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Are You Using Social Media or Being Used By It?

October 2nd, 2017 · 33 comments

A Social Experiment

If you, like many people, use social media and generally agree that it’s an important technology, try the following experiment.

Take out a piece of paper and list your most important uses for these services — the activities that social media is well-suited to provide and that unambiguously enrich your life. This list, for example, might include items like:

  • The ability to see new photos of your nephews, nieces, or grandchildren.
  • The Facebook Group used to run a local organization you belong to.
  • The  hashtag that keeps you up to date with the latest news from an activist movement that you support.

The social media industrial complex* likes to point to lists like these to justify its importance. “It would be crazy to dismiss our technology,” they cry, “look at all these useful things people do with it!”

But here’s the second part of the experiment: estimate honestly how much time it would take per week to satisfy these important uses. In my experience, for most people, the answer is around 15 – 30 minutes.

And yet, the average American adult social media user spends two hours per day on these services, with almost half this time dedicated to Facebook products alone.

This is the disconnect that the social media industrial complex doesn’t want you to notice. They want the conversation to stop at the assertion that social media isn’t useless, and then hope people move on without questioning the specific role these services have claimed on their limited and valuable time and attention.

The social media business model depends on this oversight.

To be more concrete, I claim that most users could probably reap 95% of the value they get out of social media by signing in twice a week, on a desktop or laptop, to catch up on the latest photos, or check their organization’s group, or to browse the most recent chatter relevant to a movement they care about. Let’s called this controlled use of these services.

Social media companies cannot reach multi-billion dollar valuations, or return consistent stock growth to their investors, based on controlled use. What they need is compulsive use, which is what happens when you launch the app on your phone with some important goal in mind, and then thirty minutes later look up and realize you’ve been snagged into an addictive streak of low-value tapping, liking, and swiping.

As former Google employee and whistleblower Tristan Harris explains, these companies carefully engineer their products — especially the versions readily available through apps on your phone — to exploit psychological weak spots to trap you into compulsive use. For example:

  • The “like” button? This was added to inject more intermittent reinforcement into the social media browsing experience — significantly increasing the amount of times people check their accounts.
  • The ability to “tag” people in your posted photos? The primary purpose of this feature (which, when considered objectively, is really pretty arbitrary) is to create a new stream of social approval indicators — something our tribal brains are evolved to take deadly seriously, and therefore induces people — surprise, surprise — to significantly increase the amount of times they check their accounts.

With this in mind, I’m going to stop short of asking you (yet again — I was chagrined to recently learn that I’m the top two results when you google “Quit Social Media”) to consider leaving these services altogether. Instead, let me make a suggestion that the social media industrial complex fears far more: change your relationship with these services to shift from compulsive to controlled use.

Still use social media, if you must: but on a schedule; just a handful of times a week; preferably on a desktop to laptop, which tames the most devastatingly effective psychological exploitations baked into the phone apps.

You have very little to lose, as controlled use preserves all of the things you seriously value from these services, but have so much to gain when you decide there’s a better use for that extra 13.5 hours a week than helping prop up real estate prices in Northern California.

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* This is my somewhat facetious term for the powerful combination of the massive social media platform monopolies, and the growing sector of the knowledge tech economy — gurus, consultants, online brand managers, etc. — that depends on the belief that social media is fundamental to modern commerce and life.

33 thoughts on “Are You Using Social Media or Being Used By It?

  1. 1 says:

    Hi
    Just watched your excellent talk on “Quit social media | Dr. Cal Newport | TEDxTysonsvideo”.
    Could you please comment on use of imessage and text. I find it very disruptive. Unfortunately colleagues tend to use it and when I disable imessage or text they view it as negative.
    Thank you

  2. Cameron Kirby says:

    Oh I should also add to my previous post that I deleted the FB app and only use mobile web. This was a previous experiment to curb usage (didn’t work) but does have the side effect that I don’t get phone notifications from Facebook. I have to actually remember to login and check. I think my current record is going to two days without remembering.

  3. Akram Ahmad says:

    – Loved the essay, spot on!

    – Also enjoyed your “somewhat facetious term” (i.e. social media industrial complex), which I thought was a nice take on the much vaunted (military–industrial complex (aka MIC) 🙂

    – To that I’ll add how the message(s) in your germane book Deep Work continues to resonate with me (as I re-re-re-read it) 😉

    – I keep spreading the word on your work, which I’ve followed for years and years, including most recently Deep Work, to the thousands and thousands of readers who visit my blog each month—In fact, devoted a brand new essay entirely to covering your sterling
    book
    , plus one other!

