I Just Can’t Quit You

Cal Newport wrote an editorial for the New York Times in November (and even has a TEDTalk!) asking professionals to quit social media.  To quote Newport: “You should quit social media because it can hurt your career.”  Newport goes on to argue that social media serves as a distraction that carries with it little return on investment for the user in terms of career development and advancement.

I beg to differ. I can’t quit social media. I won’t quit social media. And neither should you.

Newport makes an argument about the value of social media in economic terms when he says “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.”  The rewarding of the rare and valuable things is what economists term scarcity.  Social psychologists may draw the parallel to social scarcity, or the idea that humans assign greater value to an object or an action that is more rare.  Newport would argue that the redundancy – or the echo chamber – of social media detracts from professionalism or the unique qualities one desires in a high-achieving professional, thereby limiting its scarcity.  But what Newport misses is that social media does in fact allow for the limitation of social scarcity when used in creative ways.  The very thing that he argues makes you just like everyone else can actually set you apart.

I would venture a guess that 75% or more of my professional network is due to social media.  A vast majority of the programs, initiatives, and changes I have made in my department as a student affairs professional have been because of ideas shared in digital space and by colleagues I have only met on Twitter or have never seen face-to-face. The ideas they share with me and the lengths I go to in order to learn and connect online provide an added value to my professional development as well as my ability to do my job well for my employer.  I have made myself more valuable by expanding the network of those who contribute to my growth.

Newport uses a quote Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers to make his point – “Be so good that they can’t ignore you.”  Newport argues that you can make your impression as a professional regardless of your social network prowess.  But what if we were so good at social media that our bosses couldn’t ignore us?  What if we leveraged our networks to be more innovative, more creative, more courageous, and more productive?

Newport builds a case for social media being distracting – that the Pavlovian response to the dings and beeps of our smartphones can in fact inhibit professional engagement. However, there are ways to flip the script.

If smartphones are a distraction in your staff meetings or you feel like others are not taking advantage of their network connections, take the opportunity to be creative…

  1. Try gamifying an agenda item with Google. “Okay, everyone. Instead of talking about the educational program we are planning for February, you all have 10 minutes to search for the most creative program you can find and make it work for our specific outcomes. The three best ideas get funded $50 instead of $30.”
  2. Use Facebook Messenger for instant ideas. Have everyone get on Facebook Messenger and send a message to a colleague working in a similar functional area at another institution. Have them ask a question related to the specific agenda item and get an instant new idea!
  3. Use Snapchat to create digital minutes of the meeting. Set up a group on Snapchat and have someone take pictures or write quick one-line reminders about agenda items (e.g. “Turn in occupancy reports by 4 p.m!”) Share with the group for a burst of 10-second reminders that they can check later in the day.

Make your social networking part of the reason you are a unique, talented professional. Newport may think that social media “diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter,” but what we produce in digital spaces is who we are and is valuable to our development and advancement.  Even if that means part of your job is to help others see the value.

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