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.
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.
This objection goes as follows:
“Cal, maybe I agree with you, maybe you’re right; it’s not a fundamental technology. Maybe using social media is not at the core of my professional success. But, you know what? It’s harmless, I have some fun on it – weird: Twitter’s funny – I don’t even use it that much, I’m a first adopter, it’s kind of interesting to try it out, and maybe I might miss out something if I don’t use it. What’s the harm?”
Again, I look back and I say this objection also is nonsense. In this case, what it misses is what I think is a very important reality that we need to talk about more frankly, which is that social media brings with it multiple, well-documented, and significant harms.
And we actually have to confront these harms head-on when trying to make decisions about whether or not we embrace this technology and let it into our lives.
So one of these harms that we know this technology brings has to do with your professional success. So I just argued before that the ability to focus intensely, to produce things that are rare and valuable, to hone skills the market place value on, that this is what will matter in our economy.
But right before that, I argued that social media tools are designed to be addictive. The actual designed desired-use case of these tools is that you fragment your attention as much as possible throughout your waking hours. That’s how these tools are designed to use.
Well, we have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention — large portions of your day where you’re constantly breaking up your attention, to take a quick glance, to just check, – “Let me quickly look at Instagram” – that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration.
In other words, you could permanently reduce your capacity to do exactly the type of deep effort that we’re finding to be more and more necessary in an increasingly competitive economy.
So social media use is not harmless, it can actually have a significant negative impact on your ability to thrive in the economy. I’m especially worried about this when we look at the younger generation coming up, which is the most saturated in this technology.
If you lose your ability to sustain concentration, you’re going to become less and less relevant to this economy.
There’s also psychological harms that are well documented that social media brings, that we do need to address. So we know from the research literature that the more you use social media, the more likely you are to feel lonely or isolated.
We know that the constant exposure to your friends carefully curated, positive portrayals of their life can leave you to feel inadequate, and can increase rates of depression.
And something I think we’re going to be hearing more about in the near future is that there’s a fundamental mismatch between the way our brains are wired and this behavior of exposing yourself to stimuli with intermittent rewards throughout all of your waking hours.
It’s one thing to spend a couple of hours at a slot machine in Las Vegas, but if you bring a slot machine with you, and you pull that handle all day long, from when you wake up to when you go to bed: we’re not wired from it. It short-circuits the brain, and we’re starting to find that it has actual cognitive consequences, one of them being this sort of pervasive background hum of anxiety.