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On Analog Social Media

The Declutter Experiment

In late 2017, as part of my research for a book I’m writing on digital minimalism, I invited my mailing list subscribers to participate in an experiment I called the digital declutter.

The idea was simple. During the month of January, 2018, participants would take a break from “optional technologies” in their lives, including, notably, social media. At the end of the 31-day period, the participants would then rebuild their digital lives starting from a blank slate — only allowing back in technologies for which they could provide a compelling motivation.

I expected around 40 – 50 people would agree to participate in this admittedly disruptive exercise.

My guess was wrong.

More than 1,600 people signed up. We even received national attention when the New York Times wrote a nice article about the experiment.

Since January, I’ve been reading through the hundreds of reports that participants sent me about their experience with the digital declutter. I’ve been learning a lot from these case studies, but I want to focus here on one observation in particular that caught my attention: when freed from standard digital distractions, participants often overhauled their free time in massively positive ways.

Here are some real examples of this behavior from my digital declutter experiment…

–> An engineer named James realized how much of the information he used to consume though social media during the day was “unimportant or useless.” With this drain on his attention removed from his routine, he returned to his old hobby of playing chess, and became an enthusiast of architectural Lego kits (“a wonderful outlet”).

–> Heather, a writer and mother of three homeschooled kids, completed a draft of a book, while also reading “many books” written by others.  “I’m recapturing my creative spirit,” she told me.

–> An IT professional named Andy noted that he typically reads 3 – 5 books a year. Free from the time sink of social media, he’s on track to finish 50 books in 2018.

–> Angie is a yoga instructor, but she also has BFA and used to be a professional artist. “Not spending time on social media had me thinking,” she told me, “what do I want to get good at? Making social media posts, or getting back into painting?” She choose painting. During her declutter she booked three new art shows and had her work accepted at a juried exhibition. “For me, it was simply a refocusing of my time and commitment to myself, to get better at something I love,” she said.

–>  A retired stockbroker named Bob began to spend more time with his wife, going for walks, and “really listening.” He expanded this habit of trying to “listen more and talk less” to his friends and family more generally.

–> A PhD candidate named Alma described the experience of stepping away from distracting technologies as “liberating.” Her mind began “working all the time,” but on things that were important to her, and not just news about “celebrities and their diets and workouts.” Among other things, she told me: “I was more there for my girls,” I could focus on “keeping my marriage alive,” and at night “I would read research papers [in the time I used to spend scrolling feeds].”

–> Another PhD candidate named Jess tackled Anna Karenina and Infinite Jest during the declutter. “Now that I feel like I’m actively choosing what I do with my downtime, I find [hard] activities like reading more pleasurable.”

–> A government worker named Ari replaced his online news habit with a daily subscription to the Wall Street Journal print edition. “I still feel perfectly up to date with the news, without getting caught up in the minute-to-minute clickbait headlines and sensationalism that is so typical of online news,” he told me.

–> When a publishing executive named Leonie gave up Facebook, she had an epiphany: “I do want to connect socially,” she told me, “but for a bigger purpose, and with a specific group of people, and to share a valuable message.” So she started her own blog on a topic she finds important. “It’s early days yet, but I’m enjoying this redirection my time and creative energy into making something that’s uniquely me, instead of getting caught up in the ‘compete and compare’ culture of social media.”

–> David was a former professor looking for a new job after moving to a different state. Ignoring the traditional advice that social media is key to finding jobs (as I also recommend), he deleted his accounts and dedicated his newfound free time to a more traditional job search. “I started getting more and more job interviews,” he told me, attributing his success to being able to deeply research open positions. This effort culminated in the last last week of the declutter: “I had five job interviews in five days and two offers.” He also competed a full rewrite of a young adult novel he was writing. “So I would say this experiment was a wild success,” he concluded.

Analog Social Media

My initial interpretation of stories like the above was that tools like social media consume lots of time. Therefore, when you minimize their role in your life, you free up time for other, more valuable pursuits.

