Embracing Digital Minimalism to Make the Most of Social Media

Back in the mid 2000s, my grad school thesis advisor sent me to a conference in Boston on the emerging field of social networks. Back then, Facebook had just started with college students and various social media platforms promised to connect the world by bringing everyone a few degrees of separation from world leaders and celebrities. I have two significant memories from this conference (besides getting trapped in Boston for an extra day because of a massive snow storm): 1) a presenter stating that any social network site with profile photos only existed to get dates and had no value for serious business networking and 2) a bizarre encounter with one of the attendees.

Prior to a presentation, I sat down at a table with three people including a tweedy middle-aged man. I chatted a bit with the attendees at the table who had some questions about why the military had an interest in social networks—I was in an Air Force program and wore my uniform.[1] After a few minutes of small talk, I asked the man, who hadn’t said anything, what he specialized in. He curtly replied, “I study social prestige in networks. I can see that I have very little prestige at this table and I’m going to sit somewhere else.” He then stood up and stomped off to another table.

“The Facebook” login screen from 2005.

Maybe people from Boston just act that way, but to this midwesterner, that degree of sensitivity and airing of petty grievances to strangers surprised me. In retrospect, Prof. Social Prestige embodied to me much of what would come in terms of social media. Where everyday etiquette sets limits on how people interact with each other, with enough detachment, you can view “connections” as mere opportunities, or lack there of, or signs of your “social prestige.” Ultimately, this social network thinking instrumentalizes relationships by replacing solidarity with the ability to provide likes or attention.

Fast-forward to now and it’s common to spend hours a day on platforms subjected to social comparisons, humble bragging, and trolling. For all the connectedness that social media should enable in theory, social media creates feelings of anonymity and disconnectedness that make it easy to view your life in terms of comparison to others and, at the same time, treat people poorly. Anthony Bourdain might have been onto something when he said that posting food photos is a passive-aggressive act: “You don’t want people eating dinner with you when you instagram a picture of your food. You want them to be eating a bag of Cheetos on their couch in their underpants.”

Admittedly, I have engaged in social media misuse as much as anyone, particularly in the early days. But, over the years, I have found that most social media use makes me feel empty and often just annoyed and, at the same time, consumes valuable hours in days already full of diaper changes and work. The couple times that I gave up social media for Lent, I did not miss it and, yet, went right back to it after Easter.

That said, I do believe that social media has substantial value. If you read this post, you likely found it via social media because that’s how 90% of people find my posts. I love seeing updates from my friends and family who live far away and do not get to see regularly. I also remain a huge fan of LinkedIn and have used it to find connections for my business interests on multiple occasions. I could go on, but, in many respects, the world would lose something important if tomorrow we went back to the pre-social media era when you could only make your voice heard publicly by writing a letter to your local newspaper and hope that it gets published.

I have long wished that that I could keep the connectedness allowed by social media and ditch the mind numbing, borderline-addictive, negativity. For that reason, I enjoy Cal Newport’s approach to healthy social media use in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.[2] In Digital Minimalism, Newport manages to create a reasonable protocol for enjoying the benefits of social media while ditching the worst elements. And to do this he provides diverse examples of folks who exemplify the benefits of focus and going against the flow when it comes to technology, ranging from Abraham Lincoln and the Amish to everyday modern people embracing limits on their tech use.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.

As defined by Newport, digital minimalism is, “[a] philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”Rather than completely ditching all electronics, Newport encourages the careful examination of the actual benefits of each platform and only using social media to the extent that it has a benefit to you.

Newport makes a compelling case that social media companies have become modern-day robber barons exploiting their consumers in the pursuit of ever greater shares of attention and time. Because social media makes it’s money with advertising, it’s financial survival depends on obtaining the highest possible share of its users attention. As Sean Parker, the early president of Facebook, notes in a quote in the book, “[t]he thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, . . . was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

While newspapers and TV have the same advertising-based business model, modern social media lives in your pocket all the time with knowledge of your location and, even, your thoughts via search and viewing history. Currently, Americans spend about 2.5 hours per day on social media (147 minutes), which clocks in at an hour more than people spend eating and drinking and about the same as parents spend on taking care of children (though still not as much as the almost 3.5 hours that Americans still spend watching television). I don’t think we should judge the quality of people’s choice of leisure activities, but it’s fair to question an industry that uses every psychological trick available to keep people spending the maximum conceivable amount of time using its services.

After reading Digital Minimalism, I decided to try and implement one of Newport’s suggestions on only checking social media during pre-scheduled, limited, times and not using the mobile versions of the apps. In my case, I decided to check social media apps a couple times a week and for no more than half an hour. The apps did not let me go easily even after I deleted them from my phone. Indeed, the social media companies made stalkerish efforts to lure me back in. Facebook started sending me text messages all the time saying that my wife and friends posted something and I needed to check it out. Reddit started sending me updates, multiple times a day, basically consisting of what I would see on the timeline if I logged in. The process of turning off these notices proved non-intuitive and took over a week for me to finally get them all turned off. But after the initial withdrawal difficulties, I find that I can mostly keep up with friends and interests on social media with about 30 minutes to an hour per week. And, when I actually logged onto social media, I appreciate the updates and did not find myself drained and scrolling mindlessly.

To his credit, Newport recognizes that if you cut out 2+ hours of social media use per day, you need to find a constructive way to fill the new void in your life. To do this, Newport recommends developing high quality leisure activities and hobbies. He had good suggestions about trying to fix something in your house everyday and creating a plan to get good and improve your skill at the hobbies that interest you. He also recommends getting used to having some time of quiet and solitude and going for long walks, practices that I have long found beneficial for managing stress and coming up with solutions to tricky problems. In Newport’s words,  “[w]hen you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships. If you suffer from chronic solitude deprivation, therefore, the quality of your life degrades.”

So if you don’t see me on social media as much as I used to, blame Digital Minimalism. Most likely you will find me working on a brewing experiment, trying my best to fix the house without destroying it, or just changing diapers and enjoying some time away from the screen.

The Nintendo Switch. Another great invention best used in moderation.

[1] My answer was not that exciting. We thought that the analysis of social networks could help to identify which organizational structures worked best from a performance perspective. An interesting and not very nefarious research project.

[2] Newport, Cal. Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Penguin Publishing Group, 2019. Kindle edition.


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