters now are more informed. While i totally agree with you that SM can be very unproductive and people do need to take their own actions, i do not agree with the “Quit it all” approach.

    I lean more towards ” its the way you use it approach”. Social Media is still young, Facebook is only 12, so it is still a child. I prefer to judge adults, not children because children are not “finished products”. What i am saying that, as SM mature, people will too and eventually will apply best practices on their usage time, the number of people they connect with, the amount of info they receive and its quality. After all, i heard about you through Social Media. I wouldn’t have discovered you without them. So, another question rises: How people found out about you? How did you become popular in the first place? And how can a business replicate your success in the online world if you advice it, not having a presence on SM? Should businesses stop advertising on SM as well?

    1. Jeff Geisler says:

      Social media allows the great stratification of our world to continue at warp speed. Better to spend ones time with a kindred spirit a thousand miles away thant to know ones neighbor.

      I’m old enough to remember airports before cell phones where one either read, or struck up a conversation with a stranger. No TV blaring the latest headlines ad nausea, no folks with headphones having what use to pass for imaginary conversations with themselves. Today, it’s just a bunch of folks living in the bubble that they carry around with them everywhere they go.

      I love my smart phone. I enjoy all the information that’s available to me wherever I’m at. But what we are losing in the current trade off is significant and for the most part slipping silently under the waterline.

      We can know our neighbors and enjoy technology.

    2. Arooj says:

      I think one point that Cal has made previously is that when you create good work that is rare and valuable, people will find you. Another scholar, Imam Siraj Wahaj, put this really eloquently in a way that resonated with me: If you create a beautiful and useful building in the middle of the forest, people will build a path to find it.

      I agree with Cal that social media is a major deterrent against deep focused work, because I can see the day-to-day effects of it in myself. I have played around with starting a business by marketing extensively on social media, but it is ridiculous how much time and effort is put into that process with furiously little reward to show for it. If you say then that I needed to gain better “social media marketing” skills, then really that’s another ridiculous amount of time spent listening to webinars and lectures with an extremely low pay-off in the end. Instead, I could be better using my time working on the actual service and content I want to provide.

      When we are starting off new career projects and business start-ups, I believe it is vital that we focus entirely on creating “rare and valuable” work. Yes, it is important to garner feedback on whether your work truly is valuable, but there are much better ways to do that than testing it out via social media. Talking to people one-on-one, in real life, is going to get you much more valuable and comprehensive feedback than assessing how many views, likes, reactions, and retweets your content is getting on social media.

      That said, I too would love to hear more from Cal about how to effectively publicize our content and garner attention, without gambling with social media campaigns.

    3. Adam says:

      Alex,

      I see where you are coming from, but it is a naive point. Marketing has been around long before SM and will continue long after. Businesses didn’t suddenly become successful because they were able to buy ad time from facebook and guarantee that facebook shove it down people’s throats. Word of mouth still holds the best form of advertising. Any business, restaurant or other establishment will always take word of mouth first because there is a personal story behind it.

      As far as meeting people, there are many ways to meet people. And then even more ways to connect with them through mail, email, actual telephone conversations. The people whom I’m FB friends with I know far less than compared to the people I work with who are not my facebook friends. It’s just a collection of random people you meet, friend and forget. It’s far more personal to actually send a real email or letter to somebody than just ‘like’ or share their SM posts.

    4. Daniel says:

      I found Cal when I googled the book CDP Grey recommended on his Q&A on YouTube. “So Good They Can’t Ignore You,” The book literally ended a decade streak of jadedness in my life in regards to work since I left the Marines. YouTube only got me so far, it was the meat of the book that won me over.

  2. Marvin Towler says:

    Having read Deep Work and complimentary books like Essentialism and The ONE Thing have me seriously thinking about an exit strategy from “social media.” I have already turned off notifications as they are intrusive yet seductively addictive to get that next hit of dopamine. Thanks for recommending Sullivan’s article.

  3. Aaron says:

    I removed the apps from my iPhone and iPad, and now only use the web-form of the apps on Safari. This seems like a small change and negligible, but some interesting patterns emerged: 1) Web versions of the sites are less appealing than their App-based brethren (which, as Cal probably suspects in Deep Work, are built purely for their addictive-like activation) 2) Because it takes a couple extra steps to pull up the site, wait for log-in confirmation, poor resolution, etc. I’m now less inclined to open the app on anything but a laptop or desktop computer. Usually this is either early morning or later in the evening.

    I won’t be ditching social media soon, but am progressively making my way towards such practices. And I guess that’s really the point: make your practice to use social media as a seasoning to your day and not a main ingredient.

