At school, we were recently forced to watch a TEDx talk about why we should quit social media. It was a fill-in until we could do what we were meant to that lesson, but the ten or so minutes I watched made a deep impression on me. Not because I thought the speaker was particularly inspiring or his radical outlook had opened my eyes or anything like that though. It made an impression because for those ten or so minutes I was sat in my seat seething at how wrong I thought the speaker was.
If you haven’t seen Dr Cal Newport’s talk you can watch the video here on YouTube. However, if, like me, you are offended by the inappropriate use of outdated memes in supposedly professional presentations you may find it easier (and quicker) to read the transcript here.
I don’t want to personally attack the man for his presentation style (and use of memes) although it certainly grated on me. Maybe his social media-free lifestyle does account for at least some of that. However, I think his arguments are fair game so I’m going to do my best to break down what annoyed me about him and why I believe his arguments were largely incorrect.
Firstly, his introduction. He explains the reason why he never got Facebook and in his own words it was a “fit of immature professional jealousy.” His own company had just gone bust and he was determined not to support his ‘rival.’ So from the start, we can already tell he’s been biased against social media the whole time. Hardly what you’d call an objective observer, you’d think. Yet only a paragraph later this is exactly what he claims he is. Apparently, with “the clarity you can get when you have some objectivity” he foresaw that social media could become “dangerous” and so “never signed up.” Maybe he did foresee some of the problems with it, but that doesn’t mean I trust his objectivity when he’s clearly stated his own bitterness at Facebook’s success.
He also makes the bold claim that not being on social media has made him “happier,” found him “more sustainability” in his life and most of all, he claims he’s been “more successful professionally, because [he doesn’t] use social media.” Honestly, I don’t know what ‘sustainability’ in life is but aside from all three things being almost impossible to quantify, even if they weren’t he wouldn’t be the person to do it. For these kinds of claims to be believable, you would need an extensive study covering many different professions, social media types with adjustments for age, race and nationality and probably hundreds of other things real researchers understand. Most importantly, it couldn’t be a foregone conclusion. This isn’t research he’s conducted. He had already decided that no social media was beneficial to him and so he constructed the case around that conclusion, rather than the other way round as would be expected from a well-reasoned argument. My view of this method is that he’s a guy who’s done well at his job, realised this thing he does is unusual and figured out a way to profit from it. There’ll be more on profit in a little while.
He then moves onto what he says are the “three most common objections” to when he tries to persuade people to quit social media. While this isn’t directly related to his argument, I’d like to mention that I find it hard to imagine that he really does go around trying to force this belief onto people in his day-to-day life. If he does, maybe the real reason he has no social media is that he doesn’t have any friends to add.
Also, I’m sorry but I can’t ignore how unfunny his attempted jokes are. I know that’s just personal taste but even the guy talking about genetic modification got more laughs than he did.
Aside from bad jokes and poorly worded objections, his first argument is essentially that social media is nothing more than an “entertainment product,” and I think that’s where my major disagreement with him stems from. I do not see social media as just “entertainment.” Sure, it’s entertaining but it’s a lot more than that. It’s a place for discussion, for learning, for sharing, for new ideas and common interests and innovation. Even if the whole point of his talk is that he’s never had social media (debatable – I’ll explain why at the end) he could have at least have done a little research. The whole way through I got the feeling he was talking about social media in a very limited sense. His idea of it seems to be stuck on the whole’ using Facebook to follow your friends’ thing, whereas social media use is actually a lot more varied than that.
I have Facebook to talk to my friends as I don’t get phone signal at home. I hardly ever post and only friend my school friends and family. I have Twitter to join in with writer chat events and laugh at parody accounts. I used to have Tumblr to enjoy fandoms. I have Instagram to connect with other readers and writers. There are tons of other platforms I know nothing about and I wouldn’t call myself very technology savvy but even someone like me uses a range of social media in very different ways. From the start, I think it’s a mistake to lump them all under one category. My friend pointed out that he was including LinkedIn as social media in his presentation, but many people would see that as a business tool. Where is the line drawn? Are blogs social media? Not only do I feel he has a poor understanding of how social media is actually used, he seems to have a very loose grasp of what it actually includes. I’ll elaborate on that during my rebuttal to his second argument.
Continuing from his argument that social media is only a form of entertainment, I was actually somewhat worried by his next paragraph. He says that rejecting social media is “not a large social stance,” and is, in fact, no more different to rejecting a particular newspaper or channel. “It’s not a major political or social stance to say you don’t use the product,” he says, referring to newspapers, TV channels and social media. I was genuinely somewhat baffled by this argument. I’m not sure I can think of a more political daily act than reading a particular newspaper or watching a particular channel. Does he consider newspapers a part of social media? It’s the only explanation I can find for his ignorance of how the media as works. Maybe it’s different in other countries but in the UK newspapers are strongly political and it’s a slant in every story, intentional or not. Just try telling a Labour voter you read the Daily Mail and see how they react. In the same way, what platforms you use and who you follow is sending a message to the world. Intentional or not, not using social media is Only a couple of minutes into his talk and I’m already finding it increasingly difficult to trust this man.
I should mention here that I do agree with a couple of his points. I’m sure that social media companies do employ similar addictive tactics as casinos to maximise your attention and any form of addiction is bound to have its dangers, but guess what? That also works in your favour if you’re trying to promote something. What works on you will work on others and so if you’re marketing on social media, you’re marketing on a platform designed to grab attention like no other.