On closer inspection, however, I refined this take. Many of the people who sent me declutter stories were not simply replacing social media use with unrelated activities. In many cases, they were instead finding improved sources of the benefits that drew them to social media in the first place.

For example…

  • One reason people use social media is that browsing their accounts provides a quick hit of entertainment. As many of the participants in my declutter discovered, however, old fashioned, analog activities can provide much richer entertainment. Just ask Angie about her rediscovery of painting or James about the return of his chess hobby.
  • Another reason people use social media is to connect with family and friends. But many of my participants found that real world efforts to stay in touch proved more rewarding than clicking “like” or scrolling timelines. We see this, for example, in Alma spending more time with her daughters, or Bob investing energy into seriously listening to his family.
  • People also use social media to stay informed and learn new ideas. But a consistent theme in the declutter stories was the overall negative impact of trying to keep up with breaking news online. Ari’s experience, in which he discovered that reading a print newspaper kept him both informed and much less anxious, was shared by many participants who explored “slower” ways to keep up with the news. And when it comes to learning new ideas, perhaps the most common observation made by declutter participants was that they ended up reading many more books. Jess and Andy’s experience of rediscovering the joy of reading are just two case studies among many similar stories that I received.

In some sense, the participants in my digital declutter experiment developed analog alternatives to social media, in which they recreated many of the benefits promised by these digital tools using more intentional real world activities.

The resulting analog social media tended to prove significantly more satisfying and rewarding than the addictive experiences offered through screens by the algorithmic attention economy.  It also had the advantage of freeing participants from the sense that their personhood is constantly being sliced, diced and packaged into digital bundles to be sold to the highest bidder.

Beyond Loss Aversion

In recent decades, our culture has developed a strange loss aversion when it comes to digital consumer products.

Even people who are fed up with the deprivations of the algorithmic attention economy are often reluctant to give up services like social media because doing so might lead them to lose some benefits. Loss aversion teaches them to avoid such losses at all costs.

The experiments in analog social media described above, however, highlight an alternative to this obsession with loss aversion. Instead of treating all benefits as equal, you can instead ask what activities provide the best benefits.

Facebook, for example, might help your social life. But redirecting the 50 minutes per day the average Facebook user spends using these services toward phone conversations and real world outings will likely benefit your social life much more.

To focus on the latter is not missing out on the benefits of Facebook. It’s instead replacing Facebook with an activity that boasts an even better return on investment.

To state this more abstractly:

Focusing on the most beneficial activities to the exclusion of less beneficial alternatives can leave you better off than trying to clutter your life with everything that might offer some value.

This idea is not new. It’s the foundation of all minimalism philosophies, including my own concept of digital minimalism. But I wanted to emphasize its importance in our current moment because I think it should be part of the recently energized cultural conversation surrounding social media.

When it comes to tools like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: don’t let the fear of missing out dictate how you live your life. The most productive and fulfilled people I know often got where they are by doubling down on the activities that return them huge benefits, while happily ignoring everything else.

73 thoughts on “On Analog Social Media”

  1. Wonderful last sentence: “The most productive and fulfilled people I know often got where they are by doubling down on the activities that return them huge benefits, while happily ignoring everything else.”

    • Yes great article. The theme in question reminds me of something I have been reading called the The Tech-Wise family by Andy Crouch. Sounds like these guys are onto something!

  2. FOMO , when as a “reason” to remain as a pawn in the Social Media industrial complex
    closely parallels the long time smoker who wont quit for FEAR of “gaining weight”.

  3. The fear of missing out is seriously the only thing that keeps me thinking about Facebook and Instagram since I last deleted them a couple weeks ago.

    • Danny-

      Before I deleted “news” from my life I was told by a wise man that
      (somehow) “Anything you NEED to know, you will know- you will find out”.
      Ive seen this to be true!
      I also became a happier , positive person because of the news delete.
      I then applied this to my old Social account. Delete.
      SAME result(s).
      There is no “time” to fear once one removes a source of “waste” from our life.
      Fear is replaced with a sense of freedom. Of “power” (meaning taking control of your time, life and energy)…it exhilarates you.
      Be more concerned with FOML !
      Fear Of Missing LIFE

      • Fear Of Missing LIFE – excellent slogan
        I have deactivated facebook mostly, and only on back once a week or two weeks when I had to do work or someone posts something I have to check.
        however, I can’t seem to shake the news off. have to have nytimes or something else daily. Even though big news come through anyway.

