Americans may not agree on much, but here’s one point of consensus: Social media isn’t entirely wonderful.
has its privacy scandals, and who would join
for the camaraderie? This week an ugly online mob demonstrated the point by setting upon a group of boys on a field trip to Washington from Kentucky’s Covington Catholic High School.
“Because I don’t have any social-media accounts,” says Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer scientist, “my encounter with the Covington Catholic controversy was much different than most people’s.” He read about it days later, in a newspaper column. “I learned that the social-media reaction had been incendiary and basically everyone was now upset at each other, at themselves, at technology itself. It sounded exhausting.”
Mr. Newport, 36, appreciated the downsides of social media sooner than most. In 2010 he published “An Argument for Quitting Facebook,” a blog post that came with a graphic of the “deactivate account” function on an amusingly out-of-date Facebook version. “Technologies are great,” he wrote, “but if you want to keep control of your time and attention,” you should “insist that they earn their keep before you make them a regular part of your life.” He has been proselytizing against social media ever since. His book on the subject, “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World,” hits stores (and e-readers) next month.
He has never had a social-media account. (“It turns out that this is allowed,” he once joked on his blog.) But he noticed that social media seemed to impair others’ ability to concentrate—an essential skill for professional and personal success. “Right around the transition to mobile” from desktop computers, he tells me, he observed that for many people a passing interest in social media was morphing into “compulsive use.”
“Old social media was a much slower-moving medium,” he says. “You would maybe update your profile occasionally. So if you went on to check what your friends were up to in the morning, there would be no reason to check in the afternoon. Nothing had changed.”
Then came the smartphone—a pocket-size supercomputer that travels everywhere. Social media became a ubiquitous presence. That suited the commercial interests of social-media companies, which “couldn’t triple or quadruple the user-engagement numbers if people log on Monday just to see if someone is back from vacation.” They needed to reel users back in. “And this is where you get the rise of, let’s say, the ‘like’ button or tagging photos,” or retweets and heart buttons—what Mr. Newport calls “small indicators of approval.”
These created “a much richer stream of information coming back to the user,” which proved seductive: “Now you have a reason to click the app again an hour later.” The reinforcement is all the more insidious for being intermittent. Sometimes you’re rewarded for checking in, sometimes you’re frustrated. “It just short-circuits the dopamine system,” Mr. Newport says—which feeds the compulsion. He likens using social media at work to “having a slot machine at your desk.”
Facebook introduced a feature that recognizes faces in photos and encourages users to tag their friends. “That’s a really hard computer-science problem,” Mr. Newport says. “Why would you spend millions of dollars to try to master that problem?” Because, he maintains, it’s another indicator of approval that lures users back to the site.
Mr. Newport says he used to write “earnest” blog posts asking readers what he was missing by not having social media, and he “couldn’t get a straight answer,” aside from the question-begging one that he might miss something. But in recent years skepticism has been growing. Facebook is on the defensive, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg offering reassurances like “I believe everyone should have a voice and be able to connect.”
Yet all those voices can add up to a grating din, as in the Covington Catholic fracas. “Is anyone better off for having wasted hours and hours of time this past week exhaustively engaging half-formed back-and-forth yelling on social media?” Mr. Newport asks. It sounds like a rhetorical question, but then he answers it: “On reflection, the answer is yes for one group in particular: the executives at the giant social-media conglomerates, who sucked up all those extra ‘user engagement’ minutes like an oil tycoon who just hit a gusher.”
Political engagement, however, is a mixed blessing for social-media companies. Mr. Newport says public skepticism reached critical mass “about six months after the presidential election.” Everyone had something to dislike: “If you’re more on the left, it was the election manipulation; if you’re more on the right, it was these stories about ‘Are we being censored?’ ” he says.
Those complaints brought to the surface deeper sources of dissatisfaction. “When I talk to people now who are very distressed about their digital life,” Mr. Newport says, “it’s not those original political things that they care about. It’s not that ‘I don’t like what Russia did in the election’; it’s, ‘I’m on this more than is useful, more than is healthy. It’s keeping me from my kids, It’s keeping me from my friends. It’s keeping me from things I used to enjoy. I think it’s hurting the quality of my life.’ ”
In hindsight, Mr. Newport says, “we should have been more wary about this idea” of taking human sociality—“incredibly powerful and shaped by a million years of evolution”—and allowing 22-year-olds in California to reinvent it.
