December 15th, 2018 · 35 comments
The YouTube Conundrum
As a public critic of social media, I’m often asked if my concerns extend to YouTube. This is a tricky question.
As I’ve written, platforms such as Facebook and Instagram didn’t offer something fundamentally different than the world wide web that preceded them. Their main contribution was to make this style of online life more accessible and convenient.
My first independently owned and operated web site from the 1990s, for example, required me to learn HTML and upload files to a server at a local ISP using FTP. Ten years later, expressing yourself online became as easy as using your student email address to open an account at thefacebook.com, and then answering some questions about your relationship status and favorite movies.
YouTube seems different.
Before it came along, there were not many options for individuals to publish original video content online. Now this can be done for free with the click of a button, which is an important shift. Many content creators I know see the democratization of video as a force that’s shaping up to be as disruptive to traditional media as the preceding arrival of web sites.
And yet, at the same time, many of the people I spoke with while researching Digital Minimalism admitted that idle YouTube browsing is devouring more and more of their discretionary time, and they’re not happy about it.
So what’s the right way to think about YouTube: is it fundamental to the internet revolution, or just another source of social media distraction?
The best answer I can come up with for now is both.
On the positive side, video is powerful. Enabling more people to create and publish video will therefore unleash powerful creative innovation. (It will also, of course, enable the creation of more insipid and brain-dulling content as well, but this is an unavoidable feature of any publishing revolution, from Gutenberg onward).
On the negative side, YouTube’s attention economy revenue model, supercharged with statistical recommendation algorithms, creates a browsing experience that can suck you into a powerful vortex of distraction and creeping extremism that cannot possibly be healthy.
A Better Way Forward
Perhaps the best way to emphasize the positives of online video while diminishing its negatives is to deploy a hybrid indie web approach.
Imagine an online world in which people hosted their innovative video on large, big-infrastructure platforms like YouTube or Vimeo, but then embedded the players on their own independent web sites. This would allow users to find interesting new video content by leveraging the same style of decentralized trust hierarchies that structure the blogosphere, instead of relying on artificial statistical algorithms tuned to optimize attention extraction.
Because YouTube came along at exactly the moment when broadband penetration made online video practical, we never had a period of indie experimentation before the market consolidated into platform monopolies. I think it’s worth exploring what we missed.
December 7th, 2018 · 54 comments
Earlier this week, Glenn Reynolds, known online as Instapundit, published an op-ed in USA Today about why he recently quit Twitter. He didn’t hold back, writing:
“[I]f you set out to design a platform that would poison America’s discourse and its politics, you’d be hard pressed to come up with something more destructive than Twitter.”
What really caught my attention, however, is when Reynolds begins discussing the advantages of the blogosphere as compared to walled garden social media platforms.
He notes that blogs represent a loosely coupled system, where the friction of posting and linking slows down the discourse enough to preserve context and prevent the runaway reactions that are possible in tightly coupled systems like Twitter, where a tweet can be retweeted, then retweeted again and again, forming an exponential explosion of pure reactive id.
As a longtime blogger myself, Reynolds’s op-ed got me thinking about other differences between social media and the blogosphere…
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December 4th, 2018 · 45 comments
A Manual for a Focused Life
I’m excited to officially announce my new book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, which will be published on February, 5th.
My last book, Deep Work, tackled the impact of new technologies on the world of work. After it came out, many readers began asking me about the equally important impact of these tools on their personal lives. This new book is my response.
In it, I argue that we have been too casual in adopting alluring new technologies, and as a result our quality of life is diminishing. To solve this problem I propose a philosophy of technology use called digital minimalism in which you radically reduce the time you spend staring at screens, focusing on a small number of digital activities that strongly support things you deeply value, and then happily ignoring the rest.
In addition to arguing why minimalism is a necessary answer to our increasing digital discontentment, I take the reader inside the vibrant subculture of digital minimalists who have already found great satisfaction and authentic meaning in taking back control of their technological lives — highlighting the key principles they use to succeed in adopting this philosophy.
(Among other things, you’ll learn the detailed story of the digital declutter experiment I ran last January as part of my book research, which ended up growing to over 1,600 participants and receiving coverage in the New York Times.)
I will, of course, be writing quite a bit more about these ideas and this book in the weeks ahead. My purpose for now is mainly to bring you up to speed on what I’m up to.
As a final logistical note: if you have already preordered this book, or are planning to preorder it, hold on to your digital receipt, as I’ll soon be offering a large preorder package — including advance content from the book, a detailed look inside my personal productivity systems, and access to private Q&As — as my way of saying thank you. (Preorders are incredibly important for a book launch, so I’m incredibly grateful for anyone who takes the time to support me in this way.)
November 28th, 2018 · 38 comments
In economics, a network effect is a positive benefit created by a new user buying a product or joining a service. In the context of computer networks, these benefits are commonly believed to scale quickly with the number of users.