  4. This is a great essay Professor Newport! Perhaps one of the most fascinating tidbits from your piece was the notion that reading the newspaper kept one of your participants well informed and less anxious. Interestingly enough, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that one of the most significant signs of social life in America was the presence of the newspaper. It was not about providing news only, but being a forum through which people could find out where other people were going to be. It was of coming together and forming associational life. Robert Putnam’s book, Making Democracy Work, a study of civic traditions in modern Italy, demonstrates the same truth. The norther regions of Italy are full of citizens who read the local paper on a weekly basis, and have a deep tradition of civic association. Thanks again for sharing!

    • Brian – I can assure you it’s totally true. I even wrote in a comment a few weeks ago about it. It’s incredible, although it takes some time to get adjusted. Just read a local newspaper (you need to know local things more than anything else) and the WSJ for the economy and whatever happens globally that might affect us.

    • Yes! And newspapers used to have sections talking about who visited whom and where people vacationed, etc. I never thought about it before, but newspapers, especially local ones, used to be a lot like FB. Wouldn’t it be great to get that back again?

  5. I switched to printed newspapers a few months ago. What a blessing! Not only I am MORE informed, but I don’t have the distraction, anxiety, and feelings that social media news (and news on TV) plus clickbait bring with them. (I also removed every news app from my phone, and every news source from my social media accounts with only one exception).

    • Interestingly enough, I remember listening to an interview with happiness guru Gretchen Rubin in which she recommended reading newspapers instead of watching television as a change promoting greater happiness and less anxiety. The printed word provides far more detachment than the television, and is self-limiting by nature with no online links in which to suck you further into a morass of sensationalized click-bait.

  6. This is perfect. Since I stopped using social media and started being very intentional with how I spend my time online, I have had time to build a business, read books, practice the piano for an hour a day, and spend purposeful time with my 4 kids. Digital minimalism is a much needed idea in this day and age.

  7. great article ever since i have got a shark tank videos from which he paid for those videos, i have got struck with the business ideas.. its been a moth i stopped using my fb and instagram i hope for the biggest thing in my life thanks for the article

  8. I would be super interested to see Cal not just railing on the harms of social media, but also providing a wholesome alternative, a way to fill the time freed by excising social media from your life, or even systemize your social life. “Social hacks” in a style similar to the study hacks of the early days of the blog. For instance, one person I’ve heard has a system where he has a reminder per friend pop up every few months reminding him to call them.

    • Josh, I think you may have missed the point. The point (or one of them) is to stop being controlled by outside forces. If you have newly found free time, you only need to consult your own brain to decide what is important. Life is short – only you can determine how to use the precious moments available to you…..

  9. This is very inspiring. I do think we can gain more value for the time we’re not spending on social media and become happier and more fulfilled as a result. Social media is very enticing but at the end of the day, it’s just empty entertainment.

    I’m glad to see someone successful not giving into social media. There’s still a lot of peer pressure to be on these sites.

  10. Funny but I’ve given up all social media in the last two weeks (don’t miss it!!) but have been struggling to handle my news. Ordered a subscription last night to one of the national papers and can’t wait to see the impact of not checking cnn every 20 minutes…:-)

    Thanks for the great series of articles cal.

  11. Does anyone have the email with the challenge? I am an RSS subscriber and just this morning subscribed to the email option. Such FOMO.

  12. Hi Cal!
    I have participated on the experiment to. It’s funny that I also started with Infinite Jest (La broma infinita in spanish).
    Also while reading much more about all this issues on privacy, social media and digital declutter during this period I have decided to do my final tesis around this matters.

    PS: I am subscribed by email but wanted to subscribe via RSS (I’m also leaving Gmail, after Facebook), couldn’t find any link to feeds.