Marketing brings me to his next point, which is that it’s a myth that you need social media to succeed in the economy. Not only does he overinflate the opposition’s argument (nobody is claiming they will “effectively disappear from the economy” without social media) which is a sign of a poor debater but he also presents the argument that sealed my opinion against him. To back up his point that social media doesn’t help you professionally, he cites a book. That he published. Yeah, sounds like a fairly solid source.
I had a look at some of the reviews on Goodreads for his book Deep Work and although they appear to be mainly positive, the fact that there are reviews at all shows his ideas really haven’t been taken on board that well. After all, Goodreads is a type of social media. The negative reviews appear to focus primarily on his confirmation bias (what I described earlier where he had already decided that no social media leads to success) and also a general dislike of him as a person. It sounds like he’s no less annoying to read than to listen to.
That alone would have been enough for me to dismiss him. The whole talk suddenly felt like nothing more than an extended advert for his own book – a book he couldn’t market himself because he has no social media. It was what he said next though, that transformed me from sceptical to seething.
He says that his ‘research’ proves the market values “the ability to produce things that are rare and are valuable.” This sounds like common sense to me. It also makes sense that “what the market dismisses” are “activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value.” What doesn’t sound like common sense is the next sentence.
“Social media use is the epitome of an easy to replicate activity that does not directly produce a lot of value.”
Right. Let’s break that into two parts. Firstly, the “easy to replicate” claim. I believe this man when he says he doesn’t use social media (for the most part) because I think anyone who has ever tried to make their own version of something popular they saw online would understand that social media success is not “easy to replicate.” It’s easy enough to do what everyone else is doing but to do it in a way that becomes popular? Incredibly difficult. Just look at how hard companies try (and ultimately fail) to create memes. One of the best viral adverts was the ‘cheeky Nandos’ meme which had nothing to do with Nandos’ marketing team. Again, Dr Newport betrays an apparent lack of understanding into the way social media really works.
Part two: “does not directly produce a lot of value.” I’m not an economist. I don’t know the definition of value. Even so, I don’t see how social media posts are without value. From a most basic understanding of ‘value,’ I can think of lots of things I’ve only bought because I’ve seen a post about them on Instagram. Things like books by fellow teen authors, notepads, a box subscription. Surely that means those posts have value to their creators? On another level, how many times have you laughed or smiled or thought hard about a post? How many friendships have you made through shared interests online? Maybe that isn’t the sort of value a computer scientist or economist talks about, but I think that still counts.
Not only does Dr Newport the work that goes into running a successful social media account, he then goes on to utterly dismiss the skills that people learn to do so. “It’s something that any six-year-old with a smartphone can do,” he says. Never mind the hours of photography and editing and writing and everything else that goes into people’s social media accounts, I guess? It’s almost hard to rebut something that is so incorrect. Yes, a six-year-old can have social media. Is that the same as a professional standard account? Well, Dr Newport, only in the same way that any six-year-old can play Minecraft so that’s the same as your job as a computer scientist.
What’s odd is that he then goes on to, in my mind, explain why social media is actually valuable to you. He explains that the market will “by definition” “reward the deep concentrated work required to build real skills” that you can use to do whatever it is you do. So, skills like photography? And art? And writing? And social media managing in itself, which is a job many people either have or aspire to? Skills like that you mean?
The next paragraph just irritates me. He describes how if you concentrate on making your work good, people will find you and you will become successful that way. My question is, how? How will they know you are there? Maybe he was lucky enough to live in an urban area where it’s easy enough to make face to face contacts but if you live rurally then what are you meant to do? He even uses “if you can write a thousand words of prose that’s (sic) going to fixate a reader right to the end” as an example of the sort of skill that draws people to you but as a writer, let me tell you, it takes more than good words to get readers. He claims “you’ll able (sic) to fill the foundation of a very meaningful and successful professional life regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.” Okay, true, but… if you’re an aspiring author, for example, an agent will still look at how good your social media is when you submit to them. It’s not the deciding factor I imagine, but it’s still there.
The final part of his presentation is mostly about the effect on our health which I don’t necessarily disagree with. Personally, I prefer to have social media because even if it does occasionally distract me, I’m under no obligation to be productive 25/8 anyway. I have a lot of friends online. I find lots of interesting things. It’s fun.
The part about mental health I do disagree again with his method of argument. He uses college campuses and an increase in reported cases of anxiety as ‘evidence’ for the dangers of social media. There may be some truth in that, but the bold statements he’s making (“this type of behaviour is a mismatch for our brain wiring”) are backed up with little more than a conflation of correlation and causation.
So, overall, not only did I find his presentation as a whole irritating, it came across as poorly researched with suspect logical reasoning and a lack of basic understanding of the workings of social media, created mainly to promote his book.
Interestingly enough, he still maintains a blog where he writes about topics that interest him, promotes his books and receives comments, as well as an email address where he implores fans to send him interesting articles they read for him to write about. Anyone think this sounds familiar? However, he makes the distinction between his blog and social media with the phrase ‘social internet,’ which he describes as a place to connect without the control of mass companies who want to take his data. Social media on his own terms, almost.
Might just be me but I think he’s still a little bitter about Facebook.