Dr. Cal Newport: Quit Social Media

All right. So you probably don’t realize that right now you’re actually looking at something quite rare, because I’m a millennial computer scientist book author standing on a TED stage and yet I’ve never had a social media account.

How this happened was actually somewhat random. Social media first came onto my radar when I was at college, my sophomore year of college. This was when Facebook arrived at our campus. And at the time which was right after the first dot-com bust, I had had a dorm room business, I have had to shut it down in the bust. And then suddenly this other kid from Harvard named Mark had this product called Facebook and people were getting excited about it. So sort of a fit of somewhat immature professional jealousy I said I’m not going to use this thing, I’m not going to help this get business —

See, as I go along my life, I look up not long later and I see that everyone I know is really hooked on this thing and from the clarity you can get when you have some objectivity, some perspective on it, I realized this seems a little bit dangerous. So I never signed up. I’ve never had a social media account since.

So I’m here for two reasons. I want to deliver two messages. The first message I want to deliver is that even though I’ve never had a social media account, I’m OK, you don’t have to worry. It turns out I still have friends, I still know what’s going on in the world. As a computer scientist I still collaborate with people all around the world. I’m still regularly exposed serendipitously to interesting ideas and I rarely describe myself as lacking entertainment options. I’ve been OK but I’d go even farther, I go even farther and say not only am I OK without social media but I think I’m actually better off. I think I’m happier, I think I find more sustainability in my life. I think I’ve been more successful professionally, because I don’t use social media.

So my second goal here on stage is try to convince more of you to believe the same thing, to see if I could actually convince more of you that you too would be better off if you quit social media. So if the theme of this TEDx event is future tense, I guess in other words, this would be my vision of the future would be one in which fewer people actually use social media.

OK, so that’s a big claim, I think I need to back it up. So my thought, what I would do is take the three most common objections I hear when I suggest to people that they quit social media. And then for each of these objections I’ll try to defuse the hype and see if I can actually push in some more reality.

This is the first most-common objection I hear — that’s not a hermit, that’s actually a hipster web developer down from A street. Hipster or hermit sometimes it’s hard to tell. So this first objection goes as follows: ‘Cal, social media is one of the fundamental technologies of the 21st century. To reject social media would be an act of extreme ledism. It would be like riding to work in a horse or using a rotary phone. I can’t take such a big stance in my life.’

So my reaction to that objection is I think that is nonsense. Social media is not a fundamental technology. It leverages some fundamental technologies but it’s better understood as this, which is to say it’s a source of entertainment — entertainment product. The way the technologist Jaron Lanier puts it is that these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.

So to say that you don’t use social media should not be a large social stance, it’s just rejecting one form of entertainment. For other, there should be no more controversial than saying I don’t like newspapers, I like to get my news from magazines, or I prefer to watch cable series as opposed to network television series. It’s not a major political or social stance to say you don’t use the product.

My use of the slot machine image up here also is not accidental because if you look a little bit closer at these technologies, it’s not just that they’re a source of entertainment but they’re actually somewhat unsavory source of entertainment. And we now know that many of the major social media companies hire individuals called attention engineers who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino gambling among other places to try to make these products as addictive as possible. That is the desired use case of these products is that you use it in an addictive fashion because that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from your attention and data.

So it’s not fundamental technologies, it’s the source of entertainment one among many and it’s somewhat unsavory if you look a little bit closer.

So here’s the second common objection I hear when I suggest that people with social media, the objection goes as follows: ‘Cal, I can’t quit social media because it is vital to my success in the 21st century economy. If I do not have a well cultivated social media brand, people won’t know who I am, people won’t be able to find me, opportunities won’t come my way and I will effectively disappear from the economy.’

So again my reaction is once again this objection also is nonsense. So I recently published this book that draws on multiple different strands of evidence to make the point that in a competitive 21st century economy, what the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and are valuable. If you can produce something that’s rare and is valuable the market will value that. What the market dismisses for the most part are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value.

Well, social media use is the epitome of an easy to replicate activity that does not directly produce a lot of value. It’s something that any six-year-old with a smartphone can do. By definition, the market is not going to give a lot of value to those behaviors. It’s instead going to reward the deep concentrated work required to build real skills and to apply those skills to produce things like a craftsman that are rare and that are valuable.

To put it another way, if you can write an elegant algorithm, if you can write a legal brief that can change a case, if you can write a thousand words of prose that’s going to fixate a reader right to the end, if you can look at a sea of ambiguous data and apply statistics and pull out insights that could transform a whole business strategy, if you can do these type of activities which require deep work that produce outcomes that are rare and valuable, people will find you. You will be able to write your own ticket, you’ll able to fill the foundation of a very meaningful and successful professional life regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.

So this is the third common objection I hear when I suggest to people that they quit social media. In some sense, I think it might be one of the most important ones. This objection goes as follows: ‘Cal, maybe I agree with you. Maybe you’re right, it’s not a fundamental technology, maybe using social media is not at the core of my professional success. But you know what, it’s harmless, I have some fun on it, we’re Twitter’s funny, I don’t even really use it that much, I am a first adopter. It’s kind of interesting to try it out and maybe I might miss out on something if I don’t use it, what’s the harm?’

