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Cal Newport had a provocative recent column at The New York Times titled “Quit Social Media: Your Career May Depend Upon It.” In spite of being a bestselling author and blogger, as well as a tenured computer science professor at Georgetown, Newport is not on social media. (Indeed, he does seem to have a Twitter account, from which he has tweeted once.) Here’s one of his concerns:
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.
I’m frankly skeptical about taking social media advice from people who are not on social media. But Newport certainly has credibility, with his popular books and blog, and his academic productivity that led to tenure at Georgetown.
The problem is, Newport has no categories for different kinds of social media engagement. There’s good social media, and bad social media, from a Christian academic’s perspective.
Bad social media is a time-waster. You write a sentence and reward yourself by checking Facebook. That takes you down a rabbit hole into the latest political debate, and an hour later you wonder where the time has gone.
Bad social media focuses on the trivial. This is the academic or pastor who spends most of his time on Twitter expressing his love for his football team.
Bad social media increases stress when you get sucked into pointless arguments with people you don’t know.
Good social media, however, connects you with people who are your natural constituency and colleagues. It allows you to “meet” people from all over the world who have a common interest in, say, the history of evangelicalism.
In spite of Newport’s dismissive comments, good social media does open doors professionally. If you are a friendly, helpful participant in social media conversations, it will undoubtedly lead to new connections, opportunities to present your work, visibility for your writing, and in rare cases, job opportunities.
Good social media helps you to keep up to date in your field and interests, as it offers (especially Twitter) the ability to curate news and opinion unlike any other tool. It also helps me, I find, stay in touch with people who share a different perspective from me on politics and other matters, as I intentionally follow some voices who are very different from mine.
There’s no doubt that active social media is not for everyone. If it causes you non-stop angst and frustration, you should consider dropping it. If you just use a “professional” account mostly to share cute puppy photos, you’re probably not doing it right. And we all undoubtedly can use a social media “fast” from time to time. (Low traffic seasons like Christmas are an ideal time for a fast of a week, or a month, from the online world.)
But I basically think Cal Newport is mixing up his conclusions. Just because he’s been successful without social media does not mean that social media works for no one.