  13. My struggle recently has been “inputs” in general. I’m often reading 2 books at a time (one physical, one audio) and listening to several podcasts (while I get ready in the morning, at the gym, in the car, etc.). I have noticed that I have little time for silence. So while I am not spending as much time on social networks as I did a few years ago, I feel more stressed / burned out than before. I feel enslaved to information. If I am not investing in personal development, I can feel inadequate.
    The podcast “boom” is something I am paying attention to. I have big time FOMO on it, and missing the latest and greatest leadership nugget. I think I may eliminate the podcasts, at least the business / leadership ones.
    Any feedback would be appreciated.

    • Alex,
      Something to try. Set aside a little time, then–from memory–write down the one or two principal lessons learned from each podcast you listened to over the previous couple weeks/months. If you come up blank, you’ve just discovered the real value of those podcasts in your life. Proceed accordingly. Best of Luck.

      Extra credit: write down specific actions you’ve taken to incorporate those lesson into your life.

    • Hi Alex,

      Self-improvement/leadership/etc. podcasts are just another form of “online news”. You might try the same experiment as the “digital declutter”: stop them completely.

      In the time you gain, you could listen to the “audio version” of some well-tested and classic leadership books.

      Or one step further: if you have been listening/reading such podcasts/blogs for a while, you probably already know most of the ideas. I guess the reason why you come back to them is that they give you some reassurance that you are tackling things the right way whenever you feel anxious, not because so much of fresh ideas. I guess a better “analog” way to find reassurance in your leadership role is finding a real-life mentor or a colleague with similar responsibilities, have lunch once a week together and share the situations where you weren’t sure how to proceed…

  14. Aunque no participé del experimento, cerré mi cuenta de Facebook. Considero que la vida es más atractiva y productiva sin estar naufragando por “el Face”.

  15. Thanks, Cal! The concept has been raised before, but your article stands out because of how it grounds its argument – which is certainly very true – in experimental observations. You stand to make many people happier. Will share widely!

  16. Another great post, Cal!

    What I found to be a good alternative to buying a subscription for a newspaper is to send news articles directly to my e-reader through RSS feeds. I have a Kobo that allows me to sync my articles from Pocket. As Pocket is more of a bookmarking service (i.e. you can only add articles manually), I use Feedhuddler to send everything that pops up in my RSS feed subscriptions automatically over to Pocket. The only thing I now have to do is to connect my e-reader to WiFi, press the sync button and voilà, I can read new content from my favorite news sources and blogs while commuting, free of any distractions.

    Here you can find a guide to set this up on a Kindle with Calibre:

  17. Everyone is praising Cal’s post yet he doesn’t reply back thanking anyone. Also, doesn’t Cal realize that social media propelled him to popularity? The Ted talk, dozens of podcast interviews, the articles etc. – shared all over the world on social media. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Cal’s overall premise. However I and most of you would neve have heard him if it weren’t for social media.

    • I think the social internet would have gotten news of Cal to me, either via a book review or a friend mentioning the blog. And I would have missed all the attention hijacking required to wade through social media to find one good blog in the middle of a thousand other messages.

    • I found Cal when I purchased “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” in hard cover, in a real bookstore, in 2012. No social media, no razzmatazz.

      I have since recommended and/or given several of his books to family, friends and colleagues. Ditto his blog entries. No social media, no razzmatazz.

      I have never sought him out on any social media. Nor will I ever.

      Social sucks. Organic connections power our lives.

        • I’m a researcher in life sciences and I live in Poland. I haven’t heard about Cal and his books until November last year. One of my former students who now does her PhD in U.S. came to visit me and told me about Cal’s “Deep work”. I ordered that book and some other, read with passion and implemented many of Cal’s ideas on how to improve quality of work. I’m impressed about his way of thinking!
          Greetings from Poland!

    • Cal always said that social media might have some value and that each individual should investigate the ROI of spending time and effort on social media as if it were a business decision. He even suggests to schedule social media time. I believe that in one of his texts or interviews he even mentions that he knows he would be addicted to it (Cal correct me if I am wrong) therefore there would be no balanced ROI for himself given his line of work.

