What I'm Reading (No. 56): a social media takedown
On February 1st, I wrapped up a social media fast to start the new year. I also happened to get Cal Newport's new book — Digital Minimalism — in the mail, and it was the perfect way to wrap up that experience. It's very good, and very convicting.
I'm now in the midst of two massive books — Stephen King's 1,100-page It as well as the first volume of Robert Caro's epic series on Lyndon Johnson, which is 750+ pages of small type. (And there are three more similar volumes to follow.) I know, I know — why would I do that to myself? They're both very good, though in very different ways of course.
My reading attention is pretty much focused on those two giants right now, so this week's newsletter features just the one book. Let's make a case for ditching your social media and/or smartphone:
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
In the last few years, I've read a lot about putting your devices down and lessening your time on social media:
Irresistible by Adam Alter
Joy of Missing Out by Christina Crook
The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch
The Hard Break by Aaron Edelheit
Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi
Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle
The Village Effect by Susan Pinker
Beyond these that are devoted specifically to that topic, most business, productivity, and self-improvement books on the market right now have some mention of putting your phone down and engaging the "real" world more purposefully.
Cal Newport's new book perhaps eclipses them all (Crook's book being the possible exception — JOMO is marvelous). It's really the first of the bunch that has spurred me towards making meaningful and lasting changes to my digital habits. A couple important aspects set it apart from the growing pack:
First, Cal doesn't lay on any guilt about the current state of our social media infatuation. When the iPhone was released over a decade ago, nobody envisioned that our attention would become so enslaved by the device. As Cal wrote in a recent NY Times piece, the iPhone was really just intended to be an iPod/cell phone combo. Additionally, while those tech giants of Silicon Valley might preach altruistic motivations, their products are absolutely designed to ensnare our time and energy. Infinite scrolling is a set-up for failure. It's not your fault that you have a hard time putting your phone down, even when, deep down, you want to.
Second, Cal doesn't advocate for quick fixes or small hacks. He believes those don't go far enough in addressing the problem. Rather, he thinks you should go nuclear and ditch all non-essential digital activities for 30 days, and see what happens. His guess is that you'll realize how much life you were missing, and how little you actually care about social media.
My own experience is right in line with that hypothesis. As noted above, I took the month of January off of social media. I was getting sick of Twitter and Facebook's endless, meaningless posts, and though I didn't flat out ignore my wife or my kids, there were plenty of times where my attention was split between them and my phone. While I have an in-depth Art of Manliness article coming in a few weeks about my digital fast, I can say that when I came back to social media in February, I got legitimately bored in a matter of minutes. My daily social media time has gone from perhaps an hour or more a day last year (which is the average among Facebook/Instagram users), to honestly maybe a minute or two nowadays. It's pretty remarkable, really.
Cal fully admits that social media has benefits. We wouldn't have signed up for those services in the first place if there weren't. What he implores his readers to do is fully weigh those benefits against the costs. Digital Minimalism is a challenging, timely, and urgent call for change for those people who feel that their phones have too much of a grip on their time, energy, and focus. I can't recommend it enough.
For next week, I'm working on a special President's Day Edition that rounds up my favorite presidential reads thus far in my journey of reading biographies of them all. It's plenty likely that it's probably more fun for me than you, but that's a risk I'm willing to take.
Thank you for your time, attention, and inbox space. It's greatly appreciated.