The Case Against Social Media

case-against-social-media

 

“Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It.”

This is the title of an article that appeared in The New York Times this weekend.

The piece was written by Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.”

Dr. Newport’s points are important.

As a Millennial, he notes the common narrative – that one must attend to your social media brand and online presence, else you’ll be invisible to potential employers. Or – perhaps even worse – lose out on career opportunities that come with the increased aura of visibility that robust social media followings can confer.

The primary problem, as Dr. Newport points out, is that most social media posts are low-value:

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

This is key:

Repeated low-value work does not necessarily translate, as a whole, into something of high value.

See this brilliant satirical article from The Onion fully four years ago: ‘I Am a Brand, Pathetic Man Says.’

Social Media and Public Relations

But Dr. Newport’s criticism is also the crux of corporate America’s biggest complaint about social media – that at the end of the day, social media channels are seen as nice-to-haves for increased brand visibility but they are no substitute for traditional media relations:

For good or ill, one feature article in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Forbes still carries more weight than 100 Tweets or 10 short YouTube videos.

Of course, there are those that would dispute this. For one, the leaders of the dozens of digital marketing firms that have disrupted the landscape of public relations agencies with their emphasis on social media.

These firms have a vested financial interest in selling customers – including corporate brands – on the need for a robust multi-channel social media presence.

Likewise, Donald Trump and his supporters arguably owe his election win to the savvy use of Twitter and Facebook— these platforms both connected his supporters and allowed his team to help shape and distribute a narrative that the mainstream media ignored.

Opportunity Cost

But for Dr. Newport, the true price of undue attention to social media is opportunity cost:

A focus on updating one’s Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat feeds comes at the expense of time better spent honing a professional skill that is valued more highly by the market.

I’d argue the opportunity cost is subtler than that – that social media platforms, per se, are not the enemy – but that there’s a world of difference between amateurs and professionals – the output of a 16 year-old vs. that of a trained 28 year-old.

It’s the difference between the 10 year-old who spends the bulk of his discretionary time playing video games and the 30 year-old video game designer who majored in computer science to learn to program. Or the middle school kids playing pick-up basketball vs. the NBA player.

Then there is the argument that social media use has produced stars. Thousands of new “social media influencers” have monetized their presence on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube or Vine.

My rebuttal here is that the percentage who have actually been able to do this is vanishingly small relative to the millions who have tried.

And that those who have succeeded tend to owe their success to a) timing and luck and b) talent honed elsewhere for which social media simply enabled distribution.

Twitter is a shining example of this.

The vast majority of Twitter influencers who have millions of followers are big on Twitter because they were already famous elsewhere first.

DJ Khaled was already a successful record producer and rapper before Snapchat became a “major key” to his celebrity status.

Likewise, YouTube and Vine allowed creative stars like Andrew Bachelor, Jenna Marbles and PewDiePie to gain audiences, but their success lies far more in their personalities than in the distribution channels themselves.

Even Justin Bieber – who was discovered via YouTube videos filmed in his mom’s basement – had some musical talent before becoming a social media, and then pop, star.

Attention Spans

Dr. Newport’s other point is that social media – with its addictive instant gratification, has led to decreased attention spans.

Indeed, earlier this year, Canadian researchers found that the average human attention span has fallen to 8 seconds. This is down from 12 seconds in the year 2000, and currently puts human attention spans at slightly behind those of goldfish (9 seconds).

goldfish-attention-span

For Dr. Newport, social media has decreased users’ attention spans, and thus, their ability to focus intently for long period of time on work that is important and matters.

Rather, he argues, “a dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”

Caveat – Not All Channels Are Equal

I disagree with Dr. Newport on one point, and that is that not all social media channels are the same.

For me, there’s a world of difference between posting 140-character thoughts on Twitter of 6 second videos on Vine, and say…publishing long-form articles to Medium.

In addition, I personally have half a dozen friends who leveraged LinkedIn Pulse’s distribution of their blog articles into offers to write weekly columns for outlets like Inc. and Fast Company. But here, they did the work – wrote well over 100 blog posts a year for a few years.

Social media helped them distribute their work and get discovered, but they spent their time producing, doing the work that didn’t scale.

And this blog is arguably my largest foray into social media, as I relay on those channels for distribution so that any of these posts get read.

Conclusion

But I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Newport’s thesis – that the proliferation of social media platforms has conned millions of users into an addictive pattern of low-value activities, even as it has harmed their very ability to focus intently on higher-value ones.

As he says, “If you’re serious about making an impact in the world, power down your smartphone, close your browser tabs, roll up your sleeves and get to work.”

 

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