Study Hacks Blog

On Social Media and Character

June 19th, 2020 · 40 comments

Madison Fischer, a professional sport climber, recently pointed me toward an insightful essay she published on her blog about her battle with social media.

Early in her climbing career, Madison was exposed to Instagram. At first she posted pictures of her cat; then pictures of competitions; then her training; then she had a professional account where she could carefully track the demographics of her viewers, optimizing when she posted, and synchronizing her online behavior with a carefully-calibrated content calendar.

This sudden influencer status was impossibly appealing:

“I wanted the congratulations. I wanted admiration. I wanted my follower count to grow. I wanted everyone to envy my life and achievements. I wanted, no, needed people to tell me I was going places…But you can’t blame me. It’s so easy, so stimulating. It’s not even a statement that you have Instagram, it’s assumed. Everyone’s doing it.”

But something didn’t feel quite right about the increasingly artificial life she was constructing online. Beyond the “obvious egotism” issues, she began to lose touch with her true self: “I started believing this narrative of a girl…living the dream,” she writes, “traveling around the world to compete while finding the time for school, work, and a relationship.”

This became a problem:

“This story blinded me to the many mistakes I had along the way. I couldn’t step out of the reputation… Pride in my accomplishments made me content, and contentedness is poison to a young athlete who has to stay hungry if she wants to stay competitive.”

Madison eventually made a bold decision: she would quit Instagram. As she elaborates, it actually took her months of false starts and failed attempts to get to this place. At first, she tried partial solutions. She would delete the app, but it was still too easy to just Google “Instagram” and log in using her phone’s browser. She unfollowed everyone to empty her feed, but she still felt compelled to compulsively document her life.

So she finally had to get rid of her account altogether. “My exit from social media was a quiet one,” she writes. No big post announcing her decision. No warnings. Just silence. She was free.

It was then that Madison’s athletic career moved to the next level. “There’s nobody I’m here to perform for,” she writes. “I just train and silently work on achieving my own definition of success.”

Without the need to document and promote her daily activities, Madison regained a sense of self-motivation. She was honing her craft for her own reasons.

Three months after going off the grid, she traveled to the biggest event in her competition calendar, the Canadian Open Boulder Nationals. She wasn’t looking at posts showing her competitors preparing, and she wasn’t thinking about how her performance would play online. As a result, she “felt overwhelming ease” and was “able to perform at my capacity.”

She won second place.

What struck me about Madison’s story was not the impact her decision had on her training, or focus, or performance, but instead the way it transformed her character.

Here’s how she describes her mindset heading into Nationals:

“I wanted to see what I could do. Nothing to do with you, or your friends, or the neighbors, or the members at my gym, or my competitors, or family. It was all within, as it should be, and as it has to be.”

This issue is often overlooked when people consider the role of tools like social media in their lives. They consider factors like audience-building, entertainment, discovery and connection, and weigh them against obvious costs like distraction and privacy. But a deeper question lurks beneath this debate: are these services making you a better or worse version of yourself?

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I want to thank everyone who took on my challenge from earlier this week to donate to a pair of excellent organizations working on police reform. Over 70 of you stepped up and made donations that added up to roughly $7,000. As promised, I matched every dollar.

40 thoughts on “On Social Media and Character

  1. Great post. This presents a paradox, for those who work in digital media, have online communities, are influencers or produce content. On the one hand, there is an inevitable need to use the dominant technological tools to spread your productions and reach your audiences. On the other hand, if we want to continue being human, we must avoid falling into the traps of social networks and their consumer and addiction monopolies.
    How to apply digital minimalism to our lives and our productions if we work in digital media?
    Is it enough with the digital wellbeing apps and experiments?

