A Case Against Social Media

When I wrote the series of posts on concentration, deep work, and curing languishing, one integral thread was focusing. And one great hinderance, as those posts show, is social media. Ohh boy, I hear you say. I feel you and I say it too. Social media is so enmeshed with our society that it is almost impossible to separate the two entities. It is who we are. This has remained the case even as the danger of these sites have been proven over and over especially for kids. Adults are not left out too: social media is detrimental to our mental health (DON’T EVEN GET ME STARTED), concentration, our connections, and even our democracy (see here too). Now, don't get me wrong, social media is quite the beneficial tool. As a social scientist, I would be remiss to not mention all the fantastic ways social media has improved our society. Quite literally, there is dopamine—the same type linked to activities like sex, food, and social interaction—released in our brain reward center as we scroll. It's been used to spur social movements. It’s been used to crowdfund to help people. Some people met their spouses there. Some have formed lifelong friendships. Yes, these are all true. 






Here is the thing: it was designed to be addictive. Even the people who created it admit as much.  And anything with addiction at the core can't be good. 


There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” 

- Edward Tufte


For all it’s woes, one of the biggest is that if you want to do deep work, you have to drastically reduce your use of it or quit altogether, unless of course you need it for work. In the past, I have quit social media for months. I have also largely disconnected now (for various reasons), ultimately deciding to focus on the real world, and I know that while it is hard, it is not just doable but achievable. The benefits are almost always astonishing. You may think disconnecting is hard, but once you actually do it, it's not nearly as challenging. Baratunde Thurston, a digital consultant who once did an experiment on quitting social media in 2013, said he struck up conversations with strangers, he enjoyed food without Instagramming the experience, and he bought a bike. 


There is no doubt whatsoever, and you don't even need any scientific evidence here to know that these network tools (Cal Newport classifies Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as Business Insider and Buzzfeed in this category) are incredibly distracting and they reduce our ability to concentrate. To put simply, deep work is entirely incompatible with social media.  But not many people can quit. And even when people take those sabbaticals off the internet, when they get back like most drugs, the addiction is even more intense. So, Newport proposes an alternative: accept that these things are not inherently evil (I disagree, some of them are in fact inherently evil but I digress).  He says accept that they may even be integral to your success and happiness but accept that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention (and your personal data!) should be more stringent. 



Rather that quit the Internet altogether, Newport challenges us to “reject the state of distracted hyper-connectedness that requires you to need that sort of sabbatical in the first place.”  The reality is if you use it so much that get to the point where you “need a break” then something is wrong. There is a middle-ground and we can get there. 


Despite the fact that these things are specifically engineered to be addictive, I don’t think you have to necessarily get rid of them completely if you don’t want to. You can, as Newport suggests, adopt a tool if only its positive impacts substantially outweigh its negative impacts. He goes ahead to suggest a practical and realistic way of assessing each tool and assessing your goals (and activities needed to achieve these goals) and if each tool doesn’t substantially impact each activity, drop it. I won’t go into that in this post because it seems too complicated.


The easier suggestion Newport gives comes from Ryan Nicodemus' strategy for minimalism but to adopt it with social media use. It goes like this: ban yourself from using them for 30 days. All of them. Don’t formally deactivate these services, and don't mention online that you'll be signing off: just stop using them, cold turkey. If someone reaches out to you to ask why they haven’t seen you on it, you can explain but otherwise don't go out of your way to tell people. After 30 days, ask yourself the following two questions about each of the services you temporarily quit: 1) would the last 30 days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service? 2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service? if your answer is no to both question, Newport suggests quitting them permanently. If your answer was a clear yes, then return to using them. If your answer is qualified or ambiguous then it's up to you whether to return to the service, though he encourages leaning towards quitting and joining later. 



True talk? In most cases, no one outside your family and VERY CLOSE friends will even notice your absence. These things are so disconnecting, the lack of humanity on these sites can be astonishing. To put it bluntly, except you’re like Kim Kardashian, no one really cares. No one cares if you post or if you don’t post. Perhaps, this humbling fact is also necessary to keep at the back of our minds before we tweet our next nonsense (I include myself in this because we are all in this together). No doubt these tools can be fun but in the scheme of your life and what you want to accomplish, they are lightweight, whimsy and unimportant distractions that distract you from deeper stuff. 

And if I can give you one big tip, it’s this: don’t use social media to entertain yourself. Or be more strategic about your leisure time. When it's time to relax, don't just default to whatever catches your attention at the moment, but instead take some time in advance to think about how you want to spend your leisure time. Addictive social media and websites thrive in a vacuum: they always beckon as an appealing option if you don’t fill the free time with something of more quality. But if you fill your free time with something of more quality, their grip on your attention will loosen. Think about how you plan on spending your evenings and weekend before they even begin. Structured hobbies can be really helpful here. Maybe that's time to catch up on reading? Perhaps you can even plan 30 minutes for social media, but after those 30 minutes are done, that’s it! And don't worry about this defeating the purpose of relaxation. It turns out our minds are not necessarily like our bodies that get tired so easily. If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout your waking hours, Newport argues that you will end the day more fulfilled and begin the next one more relaxed instead of allowing your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured web surfing. In sum, to eliminate the addictive nature of entertainment sites, give your brain a quality alternative. 

It's that simple. Have I made a strong case? I sure hope so.


Love,

I

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