On ‘quitting social media’ to further your career

Image by Marcus dePaula

I’ve been using social media ever since it first came around as part of the wave of ‘Web 2.0’ applications that changed our relationship with the web. It wasn’t that long ago, but it’s difficult to remember just how difficult it was for the average person to both read and write the web. 

In a controversial article for the New York Times, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focussed Success in Distracted Times, argues that the use of social networking is not only addictive and antithetical to ‘deep work’, but actually bad for one’s career. 

I think Newport makes one good point amongst a pretty bland arguement, which itself is undermined by his claim to have “never had a social media account”. Let’s deal with what I think is a valid argument first. By the looks of the Hacker News discussion, others also think this is the best part of the article. To quote Newport directly:

In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

Here, I think Newport eloquently puts into words what a lot of us who have used, for example, Twitter for the last 10 years have been feeling: it’s not the same as it was. Without wishing to look back through rose-tinted spectacles to a so-called ‘golden age’, there was definitely a time when the amount of self-selection necessary to use social networks meant that it was a more pleasant and interesting place to interact with others.

However, Newport also takes issue with those who use social networks in order to further their career. He believes that all you need to do is ‘work hard’:

Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. This is a philosophy perhaps best summarized by the advice Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” If you do that, the rest will work itself out, regardless of the size of your Instagram following.

I don’t think that’s true at all. There’s a huge element of luck and serendipity involved in success beyond very prescribed fields such as academia and medicine. Let’s be mindful that Newport is an assistant professor on his way up in the world. 

Newport argues against the idea that using social networks ‘can’t hurt’ your career through two approaches:

First, interesting opportunities and useful connections are not as scarce as social media proponents claim… To be clear, I’m not arguing that new opportunities and connections are unimportant. I’m instead arguing that you don’t need social media’s help to attract them.

[…]

My second objection concerns the idea that social media is harmless. Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive.

There’s an element of truth in the latter point, due to the nefarious influence of ad-tech. However, it’s a sleight of hand to say that use implies addiction. Apart from the eloquent expression about the value ‘the market’ places on things that are rare and valuable, this entire article can be dismissed as Newport not knowing what he doesn’t know.

In other words, while being a privileged white guy working in a reasonably-prestigious university might mean that he can avoid the 21st century for a while, for the rest of us social tools enable us to make important connections, do innovation work, and increase our serendipity surface.

Image by Marcus dePaula. This article is cross-posted on Medium and LinkedIn.