    1. Sweta Sumaria says:

      I have the same dilemma. I have been using Social Media to enhance my Pilates business. I didn’t really use it before but I feel it does waste time, suck energy and take me away from my flow state of mind. However, people want to know what you are constantly doing behind the scenes etc and want to see perfect pictures with well written captions. Is it possible to succeed in your business without advertising/marketing on social media? I would love to hear Cal’s viewpoint on this. Many thanks. PS I listened to deep work and digital minimalism on Blinkist and reduced my social media activity this week and I was super productive but obviously not great for followers.

      1. Hi Sweta,

        I run my graphic design business for more than six years now. In my industry it all depends of a). work you provide b). what type of clients you are willing to work with c). word of mouth d). bid submissions (if you wanna go real big – I don’t).

        I have a client. she decided to open her own running studio. Main source of information she is always focusing on is her website. But she has probably more than 4000 “friends” on her facebook list. So she could spread the message quickly. Along with few adverts on Facebook and Instagram – that targeted the right people (by her definition).

        In your situation it can be only website. Or only instagram account. Try to put yourself in somebody else shoes – how they would search for yoga classes in your area? You will find this way best answers. And then go for it. Also I know businesses that run their online presence through google business and only post on instagram twice a month. That’s it. They are doing very well.

        Good luck! 🙂

        1. Sweta Sumaria says:

          Thank you so much Zuzanna for the advice. I have decided to streamline to YouTube and develop a website. Plan is to delete Instagram and Facebook, although I am now concerned that certain friends/family may not understand and think I am being anti-social. I have totally reduced my activity in the past few days to less than 10mins per day and I feel incredibly focused. Decision time!

  2. Bob Pudlock says:

    Cal,

    This is great to read.

    “What struck me about Madison’s story was not the impact her decision had on her training, or focus, or performance, but instead the way it transformed her character.”

    I would only say moving away from social media didn’t TRANSFORM her character as much as it REVEALED it.

    Bob

  3. Bob Landers says:

    Congrats to Madison Fischer for deleting her Social media account. I hope Fischer can see the long term of deleting Social Media 6 Months-1 year and hope for the best for her.

    Note I did the same delete Facebook and Discord last year but I had to do that sooner than I planned it because I found out that political spam was invading my industry (Biology/Biotech) over various virology conspiracies in relation to measles (originally)and COVID-19 (after I deleted my accounts) . Yes in the long term deleting your accounts do change your character to a certain extent.

  4. Zuzanna Lumanisha says:

    Madison did the right thing. More over she regained… Freedom!

    I deleted Facebook last year. Month ago I deleted Instagram. It was tough as I was documenting my and my family moments on there. Although set to private mode so in theory no one could see it. It made me still scroll through timeline mindlessly. Checking on others as well.

    I requested to download all my data. And pressed delete button. Oh boy… how emotional it felt first two days. Few days later I was questioning myself… why the heck I did it!?

    This is month later. I can honesty say that I feel more happy and I live in the moment. People rarely bother me now. And that’s fine. I like my solitude. I like to focus on various projects. My family and closes two friends.

    Most of my friends will say hello every few months. But that’s it. They are all sucked in by Facebook and Instagram.

    I now started thinking on deleting LinkedIn. They constantly adding more and more hidden panels in settings. It looks like Facebook pretty much on that side. All they do is collecting data.

    And then on top of that there is plenty of people who just brag about anything. How amazing they job is. How amazing their graduating child is. Don’t get me wrong… I do love to see happy people.

    But c’mon! People really had forgotten how to just enjoy life. Without sharing every single thing with entire world. And let’s be honest… Who gives a damn?! They nothing else than a collection of data, that they contribute to their digital fingerprint for free. And the sharks get richer.

    The way to life is simplification.
    All the best.

    1. Zuzanna,

      I’m glad you’re happy with your decision!

      I totally get what you mean about people just listing everything that’s wonderful in their lives. You wish them the best but at the same time you’re right – nobody really cares.

      And I love your comment about enjoying the moment. A lot of my peers have a habit of taking out their phone for a photo every time something interesting happens. You don’t need everyone to experience the same things you do. Most things are better on your own.

