low-tech candle before a high-tech computerI already knew, before beginning the book Digital Minimalism, that its author Cal Newport is no fan of social media. He argues against it regularly on his blog.

Yep, he draws a distinction between social media and blogging. For example, in his recent blog post On Blogs in the Social Media Age, he explains why popular blogs are more likely to have high-quality content than popular social media feeds.

What I didn’t see coming was Newport’s objection to the “Like” (sometimes called “Favorite”) buttons that are ubiquitous on modern social media platforms. In Digital Minimalism, he writes at length about what seems to be an innocent enough feature. And he makes a compelling argument for it being neither innocent nor harmless.

The “Like” button, Newport explains, is sleazy and harmful because it transforms a website from a “fun amusement” to a “digital slot machine.” In other words, social media companies use their “Like” buttons to addict people in the same way that slot machines are addictive. The difference is that slot machines take money directly, while social media sites get money from advertisers when many people spend lots of time clicking around. Logging in and seeing that red notification saying that someone “Liked” your post gives the brain a pleasureful ping—which we crave again and again.

So we lose time that we could spend otherwise. Newport describes many of the types of activities we are missing out on. One of the most important of these, ironically, is social interaction: the very thing social media is supposed to be providing us! He cites research studies that show that the more time people spend on social media, the lonelier they tend to be. Yikes! And here’s one of my favorite passages in the book, which neatly explains the difference between clicking “Like” and engaging in activities that prevent loneliness:

“Earlier, I cited extensive research that supports the claim that the human brain has evolved to process the flood of information generated by face-to-face interactions. To replace this rich flow with a single bit is the ultimate insult to our social processing machinery. To say it’s like driving a Ferrari under the speed limit is an understatement; the better simile is towing a Ferrari behind a mule.”

Ha! No, let’s not waste our time towing luxury cars behind pack animals! Though I suppose it might be necessary in certain circumstances. Pack animals do travel rough, mountainous terrain better than sports cars. And the “Like” button can keep people in touch despite the rocky terrain of busy lives and far distances. Newport admits that social media can provide real benefits to individuals: it’s not all bad. His point is that we should think carefully about how we spend our time, and make darn sure that we aren’t replacing rich and real human interaction with the poorest sort of contact possible.

I chose the accompanying photo because I like that it can symbolize this post’s theme in two opposite ways. Does the computer represent the human brain and all its rich processing power, while the candle represents the “Like” button and its limited ability to illuminate? Or does the candle represent the real-world homeyness of sharing a space with someone, while the computer represents the coldness of machines?

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