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.

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.

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?”

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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.

The canary in the coal mine for this issue is actually college campuses. If you talk to mental health experts on college campuses, they’ll tell you that along with the rise of ubiquitous smartphone use and social media use among the students on the campus, came an explosion of anxiety-related disorders on those campuses.

So that’s the canary in the coal mine. This type of behavior is a mismatch for our brain wiring and can make you feel miserable.

So there’s real cost to social media use: which means when you’re trying to decide, “Should I use this or not?”, saying it’s harmless is not enough. You actually have to identify a significantly positive, clear benefit that can outweigh these potential, completely non-trivial harms.

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People often ask, “OK, but what is life like without social media?” That can actually be a little bit scary to think about.

What I found from people I know who have gone through this process, there can be a few weeks that are difficult. It actually is like a true detox process. The first two weeks can be uncomfortable: you feel a little bit anxious, you feel like you’re missing a limb.

But after that, things settle down, and actually, life after social media can be quite positive.

There’s two things I can report back from the world of no social media use.

First, it can be quite productive.

So I’m a professor at a research institution, I’ve written five books, I rarely work past 5 pm on a weekday. Part of the way I’m trying to able to pull that off is because it turns out, if you treat your attention with respect, — so you don’t fragment it; you allow it to stay whole, you preserve your concentration — when it comes time to work you can do one thing after another, and do it with intensity, and intensity can be traded for time.

It’s surprising how much you can get done in a eight-hour day if you’re able to give each thing intense concentration after another.

Something else I can report back from life without social media is that outside of work, things can be quite peaceful. So I often joke I’d be very comfortable being a 1930s farmer, because if you look at my leisure time, I read the newspaper while the sun comes up; I listen to baseball on the radio; I honest-to-god sit in a leather chair and read hardcover books at night after my kids go to bed.

It sounds old-fashioned, but I’ll tell you they were onto something back then. It’s actually a restorative, very peaceful way to actually spend your time out of work. You don’t have the constant hum of stimuli, and the background hum of anxiety that comes along with that.

So life without social media is really not so bad.

If you pull together these threads, you see my full argument for why I think — not everyone, but certainly much more people than right now use social media — much more people should not be using social media. That’s because we can first, to summarize, discard with the main concerns that somehow it’s a fundamental technology you have to use. Nonsense: it’s a slot machine in your phone.

We can discard with this notion that you’re not going to get a job if you don’t use social media. Nonsense: anything a six-year-old with a smartphone can do is not going to be what the market rewards.

And then I emphasized the point that there’s real harms with it. So it’s not just harmless. You really would have to have a significant benefit before you would say this trade-off is worth it.

Finally, I noted, that life without social media: there’s real positives associated with it.

So I’m hoping that when many of you actually go through this same calculus, you’ll at least consider the perspective I’m making right now, which is: many more people would be much better off if they didn’t use this technology.

Now of course, some of you might disagree, some of you might have scathing but accurate critiques of me and my points, and of course, I welcome all negative feedback.

I just ask that you direct your comments towards Twitter.

Thank you.


Resources for Further Reading:

Bailey Parnell: Is Social Media Hurting Your Mental Health? (Transcript)

Tom Standage: Lessons from Ancient Social Media at TEDxOxbridge (Transcript)

How Social Networks Drive Creativity: Katherine Giuffre at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

You 2.0 – What it REALLY Takes to Be the Best Version of Yourself: Anthony Cheam