    2. Joanna says:

      Agree! LinkedIn used to be a good tool for job searching, now it’s full of people retelling the same type of story hoping for the post to get viral.

  5. Roy Kamimura says:

    Interesting timing on this article as I have been working on the theme of perfectionism and one observation is the impact of the Internet in transforming self-oriented perfectionism into socially prescribed perfectionism. In short, you go from setting high personal standards to craving recognition from others. By fixating on various viewing metrics, it’s easy for you to get corrupted and lose your focus. Over time you lose sight of what made you initially successful/popular and start fixating on what the masses are asking for thereby compromising on your originality.

    In fact, one concern about “Being so good they can’t ignore you” is when your identity is now dependent on external recognition. What happens when you don’t want to be that identity or don’t want to live with the consequences of that recognition?

    1. Joanna86 says:

      Oh this is an excellent observation! I think it is somehow connected to projecting how busy/swamped with work we are. This way the internal KPIs of performance shift from the actual achievements to visual representation of what people think successful people do. Might be profitable in the short term (gaining followers, being visible in the office etc.) but in the long term if you have nothing to back it up it will probably fail.

  6. Jesse Miller says:

    I have Facebook and IG account but never go on them. I would go on IG more then read Digital Minimalism… now go on once every 2 weeks for 10 minutes or so. Love the bulk texting as well. And bulk emailing. Gives more time for Deep Work!

  7. EA says:

    Madison’s post on her own blog is truly wonderful. Thanks for sharing it.
    The cool thing is that now she lets her actual hard work speak for her instead of delegating it to unrealistic posts on social media.

  8. Onika says:

    In the last 8 months of marriage, I think there were a few times of my anxiety/and melancholy that had to do with social media, specifically Instagram and Youtube. And those time I actually found myself saying to my husband those exact words, “I want people to see me as living a good life, see me as adequate, and envy me. I want followers,” etc. And then, I ended up buying this novel called Followers by Megan and I agreed with all the points or lessons taught in the book but it was still , and still is so hard to just let it go.
    I don’t use instagram anymore. Some days I will go and have a new goal such as, “I won’t post, I will only look at those who inspire me,” get miserable, delete it and then go off it till a month later, another idea comes, “I am going to start posting makeup seflies,” it is going to keep me creative, and also gain followers. Each and every time no matter what I just feel even worse.

    I know that it isn’t just the platform itself, it also has to do with my low self esteem. If anyone else deals with it, I highly recommend Feeling Good book, and podcast by Dr. David Burns. I read that book numerous times but never took the time to apply it until recently.

    But I love these posts because it reminds me or rather reaffirms that others reached the level of social media presence I seem to crave (but never put the effort towards because it feels vain) and realize it is making them miserable.

  9. Great post! I use a lot FB before. Now I only use it when I doing something I really hate especially waiting. When I feel negative see a post there, I unfriend even from my families. I didn’t post much about myself there only share some positive post I found. I just use it to check out my friends & families. just don’t feel envy instead feel happy for them and motivated

  10. Barb says:

    I read your book Digital Minimalism many months ago and have been practicing it ever since and refer to it like it is “my bible” (my kids words, not mine). I have been making the argument ever since quitting my bad habit that social media changes our personalities and have tried to be very conscious of how much i use it and how it affects me as a result of the fact that it is still the only effective tool that i have to sell the products on our organic farm, and believe me, it is not for lack of trying other channels. It gives me such encouragement that this young woman was able to not only have the insight to realize what was happening to her but also talk about it so that others can learn from her experience. Thanks for what you do and keep the ideas coming.

  11. D says:

    Such a great post man. As a musician who started to put more energy into my “online presence” (because the “music marketing experts” said so) than writing actual music, I can totally relate. Social media made me a nervous, miserable wreck and it took me ten years to realize it. Thank you so much for writing Digital Minimalism.