  4. Janet Oliver says:

    Mr. Newport,

    I especially resonated with your comment about how you would have been happy as a farmer living in the 1930s. While I am not old enough to have experienced the ’30s directly, I did experience the lifestyle you described during summers–in late 1950 through the mid-’60s–on my grandparents’ farm in South Carolina. Up early, outside chores, breakfast afterward. More chores (my preference was to help my grandfather spread manure, but my grandmother insisted she needed help hanging the laundry on the line), a big lunch (we called it “dinner”), a little nap, then time for the cows to come home–well, up to the barn anyway–where I finally got to help my grandfather by putting feed in the trough. Supper was light, usually leftovers from lunch. No point in firing up the stove again just when the day was beginning to cool down. Then we all sat in the living room: my grandfather in his big red chair, reading the paper or the latest issue of Progressive Farmer. My grandmother and I, and any other siblings or cousins who were also visiting, would play word games. My grandparents did have a radio, a huge console contraption, but no TV. No A/C either. Once the night air had cooled off the house, it was time for bed.

    Even though the nearest neighbor was about a half mile down the road, we didn’t lack for social interaction. Fellow farmers were always dropping by with some freshly churned butter, or some home-cured ham, or some vegetables that were still warm from the sunshine.

    Sometimes after that afternoon nap, we would go visiting. There were rituals involved with that activity as well. If my grandmother brought a homemade pound cake for the occasion, then the person being called on would supply the jam or the fruit. And we had to change out of our work clothes, which didn’t necessarily mean a bath, but at the very least it meant clean socks. The conversation usually began with a bit of gossip; face-to-face book, if you will, but then moved on to finding out how everything was going on the respective farms.

    I’m beginning to digress, so I’ll stop here. You have probably guessed I am in total agreement with you about being happy as a 1930s farmer. I was!

    Best,

    Janet Oliver

  5. George says:

    Honestly, I happily poop all over social media. It’s the Jerry Springer Show of the Web. On the other hand, I will happily spend time with content that is useful by inspiring or informing me. Thus, as a workaday generalist photographer I find the Visual Science Lab blog of pro photographer Kirk Tuck endlessly useful. And for sheer good writing + usefulness, give me calnewport.com/blog or Coding Horror. Long-form content has ruled, does rule, will rule wherever readership IQ rises above 24.

  6. Myra says:

    I think it’s possible to use social media without over using it. I came to social media late and even now I don’t use it as much as others. I would never give social media up altogether. It’s a way for me to connect with others and frankly to have a little fun, at times.

    I think you have to be mature enough to know when enough is enough. I don’t think you’re any happier than I am because you don’t use social media at all. I think I am pretty happy, productive person. I simply know when enough is enough.

  7. ziqd says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thank you for this.

    You mention reading books. Can you please share your process for finding non-fiction books?

    I think the plethora of books available are themselves a distraction, as most of them are hype, and can even fill us with misconceptions.

    How do you find the rare gem, or figure out if a book is worth your time? (separate signal from noise)

    Thanks.

    1. Bill says:

      Cal – Can you also please recommend how you choose your toothpaste?

      1. Daniel says:

        What an unhelpful contribution to the discussion. Try again, but this time with kindness?

  8. C.M. Mayo says:

    Dear Cal,

    Thank you for this blog, for your TED Talk, and for your books, especially DEEP WORK. I am a 55 year old writer with 2 finance books published under another name, plus 4 literary books, plus an anthology– all of which is to say, I understand the nature and immense benefits of deep work. But dealing with the Internet… that has been a challenge for me over the past several years, and especially when all these shiny new social media toys seemed to be so necessary and (apparently) effective for promoting one’s books. Every publicist, marketing staff, my fellow writers, all seem slaves now to social media. I can assure you, every writers conference has a panel on book PR and social media. For a while, at the enthusiastic urging of one of my writer-friends, by the way, a best-selling and very fine historical novelist, I maintained a Facebook page, but when I realized what a time-suck it was, and how FB made it intentionally and so deviously addictive, I deactivated my account. I had also come to recognize that people addicted to FB, as seemed to be most of my “FB friends,” often as they might “like” and comment on my posts there, are not my readers. (My books require sustained focus; I admit, they can be challenging.) I deactivated my FB more than a year ago, and I breathe a sigh of relief about it every blessed day.

    As for your book, DEEP WORK, much of what you say was already familiar to me from my own experience as a writer, but I appreciated the reminders, especially in light of these contemporary challenges to sustaining focus. What was especially interesting and intriguing to me was the new cognitive research you mention. Next time I teach a writing workshop you can be sure that DEEP WORK will be on the syllabus.

  9. I am also a software Engineer, and I DO agree that Social Media is not NEEDED. However, I think this dude is still just butt hurt that he did not build the HUGE social media website that everyone is using.. Trust me, I can relate, There are Apps I won’t download on my phone for the same reason (because they got the same idea released before I did). It is only natural to be jealous. But to say that it is going to hurt you attention span is data that is limited AT BEST.
    I use Facebook only to chat to other people on line to stay in touch. It is a communications device.

