Self-Discipline and Social Media

Monday, November 21, 2016

There's a good article by Cal Newport, a self-described "millennial computer scientist who also writes books and runs a blog," who, by today's conventional wisdom, "should be a heavy social media user." He completely abstains, and explains why. In particular, Newport questions the necessity for engaging in social media and the idea that it "can't hurt." Regarding the latter, Newport argues that social media is extremely distracting:

... Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it's engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it's designed to be used -- persistently throughout your waking hours -- the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won't tolerate such a long period without a fix. Indeed, part of my own rejection of social media comes from this fear that these services will diminish my ability to concentrate -- the skill on which I make my living.

The idea of purposefully introducing into my life a service designed to fragment my attention is as scary to me as the idea of smoking would be to an endurance athlete, and it should be to you if you're serious about creating things that matter.
Except for the deterministic aspect of Newport's argument, I agree. But I'd say, "Guard against making a habit of checking social media constantly." Or, "If you have problems with impulse control, avoid social media."

Newport's other observation, that valuable, undeniably good work, will often lead to one having to turn down opportunities is also worth considering. But to that, I'd counter that early in one's career, it can be beneficial to have more eyes on one's work.

On balance -- and as one who almost entirely abstains from social media myself -- I think Newport's advice is worth considering, but doesn't make an airtight case for quitting social media or never starting to use it. It does, however, indicate that if one is considering establishing a social media presence, one should have a clear idea of what one wants to do with it, and should also self-monitor. (Perhaps part of an engagement plan is, on seeing how it is used, asking whether restrained use can achieve the goals, or is even the best way to achieve them.) Both of Newport's main points bring up my primary objection to just diving in to social media, which Newport touches on briefly at the end of his piece: opportunity costs. Time spent even on a disciplined, purposeful use of social media is time not spent doing something else.

-- CAV

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