  12. Lucas Fidelis says:

    Very interesting. I’m from Brazil and beyond of the Instagram issue, we also have a huge distraction called Whatsapp. I’ve heard that in America this app is not very popular. People spend the whole day chatting over Whatsapp for any type of situation. Work, familiar issue, relationship issue, services. Everybody on the same level of importance.

  13. Andres says:

    Still struggling with this. Hate social media and i recognise that voice that tell me to delete them and focus on music. On the other hand, i always ask: how the heck i will promote my concerts and music without them? In a city like Lima (Peru), they always say that musicians don’t exist without social media.

    1. Madeleine says:

      I was wondering this too, but as a visual artist. Then I started thinking about how people promoted themselves before social media, and realised I was guilty of avoiding the real work of getting noticed. In my case, once covid-19 ends, I need to network with other local artists, apply to galleries, and magazines etc. For a musician you could send your EP to record producers, play locally as often as you can etc, even for free but make some really cool t shirts and merch that people want to buy. Be creative in how to get noticed. The connections you make will be more solid than passive followers. You could make Spotify playlists of songs you like and put your own in there too.

      1. Andres says:

        Thanks for your advice, Madeleine. I’m really thinking on eliminating social media for good. Love your art. Cheers!

  14. Cal have you considered that bloggers such as yourself are also searching for the same psychological reassurances and validation as social media users? The motivations for blog authors to produce content parallel those who post on FB or IG.

    1. Bob Landers says:

      I have to agree on this one though. Even people who are only using WordPress, Neocities and Google Blogger has the same issue too due to content like people on YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, Twitch and peertube in my case. Somehow I managed to not wander on a bottomless timeline.

    2. EA says:

      While it might be true – it depends on the individual – I’d argue that there is a difference between finding validation from a picture of yourself in front of a salad with a nice caption and a well thought, well written blog post. The former is a quick (and nowadays easy) fix, the latter is the result of harder work.

  15. Evan Howell says:

    Madison’s experience is familiar to me. While some folks are able to use social media in moderation, I found that hard to do, which is why I ultimately ditched it for good. This post does a good job of capturing the way that social media worms its way not just into your phone, but into your brain…

    It’s easy to quantify how much time is wasted when you’re actively using the app. But what I found was that I wasted just as much time away from the app by THINKING about it. Even if you delete the apps on your phone, you can’t delete them from your mind. You’re thinking about the comment you posted, crafting a reply in your head, waiting to log into your desktop to see what type of dopamine hit you’re going to get from all the likes, etc. And these vapid thoughts are there all day, distracting you from your main job as a human, which is to be present for work/relationships.

    Sometimes you’ve just gotta cut the Gordian knot and get rid of the whole mess. Congrats to Madison for her success and for sharing her story in a way that will surely be helpful to others.

    1. Andres says:

      Totally true. I’m always automatically thinking about documenting everything despite I don’t have the app on my phone.

  16. Allen says:

    The quote from Madison reminded me so much of the description of “autotelic experience” from flow:

    “[it is] a self contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward… When the experience is autotelic, the person is paying attention to the activity for its own sake; when it’s not, the attention is focused on its consequences. ”

    Although Madison’s case shows a change in character, I think you can argue that social media removes the autotelic factor in many experiences. For example, if you go on a hike you may end up wondering where the most impressive place to take a selfie to post would be, instead of focusing on the joy of the hike itself (speaking from experience).

    In flow the author makes it clear that flow is required for enjoyment (its been a while since I read deep work but I’m pretty sure that’s a key point for that book as well). Social media destroys the capacity for flow in a bunch of different ways.

  17. Al says:

    I don’t have any social media left except LinkedIn, which I “dislike” quite a bit, but it seems necessary when looking for jobs.
    I always tell my wife…the day I no longer LinkedIn…that’s freedom.

  18. Dave Small says:

    This is an outstanding post! I appreciate Madison’s honesty, openness, and wisdom. A couple great lines: “I just train and silently work on achieving my own definition of success.” and “She was honing her craft for her own reasons.” I’m leaving this site challenged and inspired.

