A Social Transition
Last week, I wrote a blog post emphasizing the distinction between the social internet and social media. The former describes the internet’s ability to enable connection, learning, and expression. The latter describes the attempt of a small number of large companies to monetize these capabilities inside walled-garden, monopoly platforms.
My argument is that you can embrace the social internet without having to become a “gadget” inside the algorithmic attention economy machinations of the social media conglomerates. As noted previously, I think this is the right answer for those who are fed up with the dehumanizing aspects of social media, but are reluctant to give up altogether on the potential of the internet to bring people together.
The key follow up question, of course, is how to fruitfully engage with the social internet outside the convenient confines of social media. In my last post I pointed toward one possibility: the development of open social protocols that support the network effect usefulness of large social networks without a centralized company in charge.
This solution, however, requires that you wait for others to make progress on a somewhat complicated technological agenda.
In this post, I want to discuss two additional approaches that individuals can put in place right now to begin their transition from social media to the social internet.
The first approach provides an intermediate step — a way to minimize the worst effects of social media without fully leaving its ecosystem. The second approach describes a more severe separation.
Approach #1: The Slow Social Media Philosophy
In my 2016 book, Deep Work, I proposed a strictly binary approach to social media: you should perform an honest cost/benefit analysis on the social media platforms in your life, and quit all services that don’t provide substantially more benefits than costs with respect to things you truly value.
The issue with this idea, as I discovered, is that many people could identify a small number of important benefits provided to them by particular social media platforms that couldn’t be easily replaced. Two common examples of such benefits include sharing photos of your kids with relatives on Instagram, and keeping up with important community or support organizations that coordinate using Facebook Groups.
This is problematic because once you allow one of these platforms into your life for any reason, they have a way of annexing your cognitive landscape well beyond the boundaries of your original intent.
The average user now spends almost two hours per day on social media — at best a small fraction of this time is dedicated to the “important” reasons most would list when asked why they need to use these services.
In other words: it’s not just what social media you use, but how you use it.
With this in mind, in the two years that have passed since the original publication of Deep Work, I’ve evolved a more nuanced philosophy that I call slow social media.
Here are the basic principles:
- Only use a given social media service if it provides valuable benefits that would be hard to replace. Use these services only for these purposes.
- Delete all social media apps from your phone. (Few serious uses for social media require that you can access it wherever you are throughout the day.) Instead, access social media through a web browser on your laptop or desktop, once or twice a week.
- When logged onto a social media service, don’t click “like” or follow links unrelated to your specific, high-value purposes — these activities mainly serve the social media conglomerate’s attempts to package you into data slivers that they can sell to the highest bidder.
Practicing slow social media allows you to maintain the hard to replace value that these services might provide you, while at the same time neutering their ability to transform you into a pawn in their algorithmic attention economy games.
Adding these restrictions also has the benefit of clarifying the true value of the activities that keep you in the social media orbit. If you find that the extra obstacle of using a web browser instead of your phone prevents you from using a given service for more than a month, than you should quit it altogether.
I was surprised by how many of my readers reported exactly this experience, proving that the stories they told themselves about social media’s importance to their existence were more fictional than they had realized.
Approach #2: Own Your Own Domain
In a recent issue of The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs wrote an interesting essay titled “Tending the Digital Commons.” In this piece, Jacobs highlights the dangerous tradeoff implicit in using the major social media platforms.
These services, he notes, provide you convenience (they’re easy to learn and use, and provide access to a large existing network of users), but in exchange, they maintain control over the information your produce.
They can then monetize your work in any way that suits their bottom line. As Jacobs writes, it’s incorrect to call the major social media platforms “walled gardens,” because…
“…they are not gardens; they are walled industrial sites, within which users, for no financial compensation, produce data which the owners of the factories sift and then sell.”
This is an economic state that the techno-critic Nicholas Carr provocatively describes as “digital sharecropping.”
Perhaps more pernicious than the ability of these “walled industrial sites” to exploit your labor, however, is their ability to control your behavior — nudging you toward certain ways of describing yourself and encountering the world that make you more profitable to the social media barons, but might alienate you from your humanity.
(This is the chief concern voiced by Jaron Lanier, who first warned us about these issues over twenty years ago.)
What’s the solution? Here’s Jacobs:
“We need to revivify the open Web and teach others—especially those who have never known the open Web—to learn to live extramurally: outside the walls. What do I mean by ‘the open Web’? I mean the World Wide Web as created by Tim Berners-Lee and extended by later coders.”
To be more concrete, he’s suggesting that if you want to connect and express yourself online, the best way to do so is to own your own website.
Buy a domain. Setup a web hosting account (my host, A2, has introductory packages that cost less than $4 a month). Install WordPress or hand code a web site for this account. Let people follow you directly by checking your site, or subscribing to an RSS feed or email newsletter.
In other words, acquire your own damn digital land on which you can do whatever you want without anyone else trying to exploit you or influence your behavior.
I’m biased, of course, because this is my approach to the social internet. I’ve never had a social media account. (For the record, @CalNewport is not me — it’s a fake Twitter account that I know nothing about.) Instead, I’ve built my own little empire here on calnewport.com where no one can bother me, or insert advertisements against my will, or, ahem, use my behavior to help influence political campaigns.
I can tell you from experience that this approach is harder than simply setting up a Twitter handle and letting the clever hashtags fly, but it’s immensely more satisfying to produce things when you’re not a data point in some Silicon Valley revenue report.
It’s also, however, humbling.
As I wrote in Deep Work, part of the power of the social media business model is that it introduces a type of attention collectivism, where I’ll promise to pretend to care what you have to say (by clicking “like” or leaving a quick comment), if you do the same for me. This is incredibly seductive, though ultimately hollow.
When you run your own site, reality is harsher. If people don’t truly care about what you have to say, or don’t truly care about you, they’re not going to stick around. You have to earn their attention. Which can be really, really hard.
But I don’t think that this is a bad thing.
For those who want recognition, this reality provides a useful forcing function for helping them through the deliberate work of cultivating thoughts worth sharing.
For those who don’t crave recognition, it induces a digital life that’s more localized to closer friends and family — a state that’s more congruent with our fundamental human instincts.
Slow social media and escaping the walled factories of industrial social media are two ways to step toward a more authentic social internet experience. They’re not, however, the only ways. As with my last post on this subject, I’m more interested in sparking new ways of thinking about your digital life than I am in providing you the definitive road map.