In technology circles, perhaps the best known instantiation of network effects is Metcalfe’s Law, named for Ethernet co-inventor Bob Metcalfe, who was likely inspired by similar theories developed at Bell Telephone in the early 20th century.
This law concerned the value of the Ethernet network cards sold by Metcalfe’s company 3Com. It states that given a network with N users, buying one additional Ethernet card provides you with N new possible network connections (e.g., from the new card to each of the N existing users).
It then follows, roughly speaking, that the value of N network cards grows as N^2 instead of N. Once a network achieves a certain critical size, therefore, the value it returns will quickly begin to far exceed the cost of joining it, creating a powerful positive feedback loop.
Metcalfe’s Law is incredibly influential in Silicon Valley, where it’s often applied to justify the monopoly status of the social media conglomerates. If a network like Facebook has over a 1,000,000,000 users, the law tells us, then its value to users grows as (1,000,000,000)^2 — a quantity so vast that any attempt to compete with this giant must be futile.
It’s widely believed among many Silicon Valley types that this calculus helps explains the lack of venture capital investment in new social media start-ups in recent years. The power of network effects in this sector is unimpeachable.
But should they be?
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November 19th, 2018 · 29 comments
As a big time Washington Nationals fan, I’ve been watching Bryce Harper play here in D.C. since he was first brought up to the majors at the age of 19. As you might therefore imagine, I’ve been closely following his free agency this fall.
It was due to this hardball diligence that I recently noticed a small sports page news item that intersects with the types of topics we like to discuss here. A couple weeks ago, Harper declared he was going on a social media fast. He even ironically (oxymoronically?) introduced a hash tag for his effort: #teamnoscroll.
I applaud Harper for his public step back from social media, especially during a period of intense scrutiny where checking the latest buzz would only increase his anxiety.
But reading about #teamnoscroll prompted an interesting thought: Why aren’t more superstar athletes permanently disengaged from social media?
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November 7th, 2018 · 18 comments
On Screens and Surgeons
Atul Gawande has a fascinating article in the most recent issue of the New Yorker about the negative consequences of the electronic medical records revolution. There are many points in this piece that are relevant to the topics we discuss here, but there was one observation in particular that I found particularly alarming.
Gawande introduces the Berkeley psychologist Christina Maslach, who is one of the leading experts on occupational burnout: her Maslach Burnout Inventory has been used for almost four decades to track worker well-being.
One of the striking findings from Maslach’s research is that the burnout rate among physicians has been rapidly rising over the last decade. Interestingly, this rate differs between different specialities — sometimes in unexpected ways.
Neurosurgeons, for example, report lower levels of burnout than emergency physicians, even though the surgeons work longer hours and experience poorer work-life balance than ER doctors.
As Gawande reports, this puzzle was partly solved when a research team from the Mayo Clinic looked closer at the causes of physician burnout. Their discovery: one of the strongest predictors of burnout was how much time the doctor spent staring at a computer screen.
Surgeons spend most of their clinical time performing surgeries. Emergency physicians, by contrast, spend an increasing amount of this time wrangling information into electronic medical systems. Gawande cites a 2016 study that finds the average physician now spends two hours at a computer screen for every hour they spend working with patients.
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November 1st, 2018 · 17 comments
The CAA Way
I’m currently reading Michael Ovitz’s engaging new memoir. Even if you don’t know Ovitz, you definitely know his clients’ work. He’s the super-agent who co-founded the domineering CAA talent agency, and during the 1980s and 90’s become one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood.
In his memoir, Ovitz emphasizes the importance of communication in the talent business. For a talent agent, he notes, your time is one of the primary resources you have to offer, so to succeed in this field, you have to constantly talk to clients, potential clients, ex-clients you might want back, and all the assorted figures in the entertainment world orbit who might have information helpful to your clients.
One of the cardinal rules during the early years of CAA was that you always returned every call the same day. Ovitz personally exemplified this rule. He would start making calls as soon as he woke up and continue making calls until right before he went to bed. He would make hundreds of calls every day.
The importance of these touches were so important that he had a small sign that read “communicate” placed on every phone in the I. M. Pei-designed CAA headquarters.
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October 28th, 2018 · 26 comments
A Social Media Icon
Seth Godin recently noted the following on his always insightful blog:
“The Mona Lisa has a huge social media presence. Her picture is everywhere. But she doesn’t tweet. She’s big on social media because she’s an icon, but she’s not an icon because she’s big on social media.”
This perfectly sums up a point I often find myself trying to make when arguing that people don’t need to engage social media to advance their career.
In my experience, if you push people — especially young people — about why they think social media is crucial for their professional life, you’ll eventually uncover a belief that an important factor holding them back is that people in power simply haven’t noticed their specialness.
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