Jeff Nagle wrote a short post where he describes a possible future where people consuming social media will be looked at the same way as we are all looking at people who smoke right now. He sounds a little cynical though and it seems like Jeff mostly has bad experiences online:

By and large, social media is not good for you. There are a few instances where it works well but for every 1 nugget of goodness that there is, there are 4 nuggets of bad. I know I am sounding negative here, but it is the truth. I almost never feel good after my experiences with social media.

I have a mostly positive experience. Jeff continues by describing why social media is bad for you:

Like smoking, social media is just another addiction to distract our brains from what it is lacking. We smoke to reduce stress, aid in social situations, attain social status and to kill time. Isn’t that what we do when we consume social media streams? Instead of blowing smoke, we simply stare at our phones and blow off our nearby friends.

This is an interesting and highly relevant topic to research.

I recently finished Irresistible, where Adam Alter makes a similar point (he compares our devices to cocaine, talking about picking your examples): the way we’re using our devices and social platforms might not be as innocent as we think. The book is a bit long, but in general I think I agree with his writing: we’re still very unaware of the long term, structural effects of social media on our life, work and relationships.

The fundamental, obvious difference is that social media does not kill you in the sense that smoking or using cocaine does. Or, I should say, our devices and social media have not been around long enough to either prove or falsify these claims.

But let’s take a look at this from a productivity perspective.

I’m a huge fan of Cal Newport, who does not use social media (among other things, he also has a really strict email policy) in order to have more time to think and to do what he calls “deep work”. Newport knows how he can do his best work, and that is by making sure he does not waste his time on things that do not bring him the value he needs.

Social media by definition is distracting, because it is built for exactly this: pulling you back to the different platforms and keeping you there for as long as possible. And not for a good reason: the only motive Twitter and Facebook have is showing as many ads as they possibly can within the time you’re spending on their product. They don’t have your best interest at heart.

When thinking about this, I keep returning to this nuclear strategy as probably the best possible option. On the other end of the spectrum, I believe there are simple things we can do to minimize and optimize the time we spend on social media.

Let’s start with the goals I have for using social media:

  • I want to be inspired
  • I want to learn stuff
  • I want to keep up to date with what is happening within the industry and with my friends
  • I want to see things that make me happy

I’m adding this one as well, to be completely honest:

  • I want to have a place where I can be distracted for a short while for moments when I’m switching tasks or when I have a couple of minutes to kill

Fleshing out these goals makes it easier to make decisions on exactly which things I’m reading and which things I’m avoiding. I have two main strategies:

Strategy one: add barriers

In order to spend less time on social media, I’m making sure it is harder to reach it. Just like I make it harder to snooze by locating my alarm clock at the other end of the room, I’m using a plugin I built for Chrome which makes Twitter, Facebook and YouTube way less appealing to look at on my Mac. This one extra step is a huge help in using it less.

Removing the apps from your phone or using a tool that completely blocks access to certain websites can also be a huge help.

There is also the app Forest, which helps you to keep your hands off your phone by rewarding instead of punishment: as long as you’re not touching it, you’ll grow your forest.

Strategy two: curate regularly

To get more value out of the networks you do use, make time to regularly curate what you’re seeing.

This starts by picking the networks you want to invest in. I’m using Instagram for it’s positivity (if you disregard the comments – you should never read comments anyway) and Twitter for news.

Facebook has good tools for curation which really helps to define what you’ll see. You should get into the habit of actually dismissing things you don’t like whenever you see something.

On Twitter and Instagram, the value of your visits largely depend on who you are following. Purging this selection really pays off as well.

You could also let someone else do your curation. Nuzzel is a great app that takes your Twitterfeed and sends you an email with the stuff you shouldn’t miss. This is a great way of leveraging the value of social media, without actually using it.

I agree with Jeff: it is very well possible to have mostly negative experiences with social media, if you don’t do it right. We need a solid strategy, and with that there is a way to not only eliminate the negativity, but even get a lot of value out of using social networks.