  4. AC says:

    Cal,

    This is probably the best summary of the argument against social media addiction that you’ve ever written. I feel like I could paste this onto a word document, show it to anyone and they’d understand it. Then they’d act embarrassed for a moment and then frantically begin to justify their heavy social media use.

    Seriously though, great post. I agree with your sentiments about moving things from a desktop PC to highly portable devices like phones and tablets. The frequency of checking feeds, likes and posts etc goes through the roof.

    I don’t know what the latest statistics are, but I’d bet that the vast majority of social media use is now conducted from a phone or tablet.

  5. Denis says:

    When I began controlling my Facebook use, I checked the feed settings and only left there people and groups I really care about. This left with 2-3 new posts in the feed per day – quite enough for a quick check once or twice a week. And of course I blocked all notifications, both push and email. Sometimes I only answer a message a week after I get it, but in this case I just ask a person to send me an sms in the future. I lost a couple of clients due to late replies, but saved enough time to make these losses negligible.

  6. Reading this excellent piece set me to thinking why I don’t use social media (at all). Maybe because I’m 75? Add at least 10 reasons; but they boil down to the utter triviality of it all. Social media promote the accumulation of mind-lint. They are an ear worm. They capitalize on one of the worst productivity-destroyers: distraction. They are evil – like Powerpoint, they are the devil’s own tool for dividing attention. (Close your eyes at the next Powerpoint you’re forced to attend; you’ll learn twice as much.) If you’re interested in deep things, social media are deeply boring. My anthem is the currently popular Maccabeats performance of “Sound of Silence” complete with anti-smartphone images: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTjw96-Z700

  7. Michael says:

    Thanks for this analysis.

    You could add that the 90 or so minutes a day you save could be used to accomplish more in all three of those areas.

    Imagine all the memories you can create, social events you can attend and activism you can accomplish with the extra time. Surely that’s more valuable than staying current with notifications for fewer of these things.

  8. Nitin says:

    I live in Northern California. Folks, please listen to Dr. Newport and help me afford a house here 😉

    I have forsaken Facebook years ago and never signed up for Twitter. I check my Instagram feed quickly maybe twice a week. So it appears that I have opted out of the madness. However, I’m beginning to get wary of Whatsapp, which otherwise is an immensely useful tool for keeping in touch with your globally dispersed family. The software is turning more and more into a social media platform.

  9. Jennifer says:

    The worst one for me is Reddit. Twitter bores me, Facebook scares me enough that I never signed up for it. But Reddit is not only a digital time sink, but also an excellent way to start spending money. (Many companies use Reddit for stealth marketing, convincing you that other ‘users’ lives were so enriched by a product, you should buy it too!)

    And given that my bookclub is reading Deep Work this month, I’ve decided to do away with Reddit entirely. Reclaim my evenings from the giant distract ball, and hopefully my wallet, too!

  10. Avi says:

    Ha! The “Deep Work” book has rendered me immune to this virus. On LITERALLY zero social media sites.

  11. Amir says:

    I’ve removed my facebook account, deleted my Instagram app and now I’m on the verge of abandoning my smartphone.
    I have now, peace of mind while cultivating my focus is being strengthened.
    If only people could comprehend the benefits of purging their lives from social networks …

  12. MUNEEB KHAN says:

    I would like to thanks to send your articles to my gmail account it’s really helpful when some time I’m offline.

  13. Yes and Yes. When used wisely, social media can be a great tool. The key is…wisely. The vast majority choose poorly.

  14. Alan says:

    Amen, Amen, I say to you: You are speaking to the choir on this one – but keep it up! Not everyone is listening and hearing. I agree that at least 80% of time typically spent on social media is, essentially, a waste of valuable time. Get a real life, folks!

    1. Gran Torino says:

      So true Alan. I wish and wonder how much better all the “iphone zombie” lives would be if they exerted the same time/energy/effort into their REAL life, not their virtual life.

  15. Hi!
    Thank you for your post, I found it very useful.
    Several months ago I removed any applications related to social websites on my mobile phone, I also blocked all mt social website on my computer, so I didn’t have any way to waste my time there. Recently I removed any blocking of these websites on my laptop and I don’t feel any craving to spend time there. I also stopped following anyone who doesn’t share anything important and I realized that I needed to unfollow everyone.

