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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Why You May Need Social Media For Your Career

Some recent advice in the paper of record is bad.

December 5, 2016



Writing recently in the New York Times, Georgetown associate professor of computer science Cal Newport recommended that people should “quit social media because it can hurt your career.”

Unlike those who believe that a social media presence is necessary to improve their job prospects (not sure who these people are, but never mind), Prof. Newport sees social media use as the enemy of “deep thinking” which in turn hinders professional development.

Prof. Newport’s theory in his own words: “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.”

We can begin to see the edges of the argument fray already, for example conflating all social media use with the reposting of memes or other trivial things. For those interested, social media can be an outlet for important alternative perspectives, as illustrated just yesterday by a thread of tweets authored by Nicole Hemmer, a professor who studies extremist right wing ideologies, in response to a particularly poorly argued New York Times op-ed.



But the core shortcoming of Prof. Newport’s argument is here: “Professional success is hard, but it’s not complicated. The foundation to achievement and fulfillment, almost without exception, requires that you hone a useful craft and then apply it to things that people care about. This is a philosophy perhaps best summarized by the advice Steve Martin used to give aspiring entertainers: ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’ If you do that, the rest will work itself out, regardless of the size of your Instagram following.”


Here we have a pretty unremarkable description of the so-called “meritocracy,” but one that those who live in the real world recognize as a fantasy. Among those who recognize this as fantasy are the vast majority of professional comedians who will eagerly tell you about the funniest comedians they know, hands down, but you’ve never heard of them because…

…because professional success is actually pretty damn complicated. If I was being uncharitable, I might even call what Prof. Newport’s peddling snake oil.[1]

Well meaning snake oil, no doubt, but oversimplified flimflam nonetheless. Yes, we should all strive to be good, but Prof. Newport’s vision presumes a level playing field where the same moves (or “hacks” as he calls them) by different people will garner the same results, but we know this is not true.

For example, academia, which seems to have been kind to Prof. Newport, is not equally hospitable for all who choose to participate.

Take two of my favorite writers/scholars, Tressie McMillian Cottom and Roxane Gay. As women of color, history shows us they likely need to be better than “good” in order to receive the recognition that Prof. Newport believes will come if you do what the meritocracy asks. These women had every reason to believe that their being good would indeed be ignored.

And so each in their own way used social media not to tweet memes or fart around, but to advocate for recognition of their (and others') “goodness.” In addition to their distinguished scholarly and professional work they utilized the tool of social media to become public voices. They made space for themselves that otherwise might not have been available.

It worked. Not only do Professors Cottom and Gay now frequently publish in prestige outlets like The Atlantic or the New York Times, but they also have established platforms independent of those outlets where they may be heard. Prof. Cottom’s essay “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place,” for my money the most profound work of commentary in the wake of the recent election, became a viral read after being posted on her own blog.

But for Profs Cottom and Gay, entering into a conversation to which many think they do not belong comes with a price, as the racist and sexist invective they are subject to on social media is grotesque.[2] Even as they have made themselves indispensable to the cultural conversation, there are people who seek to drive them out. I am going to go on a limb and say that Prof. Newport has never experienced this, and not only because he chooses not to be on social media, but because he is unlikely to be treated as an interloper.

There is no “hack” to undo racism or sexism. You cannot “nudge” a white supremacist towards a more enlightened world view.

Neither is there a “hack” to undo a generation of privatizing the public space, which has left a lot of young scholars in the humanities who are “so good they can’t be ignored” nonetheless work without the security of tenurable employment. This work is supposed to have "value," isn't it? Prof. Newport’s ethos asks us to ignore this sort of injustice.

The source of Prof. Newport’s narrow gaze is the same flaw we see in all self-help books, a singular focus on the success stories. His oeuvre: How to Win at College, How to Become a Straight A Student, How to Be a High School Superstar are all targeted to the relatively privileged, those who are competing from the already rarefied air, for example, those for whom the advice not to take so many A.P. courses may apply because their high schools actually offer A.P. courses.

Prof. Newport peddles a fantasy, a lie, one that resonates with a narrow slice of the professional class and all but erases the experiences of those who have been traditionally marginalized. I don’t want to lie to my students, which is why I tell them hard, focused work is necessary, but there’s no guarantee it’s enough because what is “valuable” has not all that much to do with our values.

I tell my students success is complicated, failure too for that matter. If we want a world where hard work counts, we have to work towards making a world that truly rewards those values.




[1] There’s an additional disconnect in Prof. Newport’s work in that all of his advice to students is to “do less,” i.e., find the “hacks” and shortcuts to “success.” Born Standing Up, Steve Martin’s memoir of becoming a comedian that Newport references is all about the opposite, that there are no shortcuts.

[2] I’ve debated with myself as to whether or not to illustrate this with specific examples, but have ultimately chosen not to because, A. The worst perpetrators of the hateful responses seem to desire and feed off the specific attention, and B. The evidence is readily available if you go look for yourself.

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