Friday, August 26, 2016

"Invisible and Therefore Irrelevant" (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

In a thus far surprisingly fruitful attempt to wring more productivity out of my limited time, I've been implementing some of the strategies Cal Newport outlines in his bestseller, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

One of his suggestions is a draconian "Quit Social Media."

In a section called The Cult of the Internet, Newport takes to task the pressure on knowledge workers, particularly writers and journalists, whose jobs demand deep concentration and focus, to be always connected. Citing the late NYU professor Neil Postman, he discusses the technopoly, or the unquestioning acceptance that all tech is good tech.

He called such a culture a technopoly, and he didn't mince words in warning against it. "Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the way Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World," [Postman] argued in his 1993 book on the topic. "It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant" (67).

Most of the work writers do to produce real value (books) is invisible. It's the most important part of our jobs and also the least relevant in a technopoly, according to Postman, because no matter how much of our process we share, the hard stuff, the real work, can't be seen unless people want to watch hours-long videos of us slogging away at our computers.

I know from grim personal experience how distracting social media can be, but social media itself is neither good nor bad. Here's where the problem comes in, according to Newport:

We no longer see Internet tools as products released by for-profit companies, funded by investors hoping to make a return, and run by twentysomethings who are often making things up as they go along. We're instead quick to idolize these digital doodads as a signifier of progress and a harbinger of a (dare I say, brave) new world.(68)


This invisibility explains the uproar, mentioned earlier, that arose when Jonathan Franzen dared to suggest that novelists shouldn't tweet. It riled people not because they're well-versed in book marketing and disagreed with Franzen's conclusion, but because it surprised them that anyone serious would suggest the irrelevance of social media. In an Internet-centric technopoly such a statement is the equivalent of a flag-burning—desecration, not debate. (69)

Newport's call to action is for knowledge workers to really consider the tools we use the way any craftsman does, and think about how to use them in a way that doesn't detract from our real work—in the case of writers, actually writing.

Some people may have no problem with social media distracting them from the real work, and I think we really do no longer have a choice as people who have to build brands to even get that work out there in the first place.

But seriously, y'all.

You don't want to know how much more productive I've been since strictly regulating my social media use. Or at least, I don't want you to know, because I'm heartily ashamed of the time I've wasted scrolling mindlessly through feeds of things that have no direct relation to my life.

For me, right now, my task is to figure out how much of my life I am willing to give to social media. To tell the truth, what I've discovered is that I can use social media fine professionally if I treat it like one more professional task, like a tool, like the cost of doing business.

Where I get in trouble with my time and my emotions is with personal use, and that's why I'm making a real effort to reduce the time I spend on social media for private purposes and put that time into doing my job. Yes, there are good things about it, but for me and my addictive personality (this is why I don't drink), the negative outweighs the positive.

To pull back from the personal use, I've also had to pull back from the professional, though I plan to start adding that back mindfully.

I've had to become "invisible and therefore irrelevant" for a time to get the work of real relevance done.

What do you think? How do you keep social media obligations from overrunning your writing time? How do you deal with the temptation to do something easier when you're in the middle of the hard work of writing?

I'm all ears.


  1. On the days I write (which are the days I don't go to my day job), I write first, right after breakfast. I typically don't do email or social media until the day's writing is done.
    Also, I don't have social media on my phone, and I'm not continually logged in to them. I log in and check them once a day and then log out.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Well, I wanted to just edit, but I deleted the whole thing. Anyway:

      These are great ideas, Jenn. I have made a strict rule for myself that I don't touch social media until the real work is done. I'm interested to see if taking the apps off my phone would make things easier or harder for me. I've also been trying to cut down on my checks. That "be always connected" thing just leaves my brain a total wreck.

  2. Great post, Courtney! You've really made me think about ways I can cut back on social media. I like Jenn Hubbard's idea of not having social media on my phone. I'm realizing that my phone makes it too easy to sign on to FB and waste twenty minutes here and there watching a video of an abandoned baby squirrel monkey being raised by a cat or four ways to prepare spaghetti squash. That's the stuff I really waste time on. Like you, I'm better at treating writing related uses of social media more like work.

    1. Right?! How much of this stuff I waste time on matters to me at all? It's like eating too much junk--it feels good at the time, but then I just feel sick and guilty about how much time I wasted later.

  3. I read Cal's book too and I won't say I'm that stringent but I cut back a lot. I also keep track of my deep work time in my planner now and that's helpful. I definitely could tighten up the social media thing a lot more, but I think that's going to get better with the school year and a more regular schedule in place.

    1. The school year cannot come soon enough! I am so excited for a regular schedule around here once again. I am also tracking in my planner, which is something I did on my own years ago (before social media). I have noticed that my attention span is just not what it used to be, so I want to stop that decline in its tracks.

  4. Totally agree with using social media as a professional-only tool. That's exactly how I use it.

    1. I have noticed and admired that about you, Holly! I am leaning more and more in that direction. I feel like (especially in election years!) the drawbacks of personal use outweigh the benefits.

  5. Fantastic post! I've had to take a step back from social media, too -- for several reasons. First, it cost me the relationship with someone I had the highest respect for. She took offense to something on Facebook (and I am really not sure, what) that resulted in her blocking me from all networks. Several attemps to apolgize have been ignored.

    I am horrified that I did this... did something that so upset someone, she found it necessary to cut me out of her life like a tumor.

    Another reason is politics... I've lost more than a few 'friends' over some political rants I went on.

    And still another reason is time.... FB, Twitter, LinkedIn for my day job, Tumblr, my own blog, oh and now Instagram... it seems like someone is always upset with me that I did NOT share their post but shared someone else's... they forget how these sites are in constant motion. I can't possibly see every post, every time... I've tried.

    So I now use an auto-retweeter that shares posts with certain hashtags. I very rarely post to Twitter these days unless it's something 'on-brand', which for me is anything to do with rape culture and cyberbullying.

    Even on Facebook, which was always personal, I've taken to posting mostly book-related news or the odd funny story.

    These days, my interactions on social networks are limited to hitting the Like button.