Dr. Cal Newport: Quit Social Media at TEDxTysons (Full Transcript)

Dr Cal Newport at TEDxTysons

Here is the full transcript of Georgetown Professor Dr. Cal Newport’s TEDx Talk: Quit Social Media at TEDxTysons Conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Quit social media by Dr. Cal Newport at TEDxTysons


Dr. Cal Newport – Computer Science Professor

All right. So you probably don’t realize that right now you’re actually looking at something quite rare, because I’m a millennial computer scientist, book author standing on a TED stage, and yet I’ve never had a social media account.

How this happened was actually somewhat random. Social media first came onto my radar when I was at college, my sophomore year of college. This was when Facebook arrived at our campus.

And at the time which was right after the first dot-com bust, I had had a dorm room business, I have had to shut it down in the bust. And then suddenly this other kid from Harvard named Mark had this product called Facebook and people were getting excited about it.

So sort of a fit of somewhat immature professional jealousy I said “I’m not going to use this thing, I’m not going to help this kid’s business; whatever that’s going to amount to.”

See, as I go along my life, I look up not long later and I see that everyone I know is really hooked on this thing. And from the clarity you can get when you have some objectivity, some perspective on it, I realized this seems a little bit dangerous. So I never signed up. I’ve never had a social media account since.

So I’m here for two reasons; I want to deliver two messages. The first message I want to deliver is that even though I’ve never had a social media account, I’m OK, you don’t have to worry. It turns out I still have friends,

I still know what’s going on in the world. As a computer scientist, I still collaborate with people all around the world, I’m still regularly exposed serendipitously to interesting ideas, and I rarely describe myself as lacking the entertainment options.

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So I’ve been OK, but I’d go even farther and say not only am I OK without social media but I think I’m actually better off. I think I’m happier, I think I find more sustainability in my life, and I think I’ve been more successful professionally because I don’t use social media.

So my second goal here on stage is try to convince more of you to believe the same thing. Let’s see if I could actually convince more of you that you too would be better off if you quit social media.

So, if the theme of this TEDx event is “Future Tense,” I guess, in other words, this would be my vision of the future, would be one in which fewer people actually use social media.

That’s a big claim, I think I need to back it up. So I thought, what I would do is take the three most common objections I hear when I suggest to people that they quit social media, and then for each of these objections, I’ll try to defuse the hype and see if I can actually push in some more reality.

This is the first most common objection I hear. That’s not a hermit, that’s actually a hipster web developer down from 8th Street; I’m not sure. Hipster or hermit? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

So this first objection goes as follows:

“Cal, social media is one of the fundamental technologies of the 21st century. To reject social media would be an act of extreme Luddism. It would be like riding to work on a horse or using a rotary phone. I can’t take such a big stance in my life.”

My reaction to that objection is I think that is nonsense. Social media is not a fundamental technology. It leverages some fundamental technologies, but it’s better understood as this. Which is to say, it’s a source of entertainment, it’s an entertainment product.

The way that technologist Jaron Lanier puts it is that these companies offer you shiny treats in exchange for minutes of your attention and bites of your personal data, which can then be packaged up and sold.

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So to say that you don’t use social media should not be a large social stance, it’s just rejecting one form of entertainment for others. There should be no more controversial than saying, “I don’t like newspapers, I like to get my news from magazines,” or “I prefer to watch cable series, as opposed to network television series.”

It’s not a major political or social stance to say you don’t use this product.

My use of the slot machine image up here also is not accidental because if you look a little bit closer at these technologies, it’s not just that they’re a source of entertainment but they’re a somewhat unsavory source of entertainment.

We now know that many of the major social media companies hire individuals called attention engineers, who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino gambling, among other places, to try to make these products as addictive as possible. That is the desired use case of these products: is that you use it in an addictive fashion because that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from your attention and data.

So it’s not a fundamental technology, it’s just a source of entertainment, one among many, and it’s somewhat unsavory if you look a little bit closer.

Here’s the second common objection I hear when I suggest that people quit social media. The objection goes as follows:

“Cal, I can’t quit social media because it is vital to my success in the 21st century economy. If I do not have a well-cultivated social media brand, people won’t know who I am, people won’t be able to find me, opportunities won’t come my way, and I will effectively disappear from the economy.”

Again my reaction is once again: this objection also is nonsense. I recently published this book that draws on multiple different strands of evidence to make the point that, in a competitive 21st century economy, what the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and are valuable.

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If you produce something that’s rare and valuable, the market will value that. What the market dismisses, for the most part, are activities that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value.

Well, social media use is the epitome of an easy to replicate activity that does not produce a lot of value; it’s something that any six-year-old with a smartphone can do.

By definition, the market is not going to give a lot of value to those behaviors. It’s instead going to reward the deep, concentrated work required to build real skills and to apply those skills to produce things – like a craftsman – that are rare and that are valuable.

To put it another way: if you can write an elegant algorithm, if you can write a legal brief that can change a case, if you can write a thousand words of prose that’s going to fixate a reader right to the end.

If you can look at a sea of ambiguous data and apply statistics, and pull out insights that could transform a business strategy, if you can do these type of activities which require deep work, that produce outcomes that are rare and valuable, people will find you.

You will be able to write your own ticket; you will be able to build the foundation of a meaningful and successful professional life, regardless of how many Instagram followers you have.

This is the third comment objection I hear when I suggest to people that they quit social media; in some sense, I think it might be one of the most important.

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