The Opportunity Costs of Social Media

As consumers get better and better at at ignoring mass media, mass media stops working.  - Seth Godin 


The quote above is from Seth's book, Purple Cow, which was published in 2003. Fifteen years later, if you replaced mass with social, this quote still rings true. The tools that have supposedly connected us have have simultaneously destroyed us.


  • They've disrupted democracies around the world
  • They've damaged our attention spans by manipulating our behavior and selling our attention to advertisers
  • They've caused rises in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, and profits are received at the detriment to the mental health of their users


When the power to control the behavior of a large group of people goes unchecked, that power will turn anything and anyone into a beast that eventually plants the seeds for it’s own demise. Throughout history, significant concentrations of power have come to an end.


Social media companies should be prepared for what is likely going to be an existential crisis, meaning their very existence could be under threat. Over the last year, we've seen researchers discover that these tools cause mental health issues, users realize they're destroying their attention span, and people who help build these tools say "they are ripping apart the fabric of society."


But they're doing far more than that. They come with significant opportunity costs. You might think social media is free. But you are paying for it with time, which is the most valuable asset at your disposal and with your attention, which is the currency of achievement. If you spent your money in the way you spend these two resources, you'd be broke.


The Rise of Conscious Consumers

As consumers, we are getting better and better at ignoring social media. We're getting so good at it that companies like Rescuetime have built a business out of helping us ignore it.


This is a central part of the workshop I teach on building happier and more effective organizations.


When a group of young teens instigate a movement like “October Offline”, it should be a message to the CEO's and product developers of every social media company. The users that your future depends on have had enough. It's possible they've already left the building and are never coming back. It might no be long before October Offline transforms into a mass exodus.


The survival of the social media industrial complex depends on our attention. When we stop spending the currency of our attention on these platforms, their survival is at risk.


  • Cal Newport has become a vocal critic and strong advocate for quitting social media
  • Jaron Lanier wrote a book called 10 Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts
  • In my recent interview with Danielle Laporte, she called Facebook “a playground for vitriol”


As people with authority and influence start speaking up, others will start to listen. As they do, the users of these platforms will become more conscious.


The Questionable Effectiveness of Social Media Advertising

Despite my pleading not to spend the ad budget on driving clicks to Amazon with Facebook ads for my recent book, and asking instead to spend that same money acquiring new subscribers for our email list, my publisher spent the bulk of our budget on driving clicks to Amazon. It was so ineffective that they would have sold more books by spending that same amount of money buying the books and giving one to each of those people who clicked.


Compare that stat with James Clear who recently wrote The New York Times Bestseller Atomic Habits. He sent one email to his list (which has several hundred thousand subscribers) and he sold more than 6,000 copies before the book was even released.


Unless you're Barack or Michelle Obama, you're not going to hit the New York Times Bestseller list by tweeting about your book or advertising it on Facebook. When an author told me a publisher passed on her because of her small social media presence, I cringed because I knew that a social media presence does very little to move the needle on book sales.


Recently I stumbled on a book titled How to get a Million Followers. Chances are it will sell because as a culture we are obsessed with vanity metrics. But if you had the choice between a million followers, and a million subscribers, the latter would be far more profitable and valuable than the former.


Every book marketing strategist and author from Ryan Holiday to Tim Grahl has emphasized the role that email lists play in a successful book launch. Ramit Sethi said if you wiped out his entire social presence, he could easily start over. Years ago when I interviewed Josh Kauffman, he said the one thing he wished he'd done differently was start building an email list sooner. This was something I heard over and over again in the interviews I conducted. By the time I got my book deal in 2016, I made it my North Star Metric.


But this isn't isolated to publishers or a criticism of them. It's just the example I'm most familiar with. I heard Tim Ferriss talking to someone on his podcast once about a successful business that was highly dependent on Facebook advertising, which he described as a owning a "highly profitable Mcdonald's on top of an active volcano."


Do anything for long enough and you will reach a point of diminishing returns. By the time every business is doing something, it's no longer a competitive advantage.


