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Nassim Taleb’s (Implied) Argument Against Social Media

September 30th, 2016 · 29 comments


Fooled by Shiny Apps

Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness is a classic in the genre of erudite idea books. It’s an extended discussion of the many different ways humans misunderstand the role of probability in their everyday lives.

The book is most famous for its attack on the role of skill in money management (Malcolm Gladwell called the book the Wall Street equivalent of Luther’s ninety-five theses), but it touches on many other topics as well.

As a reader named Rainer recently reminded me, Taleb also includes a passage quite relevant to the dominant role new technologies like social media, or Apple watches, or the latest, greatest smartphone app play in modern life (see if you can sight the 1990’s-era Michael Lewis reference):

“The argument in favour of ‘new things’ and even more ‘new new things’ goes as follows: Look at the dramatic changes that have been brought about by the arrival of new technologies…Middlebrow inference (inference stripped of probabilistic inference) would lead one to believe that all new technologies and inventions would likewise revolutionize our lives. But the answer is not so obvious: Here we only see and count the winners, to the exclusion of the losers…I hold the opposite view. The opportunity cost of missing a ‘new new thing’ like the airplane and the automobile is minuscule compared to the toxicity of all the garbage one has to go through to get these jewels.”

In other words, the mere possibility that a new technology might prove important to your life should not be enough to motivate you to adopt it.

People who are driven by the fear of missing out or the dream of early adopter superstardom are deploying a “middlebrow inference” that examines only the maximum possible return, not the value derived in expectation.

It’s the rejection of such thinking that has led me to continue to abstain from Facebook and Twitter, among other popular pastimes in the rapidly evolving digital attention casino.

I’ll sign up for those new new things only once their expected value resolves to something significant enough to compete with the activities I already know pay out.

Both Taleb and I would urge you to consider the same


Study Hacks is sponsored in part by Blinkist: a subscription service that provides you access to an archive of detailed summaries of important nonfiction books. I often use it to determine which books are worth buying (like Fooled by Randomness) and which don’t deserve further attention. To find out more and receive a subscription discount click here.

29 thoughts on “Nassim Taleb’s (Implied) Argument Against Social Media

  1. Miguel says:

    Hello Cal,
    I wonder more and more if you’re just not following the footsteps of Nick Carr in “The Shallows”… what new angle will you bring to this topic that has not been explored by Carr’s 2011 book?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      Carr’s book warned about the impact of network tools on the brain. I’m interested in the follow-up question: so what should we do instead? In other words, how do you perform valuable, productive, and meaningful work in a distracted digital age.

  2. jld says:

    Except Nassim Nicholas Taleb ?IS on Twitter…

    1. Study Hacks says:

      That’s what I mean by the argument being implied. He wasn’t writing about social media as it didn’t exist back in the 90’s. But I think his underlying point could and should apply to these new technologies (even if Taleb himself doesn’t even realize it!). Social media has positioned itself in such a way to escape such scrutiny, which I think is a mistake on the part of our culture.

      1. Cassandra Oliver says:

        By definition, culture can’t be wrong.

        1. Alex says:

          Of course culture can be wrong, only that it takes time to see it. Hindsight shows many cultures that proved less than viable over time. History is filled with the corpses of those defending their culture as “the right thing to do”.

          When cultures fail to provide a framework for their members (in regard to a certain aspect of life), said members suffer. I believe this is the main argument from Cal: western culture is not yet able to cope with the explosion of social media usage and penetration. Disruption of individual’s attention, viral spreading of any bit of (mis)information, there are several ways in which social media has *already* shown its toxic aspects.

          1. Jonathan P. says:

            Wrong because you disagree with it? How about the majority who simply is immersed on it? Individuals can be wrong. Culture can’t. It’s a collection of habits, values, traditions, influences. Culture is descriptive. It has nothing to do with being wrong or right. If you don’t like the culture of some tribe that doesn’t mean that that culture is “wrong”.

    2. Smith says:

      Taleb has also a Facebook account…

  3. A.I. says:

    Sorry to be a smartass, but it was 95 theses.

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’m not sure why I wrote 99…

      1. Peter says:

        Jay Z posted the 99 theses. Luther only had 95.

        1. Marko says:

          Thumbs up for that comment.

  4. anon says:

    Cal – I’m wondering if you have a massive short position in Facebook? Or if you’ve been hired for an activist hedge fund that does?

  5. Marvin Towler says:

    Hey Cal would you suggest reading Fooled by Randomness before reading Anti-Fragile?

  6. Tariq Fancy says:

    I think the point he makes is interesting but rather peripheral, somewhat weak, and as you stated quite “implied.”

    Frankly I think you make this point yourself much better than he does. Not to mention you’re a nice, humble and thoughtful guy, not a renowned blowhard like Taleb.

  7. “That’s what I mean by the argument being implied. He wasn’t writing about social media as it didn’t exist back in the 90’s.” I think it’s a real stretch for you to write “Nassim Taleb’s (Implied) Argument Against Social Media”. He has an active twitter account with more than 2k tweets.

    Your confirmation bias appears at times to get the best of you. I’m assuming at times you read opposing views and consider them… maybe you should share them so we can see your awareness of the whole picture.

