In a recent op-ed at the New York Times, Cal Newport, a self-described “millennial computer scientist,” declared that he has never had a social media account. While this smacks of those friends you had in college that said they never watched TV, Newport is laying the groundwork for his ultimate point: you should quit social media, and doing so will enhance your career. How? Per Newport, because (1) social media increases your need for stimulus and your resulting boredom when you’re not getting that stimulus; (2) you end up cultivating your brand instead of your skills; (3) interesting opportunities are more plentiful than you realize.
Newport’s first two points have some have merit. However, the stimulus-boredom-stimulus cycle is endemic to modern tech-driven life, period. We see it with email, with texts, with anything that allows us to check and recheck our smartphones. That’s a behavioral problem, not a social media problem.
The danger of spending time on your personal brand rather than getting better at your job also isn’t unique to social media. F. Lee Bailey (yes, he of O.J. Simpson trial fame, among many others) is perhaps the best example of a lawyer who spent a lot of time just Being Bailey and not enough time on managing his practice. He’s disbarred and bankrupt now, in case you were wondering. Bottom line: social media may highlight or exacerbate some tendencies you might have towards inattention or self-promotion, but it doesn’t create those things.
It is Newport’s third point that I take most issue with. The notion that interesting opportunities abound is presented without any evidence, and seems applicable only to, well, Newport:
In my own professional life, for example, as I improved my standing as an academic and a writer, I began receiving more interesting opportunities than I could handle. I currently have filters on my website aimed at reducing, not increasing, the number of offers and introductions I receive.
I have no reason to doubt that is true. I also have no reason to believe it is true for other people. The notion that if you improve, good things will come to you implies that you have a network of people and resources to deliver you those good things. That’s simply not true for lots of people, particularly people that are marginalized within a profession or society as a whole.
Social media—even the dreaded and much maligned LinkedIn—provides people a way to connect that doesn’t necessitate in-person networking. It gives you a way to have a much wider circle of connections than just those that live nearby. It offers a virtual collegiality that isn’t possible if you work on your own in a small town or haven’t figured out how to connect with people in your field.
There is simply no downside to a well-curated virtual network, and every possible upside. It is incumbent upon you to check your behavior in terms of how you use social media, but that is true of literally everything you have at your disposal.
Don’t go shuttering your Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn. Keep Instagram around for pictures of flowers or shoes or puppies or anything else that gives you a little lift in your day. Feel free to dump MySpace and Ello, though. No one you know uses them.