    • Hi Corey. My guess is Cal doesn’t respond to everyone because he’s practicing what he preaches about focusing on what is essential and relevant to his deep work. Not every comment on here is worthy of a response.

      Also I’m sure a number of us found this site by non-social media means. I did a Startpage keyword search of “digital minimalism” and found this blog. I’ve been off social media since 2013 and have managed to still find plenty of relevant (and irrelevant) news and links.

      Mr. Newport isn’t suggesting no social media, he’s suggesting a paradigm where we evaluate its relevancy to own personal goals and values. I suggest the book Essentialism by Greg McGowan as a tool for developing a better relationship to what is truly meaningful for each person.

    • I found Cal by searching for “study hacks” back when I was in graduate school, no social media involved 🙂

      Likewise, I also do google searches for “best books on …”, “classics about ..”, “… (style) music 2017” “recommended textbook for …” etc. to find new ideas. Internet 1.0 (webpages but no social media) still works fine for such things 😉

  18. Since I became less active on Facebook, it has made me calmer. However, what is an alternative way to keep in touch with people/accointances without looking needy? Should i always be the one to call? Text? Email? Facebook was a digital marketplace where everyone was hanging out. I hate that my data was packaged and sold, and my mornings were ruined due to Facebook. But now there is no digital marketplace to hangout. And I don’t want to look like a needy friend.

    • I work around this with regularly scheduled calls with friends. We have a standard time to talk during the week, and each time we talk, we check if we need to do any re-scheduling for the next week. It works, and with minimal logistics overhead.

    • Just schedule your Social Media time.
      5 minutes before work. 5 minutes at lunch. 5 minutes after work. 5 minutes right after dinner and before whatever night activity you’re doing. It’s 20 minutes a day, that is 140 minutes a week, or 120 hours a year. It’s way more than enough to “keep in touch”. You would be literally giving away 5 days a year just to “keep in touch”.
      Anything else, is just a total waste of time.

  19. Dee, scheduled calls is a good idea, I do it with parents.
    Ea, social media has caused me too much of fear of missing out, anxiety, and has shortened my attention spam.

  20. Hi Cal – wondering if you had any reports of people dropping other ‘optional technologies’ besides social media – specifically, those that eliminated a smart phone from their lives. I ditched mine back in December, and am currently writing a book on my dumb phone lifestyle. Curious as to what other peoples experiences are.

    • erase your search history and watch history after each brief use. this way they won’t be able to advertise more stuff to hook you on.

  21. Really good topic and an interesting take.

    Coming from any other business, this would merely pass as PR soundbite: “we don’t care about the profits, we’re about connections”. Nokia ran on “connecting people” until its final days. And that slogan was not at all ominous to society. It is only when that ethos comes from a monopolistic corporation that it is worrying. The trouble with Stalin’s farms was not the vision to change our complex humanity, the trouble was who he was and what power he held.

    And that trouble will be replicated with any dominant entity, in any context, and with any vision that is typically held by one, or a few. It’s simply a matter of absolute power and its consequences.

  22. Thank you So much for all this blog, I really do agree with your thoughts about social media and all these stuff. For the first time I heard your short clip in other videos then I tried to find your full lecture then I succeeded to find your lecture on Youtube on TEDx talk. I have the same problem of having no attention or focus on anything and I can’t focus for a long time on anything and this just happened due to using these social media stuff and different apps, Now I don’t know how to get rid of this and how to get my focus and attention back, please Replay me Dr.Cal Newport.
    Thank you !

  23. Cal, I don’t know you (I’m from Perú) but I consider you a mentor for me. I will be very pleased if you can answer this question or give me a link to read something related. Here it goes: do you think that i need to have social media as a musician (singer/songwriter)? I don’t want to use it anymore but everybody says I will disappear.

    • Hi Andre’s! I’m not Cal of course, but I’ve read that he does make an exception for people who use social media for their business, so I think you would be an exception. However, use social media like a social media manager: schedule posts ahead of time and only engage at specific times. Hope this helps.


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