So what now? Mr. Newport laments that everyone “writes the same article” with tips for turning off notifications or some such. “This is not working.” What people need, he thinks, is “a full-fledged philosophy” of how to use technology. About a year ago Mr. Newport invited his blog’s readers to participate in an experiment he called a “digital declutter.”
The prescription: Take a month off from all digital technologies you don’t absolutely have to use—including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even casual texting with friends. Spend the days figuring out what you’d like to do with your time. At the end of the experiment, resume technologies only to the extent that they’re the best way to accomplish something you value deeply.
A couple hundred readers sent Mr. Newport detailed reports. One theme he noticed is that time online had crowded out activities like joining a church committee or a running club. Mr. Newport calls them “analog social media,” an amusing retronym. But he isn’t being cheeky. He says people had failed to realize the extent to which the internet “had subtly pushed the analog leisure they used to like out of their life.”
Human beings “crave high-quality leisure,” he says, but they can do without it “if you can fill every moment with distraction.” When the digital declutterers regained time to cook or see close friends, “they essentially lost their taste” for staring at the screen and scrolling.
When I meet Mr. Newport, I’m on Day 17 of my own declutter experiment. Facebook was the easiest platform to dump. I’d already stopped posting and visited only occasionally, mostly—this is embarrassing—to keep up with a group run by my dog’s breeder, where other owners post photos of their dogs.
Mr. Newport says I’m not unusual. “Man, I’m glad I don’t own their stock,” he says. “They’re worth a lot of money,” he allows, but they seem to have “a very weak connection to their user base. It’s a much more fickle user base than they probably want to admit. Because people—I get this experience all the time—people are fine walking away from it. They’re really indifferent.” That may be less true of other Facebook-owned services like Instagram, which I’ve found tough to ditch, or WhatsApp.
How about Twitter? For journalists, it’s an office water cooler, except that everyone yells. It can also be a valuable tool for gathering news. “Everyone I know in media is having this exact same crisis with Twitter,” Mr. Newport says. “It’s either ‘Burn it to the ground’ or ‘It’s at the core of what I do,’ and they’re not sure.” Mr. Newport advises outlets to have entry-level employees monitor Twitter rather than let the site sap the entire staff’s productivity.
Though in his day job Mr. Newport writes technical works like the 2018 paper “Fault-Tolerant Consensus With an Abstract MAC Layer,” he’s been at the self-improvement game for a while. He started out writing books about how students could stand out in high school and college. His career followed his interests as he progressed from graduate student to professor and wondered why some people thrive professionally and others don’t. That led to his career-advice books, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” and “Deep Work.”
The latter takes aim at another technology that corrodes the ability to focus: corporate email. “We sort of gambled on this idea that the key to productivity is going to be faster and more flexible communication,” Mr. Newport says. “At any moment we can have fast and flexible communication with anyone on earth.” Yet productivity has hardly budged. “It’s actually probably going down.”
The statistics, he says, fail to “capture the sort of secret second shifts that people are doing at night and on the weekends just to try to catch up.” It turns out that “focusing on fast and flexible communication—my argument is—didn’t make us more productive.” Instead, “it made our brains much, much less effective at the actual work.”
To illustrate the point, he sometimes cites an interview with Jerry Seinfeld. “Let me tell you why my TV series in the ’90s was so good,” the comedian said. “In most TV series, 50% of the time is spent working on the show; 50% of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We”—he and Larry David—“spent 99% of our time writing. Me and Larry. The door was closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”
To have an excellent career, Mr. Newport argues, you need periods of uninterrupted concentration to produce work of unambiguous value. Many jobs lack a clear measure of value, so that employees treat “busyness as a proxy for productivity” and let email distract them from real work.
Yet as with social media, the thought of giving up email stirs a fear of missing out. Some may protest—as I did—that if they quit Instagram they’ll lose track of old friends. Mr. Newport replies that “this idea that it’s important to maintain hundreds or thousands of weak-tie connections” is recent and untested. “I can’t see any great evidence that this is important to have.” And it can keep you from “investing more time into the types of relationships that have defined human sociology for centuries, which are close friends, family members and community.”
Fewer people “will send you a digital happy-birthday note,” he concedes. “But that’s about it.”
Mrs. Odell is an editorial writer for the Journal.