    But recently I discovered something else, it is Reddit and excessive reading. So I feel that there can be different ways to procrastinate, and I see right now that I can procrastinate by excessive reading books or pretty interesting content on Reddit. So now I see that there can be much more levels of procrastination involving something more important like reading.

    The main thing is to observe all the time everything that distracts you from your current the most important action.

    Thanks!

  16. Jenni says:

    I looked at the link you provided on how we spend two hours a day on social media. What is even more disturbing is that it constitutes only 1/4 of time spent online daily. Some activity online may be justified, but 8 hrs a day? Wow.

  17. Adrian says:

    Why is there not a “Share” button? Hmmm..

  18. Claudia says:

    Mr. Newport, I am so thankful to receive your newsletter. It always brings my focus back to what is really important to me. I have made a list of all the things I want to do with my precious time, and facebook is nowhere near it.

  19. Pisaller says:

    I am currently a college student implementing your current ideologies of reducing the usage of cell-phones to avoid having my scare attention from being hijacked by unnecessary softwares that attempt to offer an any-benefit approach and I’ve been attempting to follow along with your ideologies throughout my college year thus far.

    Suggestion: Since you have the ability to create a blog-post, another aspect that could be intriguing is to begin creating short podcasts that could summarize your arguments and or perspectives on things.

    I got comfortable with boredom but when seeking entertainment, I’d rather listen to podcasts about these ideologies made by you rather than seek other distracting stimuli or obsessively engage in reading books. Just a suggestion – hope something comes out of this. Thanks.

  20. yogitha says:

    Hi Cal,

    I find this post very interesting and informative. Thanks for your suggestions.

  21. EA says:

    Cal – I am reading “Lead yourself first” and you’re indeed correct, it’s a great book.
    I have to say that the deep work philosophy, which of course entails some solitude, greatly helped me. A few months ago I got a new job at a very hectic public safety agency and I had ZERO public safety experience. Guess what, I suspended my social media accounts (my wife changed the passwords), and I began deep thinking. Two months later I was Employee of the Month, and a SME on many things up to the point that the my boss said that I am the best hire he ever had. But you know what is the most surprising thing? After the shock of the initial impact… I had fun! I love going to work now because I can make a difference and I am not just “pushing papers”… and they told me that they want me to become a supervisor after I get some more experience.

  22. Excellent post.

    Social proof has become the currency on social media, but it has a dark side. People who shouldn’t be caring about likes, like kids, become obsessed with how much approval they can get on their photo.

    Limiting time spent on your phone is a requirement; a mental diet of sorts that keeps your mind fit and healthy. Reading, audiobooks, anything else needs to be supplemented so that we don’t become weak.

  23. Boardlerts says:

    Cal,

    Very interesting analysis on social media. I recently wrote up some tips of my own on preventing procrastination on social media (https://boardlerts.com/blog/how-to-stop-procrastinating-on-social-media). It can seriously be a time sink.

    I think that what you propose is right: you don’t necessarily have to delete your account, but 2 hours a day is way too much. Limiting it to once or twice a week is reasonable.

  24. Cindy says:

    Amazing article and very interesting to read!
    It’s surprising that in reality I never paid attention to the fact that there was another use to the like button and the ability to tag people with photos on Facebook. It’s very intriguing to see how we have become so co-dependent on being part of social media and if not part of it we feel left out.

  25. Heather says:

    I’m not very good about limiting my social media use, but I did delete my profile from Facebook and set up a “dummy” Facebook account with no friends or family on it. (I kept Facebook Messenger so friends can still “text” my phone if they need to reach me that way.) I only follow skating rinks in my area, so I can be alerted of schedule changes and special events. I check it once every week, now, if that.

  26. Renee says:

    I use social media because my employer requires we use. We source candidates and hiring managers. It makes my job a lot easier. We use to use the phone book.

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  28. I write on Medium and would like to share articles on Deep Work and how it has helped me and helping me. I am sure it will help you all also. Here is recent one: How Deep Work has made my train journeys more peaceful and sane => https://medium.com/@vickywiz/how-deep-work-has-made-my-train-journeys-more-peaceful-and-sane-687eb56ada5d

    And heartful thanks to Cal for this blessing of Deep Life. I am reading the book 3rd time in a row.

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