Digital Puritanism Keeps Us Locked in Limbo

You are not Facebook’s customer. You’re its currency. Facebook, and every other social media platform which makes its money off of advertising dollars, is engineered to trick you into spending the most time possible on its services.

Extracting eyeball minutes, the key resource for companies like Google and Facebook, has become significantly more lucrative than extracting oil.

(Newport, 2019)

So that is the undeniable truth about social media. For-profit companies have specifically engineered this technology to create an addiction reaction for the user which keeps them ensnared within the platform. Facebook, specifically, has marketed itself as a foundational technology; like electricity and running water, individuals should use facebook because it will make their lives better in some way and because anyone who rejects the technology is a luddite and a weirdo. It’s a vague and insidious marketing ploy because it leads us to believe that any benefit gleaned from the platform is enough of an argument for continued use.

Rule #3 in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work is “Quit Social Media.” Fortunately, Mr. Newport understands the nuances of this request and posits at the beginning of the chapter that we must accept “that network tools are not inherently evil, and that some of them might be quite vital to your success and happiness, while also accepting that the threshold for allowing a site regular access to your time and attention should be much more stringent.” (Newport, 2016) Instead of a digitally puritanical route which suggests that network tools are inherently bad, and therefore need to be avoided at all costs, Cal Newport believes we can adjust our use to “conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services – dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring out.” (Newport, 2019) Instead of being digital puritans, we can become fighters the attention resistance movement.

What social media platforms have tried to obscure with their far reaching array of services and highly addicting formats is that they are merely tools. With the proper level of discipline, the lure of social media has no more power over its user than the devil himself had over Betty Parris and Abigail Williams during the Salem Witch Trials. Ok… so that comparison might be a bit of a stretch but I chose it because just like our counterparts in Colonial Massachusetts, we seem to be too happy to give up our power to the belief that the ills of technology are outside our control and the only way to combat social media addiction is to abstain completely. Unfortunately for us, America’s obsession with abstention versus measured adjustment and education has gotten us into a mess of issues throughout our history.

Cal Newport has a better plan, laying out what he calls the Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection.

Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors significantly outweigh its negative impacts.

(Newport, 2016)

To utilize the Craftsman Approach, make a list of no more than two or three of your greatest goals or ambitions in each category of your life, personal or professional, and then attach two or three concrete steps you must pursue in order to achieve those goals. Finally, look at each social media tool you use and decide if it positively impacts, negatively impacts, or has no impact on reaching those goals. If the outcome is not substantially positive, you should give up that tool, remembering that any benefit is likely not enough benefit when weighed against what you truly want to accomplish in life.

Newport goes on to describe several other ways that we can join the attention resistance against addictive technology in his book Digital Minimalism. Newport stresses the importance of thinking critically about what benefit you want to extract from networking tools. By thinking critically about what we really want to get out of our social media use – in my case I only use Facebook to look at old photos, and to use Facebook messenger to keep up with a select few friends who live outside the U.S. which is more cost-effective than traditional text messaging – we can not only use our time more wisely, but remain out of the grasp of the rampant online marketing found in our feeds.

If everyone started thinking about their use in similarly utilitarian terms the amount of eyeball minutes Facebook has available to sell to advertisers would drop by more than an order of magnitude, creating a massive hit to their bottom line…Critical use is a critical problem for the digital attention economy.

(Newport, 2019)

I know that I, for one, am hugely interested in creating a massive hit to the bottom line of any company that manipulates people into engaging with their brand in a way that is detrimental to the individual and to collective society. By thinking critically about how we are consuming technology, whether it is by limiting our time on and use of social media, to avoiding the breaking news cycle in favor of more fully researched journalism, we can break free of the digital puritanism that is keeping us locked in technological limbo.

Embrace digital media from a mindset of slowness and consume less, higher-quality media.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work. Grand Central Publishing.

Newport, C. (2019). Digital minimalism : choosing a focused life in a noisy world. Portfolio/Penguin.

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