  10. Noeline says:

    Hi Cal

    I agree with the bit about SM being addictive. Yes we have a free will but once you have the bits of curiosity in your head from reading and seeing stuff, you can wander down a trail of information that you don’t need. So if time is what you need and deep work. Well, it waits or it gets shelved if you are not organised.
    I am new to your blog readings so I am pleased to have found out about you on SM and I will be reading Deep Work.
    I am a grandmother and I fear a little bit
    for my grandchildren being hooked up on SM. Thank goodness for sport and outdoor activities which they thrive on.

  11. Bryan Palencia says:

    I personally don’t feel that social media is all bad. You can actually even use it as you use any tool. Admittedly, if you’re looking at funny cat videos it’s not going to be at all productive. But if you’re subscribing to, say, Facebook pages that have stimulating articles then I believe that it can even enhance your thought when you’re not working. I went back to Facebook recently, and I basically don’t follow any family or friends except for important ones. I use Facebook almost exclusively to look at articles that I feel are interesting. This might be a very unpopular post, but I know this to be a fact as I use Facebook every day in just this way.

    1. AC says:

      “SM is also a great tool for raising Political awareness. Politicians cannot hide like they did in the past, voters now are more informed.”

      The thing you have to be aware of, is that increased political awareness in one narrow field is also having to compete for people’s attention with cat vdieos, pornography, online shopping, auctions sites, online games, online news aggregation sites, celebrit gossip sites, forums, fitness videos etc etc etc. There is a world of limitless choice out there now. We’ve trnascended the information ecomonomy and we are now in the attention economy where it’s your attention that is bought and sold. The big question is, if someone sees the polical message at the start of their morning internet binge, will they even remember any of the detail after the complete their evening internet binge?

      —-

      “I personally don’t feel that social media is all bad. You can actually even use it as you use any tool.”

      When was the last time you used a tool that you felt compelled to use again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again even after you had completed the original task that you intended to use the tool for? I’ve never experienced anything like that using email, or a hammer, or a drill or MS Excel or Dropbox. Social Media is DESIGNED to be addicitive.

      —-

      “Businesses didn’t suddenly become successful because they were able to buy ad time from facebook and guarantee that facebook shove it down people’s throats. Word of mouth still holds the best form of advertising. Any business, restaurant or other establishment will always take word of mouth first because there is a personal story behind it.”

      I completely agree with you. You have to remember that these days however word of mouth is no longer always guaranteed to be a face-to-face communication between two individuals. It’s an email, a text message, a Tweet, a Facebook post or maybe a Skype call or a YouTube Video. All of those mediums could get lost in the ocean of unlimited information that is bombarding your very limited attention. A side effect of information overload is that you can’t remember everything. That instantly makes word of mouth less valuable than it used to be. Nevertheless, as I stated, it’s still the best form of advertising. To that end the customer experience IS your marketing.

  12. Hi Cal,
    It was so eerie (and wonderful) seeing your post in my email this morning, I wrote this blog post last night and I’ve posted a link back to your post here in the comments of my post (and the green grass grows all around-all around).
    Thank you for this post, it lifted my heart to see you discussing this.

    https://fleurtingwithdisaster.com/2016/09/20/anti-social-networking

  13. Gabriel Chavez says:

    Are you also including blogs as “social media”? I’m asking because the RSS symbol is on the presentation and including blogs on that definition is a hypocritical since, well, you have a blog. Maybe you’re referring to using feed readers?

  14. Anne says:

    I have found the utility/value of specialized groups on LinkedIn for subject area expertise. It’s helpful for me to understand and learn more from these specialists. However, like listservs, they’re easily overtaken by marketing. It’s refreshing when you can connect with people that generously give their knowledge in such forums, just like this one, Cal and fellow deep workers. I also agree with other posts that going from a brief conversation/mention to the actual books is a frequent vector for me.

  15. Daniel says:

    You immediately note that your talk was “deliberately provocative” in the post. I wonder, however, if that kind of provocativeness doesn’t serve your stated goals of having less people use social media. I found your discussion of “any benefit” vs. “craftsman” approaches to social media in Deep Work to be much more valuable and relatable. With that said, maybe the only way we can really embrace the craftsman approach is to initially push provocative ideas.

  16. ZenBen says:

    After having been on a business trip whose main purpose was career networking, and having been continually chained to a smart phone anytime my eyes were open, it was very good to read this story of the cost of connectedness.

    I have personally seen online social and gaming sites help disabled people, as well as more than one kid going through the awkward teenage years and separated from friends by a family move.

    However, for me, the only social media that makes any sense presently is ResearchGate.

    Aristotle preached “moderation in all things.”

  17. Newbie says:

    I noticed that the length (not just number) of one’s posts/replies in forums tends to be proportional to the level of “addiction” to social media. Quite telling. And it keeps on getting worse as bandwidth and storage costs go down. Keep the digital minimal.

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