So again, I look back and I say this objection also is nonsense. In this case, what it misses is what I think is very important reality that we need to talk about more frankly, which is that social media brings with it multiple well-documented significant harms. And we actually have to confront these harms head-on when trying to make decisions about whether or not we embrace this technology and let into our lives.

So one of these harms that we know this technology brings has to do with your professional success. So I just argued before that the ability to focus intensely to produce things that are rare and valuable to hone skills at the marketplace values that this is what’s going to matter in our economy. But right before that, I argued that social media tools are designed to be addictive. The actual design desired use case of these tools is that you fragment your attention as much as possible throughout your waking hours. That’s how these tools are designed to use.

Well, we have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention, so large portions of your day we are constantly breaking up your attention to get a quick glance, just check and just quickly look at Instagram that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration. In other words, you could permanently reduce your capacity to do exactly the type of deep effort that we’re finding to be more and more necessary in an increasingly competitive economy.

So social media use is not harmless, it can actually have a significant negative impact on your ability to thrive in the economy. I’m especially worried about this when we look at the younger generation coming up, which is the most saturated in this technology. If you lose your ability to sustain concentration, you’re going to become less and less relevant to this economy.

There’s also psychological harms that are well-documented social media brings that we do need to address. So we know from the research literature that the more you use social media the more likely you are to feel lonely or isolated. We know that the constant exposure to your friends’ carefully curated positive portrayals of their life can leave you to feel inadequate and can increase rates of depression.

And something I think we’re going to be hearing more about in the near future, I said there’s a fundamental mismatch between the way our brains are wired and this behavior of exposing yourself to stimuli with intermittent rewards throughout all of your waking hours. But it’s one thing to spend a couple hours at the slot machine at Las Vegas but if you bring a slot machine with you when you pull that handle all day long from when you wake up to when you go to bed, we’re not wired from it. It short-circuits the brain, we’re starting to find that it has actual cognitive consequences, one of them being the sort of pervasive background hum of anxiety.

Now the canary in the coalmine for this issue is actually college campuses. If you talk to mental health experts on college campuses, they’ll tell you: along with the rise of ubiquitous smartphone use and social media use among the students on the campus came an explosion of anxiety related disorders on those campuses. So that’s the canary in the coalmine. This type of behavior is a mismatch for our brain wiring, it can make you feel miserable.

So there’s real cost to social media use which means you’re trying to decide should I use this or not, saying it’s harmless is not enough. You actually have to identify a significantly positive clear benefit that can outweigh these potential completely non-trivial harms.

So people often ask: OK, but what is life like without social media that can actually be a little bit scary to think about? What I found from people I know who have gone through this process, there can be a few weeks they’re difficult, it actually is like a true detox process. The first two weeks can be uncomfortable, you feel a little bit anxious, you feel like you’re missing a limb. But after that things settle down and actually life after social media can be quite positive.

There’s two things I can report back to you from the world of no social media use. First, it can be quite productive, be quite productive. So I’m a professor at a research institution, have written five books. I rarely work past 5 p.m. on the weekdays. Part of the way I’m trying to be able to pull that off is because it turns out if you treat your attention with respect, so you don’t fragment it, you allow it to stay whole, you preserve your ability to concentrate, when it comes time to work you can actually do one thing after another and do it with intensity. And intensity can be traded for time. It’s surprising how much you can get done an eight-hour a day if you’re able to give each thing intense concentration after another.

Something else I can report back from life without social media is that outside of work things can be quite peaceful. So I often joke I’d be very comfortable being a 1930s farmer because if you look at my leisure time I read newspaper while the sun comes up. I listen to baseball on the radio, I honest-to-god sit in a leather chair and read hardcover books at night after my kids go to bed. It sounds old-fashioned but I’ll tell you they were onto something back then. It’s actually a restorative, very peaceful way to actually spend your time. At work you don’t have the constant hum stimuli and the background hum of anxiety that comes along with it.

So life without social media is really not so bad. So we pull together these threads and you see my full argument for why I think not everyone but certainly much more people than right now use social media, much more people should not be using social media. And that’s because we can first, to summarize, discard with the main concerns that somehow it’s a fundamental technology you have to use, nonsense; it’s a slot machine in your phone. We can discard with this notion that you’re not going to get a job if you don’t use social media, nonsense. Anything a six-year-old with smartphone can do is not going to be what the market rewards.

And then I emphasize the point that there’s real harms with it. So it’s not just harmless, you really would have to have a significant benefit before you would actually see this trade-off is worth. And finally I noted that life without social media there’s real positives associated with it.

So I’m hoping that when many of you actually go through the same calculus you at least consider the perspective I am making right now which is many more people would be much better off if they didn’t use this technology. Of course, some of you might disagree, some of you might have scathing but accurate critiques of me. And my point to the course, I welcome all negative feedback. I just ask that you direct your comments towards Twitter.

Thank you.