Cal Newport: Are You Using Social Media or Being Used By It?

Cal Newport: Are You Using Social Media or Being Used By It?

A Social Experiment

If you, like many people, use social media and generally agree that it’s an important technology, try the following experiment.

Take out a piece of paper and list your most important uses for these services — the activities that social media is well-suited to provide and that unambiguously enrich your life. This list, for example, might include items like:

  • The ability to see new photos of your nephews, nieces, or grandchildren.
  • The Facebook Group used to run a local organization you belong to.
  • The  hashtag that keeps you up to date with the latest news from an activist movement that you support.

The social media industrial complex* likes to point to lists like these to justify its importance. “It would be crazy to dismiss our technology,” they cry, “look at all these useful things people do with it!”

But here’s the second part of the experiment: estimate honestly how much time it would take per week to satisfy these important uses. In my experience, for most people, the answer is around 15 – 30 minutes.

And yet, the average American adult social media user spends two hours per day on these services, with almost half this time dedicated to Facebook products alone.

This is the disconnect that the social media industrial complex doesn’t want you to notice. They want the conversation to stop at the assertion that social media isn’t useless, and then hope people move on without questioning the specific role these services have claimed on their limited and valuable time and attention.

The social media business model depends on this oversight.

To be more concrete, I claim that most users could probably reap 95% of the value they get out of social media by signing in twice a week, on a desktop or laptop, to catch up on the latest photos, or check their organization’s group, or to browse the most recent chatter relevant to a movement they care about. Let’s called this controlled use of these services.

Social media companies cannot reach multi-billion dollar valuations, or return consistent stock growth to their investors, based on controlled use. What they need is compulsive use, which is what happens when you launch the app on your phone with some important goal in mind, and then thirty minutes later look up and realize you’ve been snagged into an addictive streak of low-value tapping, liking, and swiping.

As former Google employee and whistleblower Tristan Harris explains, these companies carefully engineer their products — especially the versions readily available through apps on your phone — to exploit psychological weak spots to trap you into compulsive use. For example:

  • The “like” button? This was added to inject more intermittent reinforcement into the social media browsing experience — significantly increasing the amount of times people check their accounts.
  • The ability to “tag” people in your posted photos? The primary purpose of this feature (which, when considered objectively, is really pretty arbitrary) is to create a new stream of social approval indicators — something our tribal brains are evolved to take deadly seriously, and therefore induces people — surprise, surprise — to significantly increase the amount of times they check their accounts.

With this in mind, I’m going to stop short of asking you (yet again — I was chagrined to recently learn that I’m the top two results when you google “Quit Social Media”) to consider leaving these services altogether. Instead, let me make a suggestion that the social media industrial complex fears far more: change your relationship with these services to shift from compulsive to controlled use.

Still use social media, if you must: but on a schedule; just a handful of times a week; preferably on a desktop to laptop, which tames the most devastatingly effective psychological exploitations baked into the phone apps.

You have very little to lose, as controlled use preserves all of the things you seriously value from these services, but have so much to gain when you decide there’s a better use for that extra 13.5 hours a week than helping prop up real estate prices in Northern California.

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This is my somewhat facetious term for the powerful combination of the massive social media platform monopolies, and the growing sector of the knowledge tech economy — gurus, consultants, online brand managers, etc. — that depends on the belief that social media is fundamental to modern commerce and life.


This week’s guest post was brought to you by productivity expert Cal Newport. Cal Newport is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. In addition to studying the theoretical foundations of our digital age, Newport also writes about the impact of these technologies on the world of work.

We recently sat down with Cal to ask him everything from career advice to his productivity routine. Learn more about Cal and the importance of “deep work” here.

For more information on Cal, his books, or popular blog ‘Study Hacks,’ head over to his website CalNewport.com