  19. Jerry Landers says:

    I read Madison Fischer blog on the Social Media congrats to her and she knows the long term effects of Leaving Social Media since she did so in 2018. Yes I know there has been concerns over GenZ worries of leaving Social Media recently and their long term effects. However Madison is the Cal Newport of Gen Z and we should thank her for that.

  20. Really good points! I don’t tend to feel a social media compulsion. But when I do, I know it’s a red flag for me that I’m feeling lonely or isolated. What I really need to do in those situations is get out and be with people who I care about and who care about me, not seek attention from the social media world.

    Life is to be lived!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  21. Chris Wilson says:

    Thank you for sharing these stories, Cal.

    I’m in a line of work where people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them my business (and personally) is not on social media. I felt that tug-of-war like Madison did. My business actually took off as a result of stepping back. It gave me time to put into shipping things that matter. A weekly blog, newsletter and podcast. I wouldn’t have had the mental bandwidth to ship these each week if I was lost in a sea of noise.

    Someone explained building a business on social media that really made me pause and gave me a strong enough reflection point to make a decision moving forward. It’s not a sound business decision to build a business on rented space where the landlord could raise the rent at any time.

  22. Dinwar says:

    This looks like a good example of scope creep. In business terms, social media is advertisement. As long as it stays in that role, it can be a good thing, the same way magazine ads, TV ads, or billboards can. If it metastasizes past that role, like any other cancer it will consume the host.

    One main difference from previous forms of advertisement is that social media companies actively try to take up as much time as possible. A TV ad is piggybacking on the show it airs during. No one turns on the TV for the ads (okay, my dad did during the Budweiser Frog era, but those were particularly entertaining ads); they turn on the TV to watch a show, and happen to be exposed to ads. The ad producers knew this, the consumers knew this, the networks knew this. There was limited scope for the ads, because they were secondary in the consumers’ minds. Now, though, social media tries, like a spoiled child, to be the center of attention.

    In other words: Social media platforms don’t view scope creep as a bug. It’s the goal.

  23. Alex says:

    Mr. Newport,
    Regarding to the new situation I am going to take exams in my country remotely from home. There will be single/multiple choice, free text and “decide if right or wrong” types of questions. Also we are going to have to do a little mathematics.

    Can you please make a blog post or write a comment on how to ace such exams? Or do you have any tips? I would be really grateful. Thank you.

  24. Hey Cal,

    This is another good post, thanks.

    Your Digital Minimalism book really challenged me to rethink my use of technology. Inspired by your call to arms I have started my own blog https://cdmcdermott.com which incorporates your Digital Minimalism philosophy into a three-part strategy to gain a happier, healthier and more productive life using technology. Including, how to maintain a secure and private digital presence.

    I’ve cited you a few times already, hope that’s ok

  25. It takes a lot of mental strength to quit all social media. It’s almost a social norm to have as a college student in today’s world. I would have a lot of FOMO if I decided to delete all my apps. Great content and story, thank you!

    -The Blogging Zoomer
    https://bmoblogs.com/

  26. Vikrant says:

    It all boils down to

    MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE

    By the way thanks Cal for mentioning The Shallows by Nicolas Carr in his book Deep Work. It came out us a big surprise when I read Shallows and also Big Switch. It is a gem hidden from public discourse.

  27. sam says:

    What a great post, and a great essay from Madison.

    Really makes you think about your own situation with social media. I currently still have FB and Instagram with the latter being the one I use the most of. I block my FB feed so I don’t actually see what anyone is up to, which is fine by me.

    I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years and not once has someone asked what I have been up to. I keep FB to post to a page I manage, but usually do it via a 3rd part app, not FB directly.

    Instagram feels different, but can be a slippery slope if your not careful, I’m thinking of reducing the posts I put on there, and just posting every couple of weeks to see how that works.

    Anyways, thanks for another post that brings self reflection around the use of social media.

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