The Danger of Dependency on Advertising


If the survival of your product depends on advertising, tactics, fan and follower counts, the moment you stop doing those things, your product will become irrelevant, or worse completely ignored.


You can implement more tactics. Or you can make a better product. The second is much harder. But it's also more likely to lead to a sustainable competitive advantage.


I workout at a Crossfit gym in Solana beach called Crossfit Society. They have nothing but 5-star reviews on Yelp. And I'm not surprised. They've created something worth talking about, something worth referring a friend to. I'd never hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It's bit like the bar in Cheers, a place where everybody knows your name and they're always glad you came. I'm willing to bet if their survival depended on us helping to promote them, we would all do it because we've gained so much from being members.


As I've previously said, the only viable long term strategy to build an audience for your work or a customer base for your product is to focus on mastery instead of metrics and be so good they can't ignore you.


Relationships

We are squandering so much of the time we have left with the people who matter most to us, while becoming spectators in the lives of people we've never even met. Just because you read someone's writing, follow them on Instagram, or enjoy their status updates, it doesn't mean you really know them. You know their avatar, which is a one-dimensional view of who they are. We spend so much less time interacting with people in person despite the fact that social connection is essential to our happiness and well being. As my friend Gareth said last night "I'd much rather meet a friend for dinner and then have them like my status update."


Goals

The average Facebook user spends almost 2 hours a day on the site. That's more than 700 hours every year. Just imagine what you're not accomplishing because you've given 700 hours of your time and attention to something that does nothing more than mildly entertain you.


If nothing here gets your attention, I hope this will. A few weeks ago, Cal Newport published a post on his blog about a celebrity baseball player who decided to take a break from social media:


These services create cognitive drag by subjecting you to a compulsive mix of drama and distraction. If you’re famous, this drag is even more pronounced...For the average user, this reality might prove a nuisance, but for athletes performing at the top levels of their sports, the result could be the difference between a solid career and the hall of fame; a 5-year $25 million dollar deal, and a 10-year $350 million deal.



If you knew that maintaining your social media footprint was the difference between 10 million dollars and 325 million dollars, would you still use it? In the past TV has been called "an income reduction" box by many self help authors. And today we've just replaced it with a dozen digital income reduction boxes and called them social networks. You could learn a language, build a business, or learn to play an instrument, or make some good art in 700 hours.


You are paying for these services at the cost of some of your most important life goals. But it doesn't have to be this way. It's one of the reasons I dedicated so many parts of my recent book, An Audience of One, to navigating digital distractions and doing deep work.


Experiences

The quality of nearly all of our experiences is diminished, not enhanced by technology.

  • When conferences allow smartphones and laptops in the room, they end up with more hashtags than handshakes.
  • When you you bring a phone to a date, you end up looking for a way to entertain yourself the moment that other person gets up to go to the bathroom
  • Our meals have become faster instead of slower and our meetings have become longer instead of shorter.
  • We travel with more concern for the pictures we could post to Instragram than experiences we're having

From meals, to meetings, to vacations, social media diminishes our experiences because we spend more time documenting our lives than experiencing them.


Happiness

When you're paying for any service with your happiness and mental well being, it's worth asking yourself if that's really worth it. It's impossible to avoid comparison when you're seeing the highlight reels of other people's lives. The quick hits of dopamine driven validation get us addicted and fuel a perpetual cycle of dissatisfaction.


The instant applause we receive from putting up pictures of puppies, babies, sunsets, engagements, weddings, sexy headshot and selfies causes us to confuse metrics with meaning and vanity, and attention with affection and accomplishment. It's worth asking if any real value, other than stupid metrics that inflate your ego, have come from using social media.


When somebody is giving your eulogy, they won't give a shit how many fans you had on Facebook or followers you had on Twitter. The toxic impact of quantifying every aspect of your humanity isn't going to matter 10 years from now or when you die. So why on earth have you let it capture so much of your time and attention?

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