  8. Geraldine says:

    Social networks are capitalising on our need for human interactions, what we could easily do before their invention, namely communicate with our fellow humans, now requires tools. Tools that filter our conversations, try to manipulate our choices, and sell out our private lifes. These companies are so successful because they are pioneers on the last untouched market, the market for the organisation of social relations. Every other aspect of our life is already marketed and saturated to the brim, starting from our fertility, birth, believes, bowel movements, down to our death, but pressing a new tool into the relations between us and our family, neighbours, colleagues, and friends hasn’t been done before. Why not try to earn money on this aspect of our lifes too.
    The future new products we are going to get confronted with will only become more and more superfluous and useless, yet clever marketing will always overthrow people’s resistance, to their own detriment. In the age of Henry Ford they needed marketing in order to sell off their mass produced products, which people were not buying because they didn’t feel the need for it. Today companies use even more refined marketing tools to sell products we need even less.

    A Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Google+, Stayfriends, Instagram etc. account-free happy person.

  9. anon says:

    Morgan – I think that’s nitpicking a little. The point is that Taleb’s comment generally applies to the arguments that Cal has made in his book.

  10. Dan says:

    I’m 28, square in the millenial bracket, and I have snapchat, instagram, tumblr, twitter, reddit, linkedin, and facebook accounts. I’ve never listed them out like that, so it’s unsettling to see them all in one place. I’ve been having more conversations with friends and peers about avoiding digital distraction. I don’t plan on eliminating all of these platforms, but I do try and limit my access to them. My best method is leaving my phone in my car at work and often when I’m home at night. I also limit how many people I follow, which really helps with controlling how much content I get. Twitter is the worst offender – I follow fewer than 70 people, but election season means my feed is bombarded. The nice thing about stowing my phone away for hours at a time is that I don’t feel like I can catch up, so I don’t try – I read twitter for a few minutes then put it away.

    The biggest thing I’ve noticed is a near-elimination of the false sense of urgency a smartphone creates. I am not winning any e-mail wars at work, which is a large pet peeve for me, but in my personal communication, I feel more relaxed and less like I need to be participating in everything. I enjoy what social media can provide, and I don’t want to cold turkey it, but I also don’t want it to disrupt positive behavior and thinking patterns.

  11. Nenad says:

    Just be warned that Taleb is very good example what happens when you do not understand statistics and become famous. His work should be scrutinized more carefully by his readers and be held to the same standards as scientists he attacks. He clearly do not understand scientific method and generalizes about science from anecdotal evidence. Therefore most of his arguments are not based on scientific evidence and I consider them as just his opinion.

    1. OCD says:

      Is that just your opinion? Try dismiss him academically. Publish something that debunks him.

  12. Funny. I came to you website because I couldn’t find you on LinkedIn. And now I know why.

    I think you’re missing the point … it’s not an either or decision. No Social Media vs Yes Social Media.

    It’s must more a functional pragmatic decision: use what for works in enabling you to learn / grow / develop. There’s a place for everything — the trick is to know when and why.

    Deep work applies in certain case. Lectures applies in certain instances. A social media feed applies it certain situations. I’m not a dualist or a fanatic so I’m cool with riding which wave gets me to my goals effectively and quickly.

    Thanks for all you do — I always learn a lot and think more critically about my future.

  13. Haha! I should have re-read my post because it’s filled with typos. Oh no! it’s the social media that’s distracting me from being deliberate (no, I was lazy and didn’t want to proof read) — wait that’s just what a social media hound would do … 🙂

  14. Carter says:

    Hello Cal,

    I’ve followed your blog for the last two years and have your books Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I finally decided to delete my twitter and facebook accounts. I would hate to look back on my life and regret not harnessing untapped potential because of social media. I think that some people can practice self-discipline in using social media however it takes a lot of will power. Will power I would rather use to help me in my professional endeavors. In addition, recently I couldn’t help but notice just how addictive social media sites can be and found an article by Michael Schulson on how social media sites are designed for people to become hooked on them to the point it is hard to disjoint from. The link to the article is here

    Thank you for your research and insights Cal.


  15. Chris says:

    Nassim Taleb’s Facebook account:

    I think you’re mistaken about Taleb being against social media. In fact, these are the tools that he uses to go berserk against charlatans.

  16. javier says:

    Nassim’s Fooled by Randomness is a classic in the genre of erudite idea books.

    Animation Notes

  17. Jason Data says:

    What are those things that you would say ‘pay out’? Are these the actions listed in *Deep Work*?

  18. Esther says:

    Why are we so fascinated with trying to “revolutionise” our lives? If we stop seeking to always reinvent ourselves, and instead decide to make building a life and career worth living as we go, wouldn’t we make more progress? Is the pull of “newer” and the draw of “improvement” really a distraction which keeps us preoccupied with surface-level problems and hinders us from plunging the depths of our lives and fields?

    I use “outdated” methods and devices because they don’t stop me from making progress the way I know I need to make it. Cal, I’ve been following your blog and writings since I was in high school and now I’m a Ph.D. student at the top university in the world (for my field), and I agree that you’re absolutely on the right track with this. But, perhaps the reason people still are so attracted to the newest technology and useless fads is because of a deep-seated psychological need for novelty and to continually “start over.” I argue that it then creates a diversion from a deep life and deep work. But how do we meet this need?

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