To Quit or Not To Quit Social Media: Opportunity Cost Can Help You Decide

To quit or not to quit social media—that is the question.

Is it nobler to suffer the fear of missing out on internet fame (and the middling fortune that might come with it)? Or to take up some half-baked “strategy” and, by posting, end it?

How do you make a big decision when there’s so much uncertainty on both sides of the equation? Heck, how do you even make a small decision when both options are good (or bad)? 

Whether or not to quit social media is one such decision on many minds right now. But life is one long string of decisions. And while there are plenty of tools you can use to weigh your options, one you might be less familiar with comes to us via the field of economics: opportunity cost.

First, what is “economics?”

There are a lot of misconceptions about what economics and even “the economy” are. Economics isn’t a field of math, finance, or even business. Economics doesn’t trade solely in technical jargon and fancy equations (although plenty of that exists). “It’s very human. It’s very personal,” NPR’s Stacey Vanek Smith told me in an interview last year. 

Economics helps us understand how limited resources are distributed. If someone told you to “economize” or be “economical,” what would you do? You’d probably take that instruction to mean that you should be judicious with the resources you have. You might want all sorts of things, but you’ll need to choose the particular wants you will satisfy based on the limited resources you have. 

We do these sorts of calculations every single day. We economize at the grocery store. We economize when we consider what subscriptions we’ll buy for our businesses. We even economize on vacation, acknowledging that we don’t have the budget for an all-out bacchanalian bash, so we’ll have to choose what we spend our money and time on.

In this way, economics has a lot to teach us about decision-making. Should I spend my time on this project or that project? Should I charge more or less? Is this a good investment or a bad investment? Should I quit now or keep going?

Economic frameworks might not tell us which decision to make. But they will often reveal unexpected ways to see the situation—and make our choices clearer. One way I think about economics is that it’s the art of laying everything out on the table so we can make more informed decisions. And often, when we lay everything out, the financial or quantifiable considerations are only a tiny piece of the puzzle.

Opportunity Cost

Opportunity cost is a decision-making framework. The concept helps us think through our choices by inviting us to consider the value of different ways to use the same resources. Economist John Quiggin puts it this way, “The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up to get it.” To be clear, “cost” and “value” don’t have to be financial. Time, enjoyment, or learning, among other forms of value, can also be considered. 

“The opportunity cost of anything of value is what you must give up to get it.”

Sounds simple enough, right? But opportunity cost asks us to see value in alternatives that we might easily dismiss.

The point of thinking through opportunity cost when weighing choices isn’t to reveal the right answer. It’s to reveal the full context of the decision—so you’re not missing information that might sway your choice. And that brings us to our opportunity cost case study.

To quit social media or not to quit social media, that is the question.

I can’t tell you how many times over the last few years I’ve heard business owners and independent workers say, “I’d quit social media tomorrow if I didn’t need to be there…”

My question is always, “Why do you have to be there? What benefit are you getting from it?” Some folks have great answers! They use it as a sort of lab for testing ideas. Or social media marketing supports the scale of their business, and they’ve found that it’s way for them to attract customers. They operate in an industry that relies on social media as proof of concept and credibility. In those cases, we can look at the opportunity cost of being on social media versus getting those needs met in other ways.

But most often, the answers to my questions are about the potential for benefits. “I’m building my audience to attract customers,” or “I’m building a personal brand so that clients know they can trust me,” or “If I get 10,000 followers, I can launch an online course.” And sure, there is a potential benefit to be received via social media. There’s also the potential to win the lottery. And while I’ll admit that the odds of making it big on social media are slightly better than winning the lottery, potential benefits must be weighed against real costs—of which there are many when it comes to social media.

The desire or “need” to be on social media is a social construct. And it’s one that creates a scarcity of our time and attention. No business needs to be on social media to succeed. No career is dependent on social media for advancement (unless perhaps you’re a social media influencer). Social media marketers invented perception. And without recognizing that, we can’t recognize that the time we spend on social media is a resource that we could distribute in a number of other ways to fill our truer needs and desires.

So what resources do we depend on when we use social media?

First things first, to use opportunity cost to decide whether or not to quit social media, we need to consider the resources that we’re distributing.

The most obvious, and probably biggest, is time. How much time do you spend creating content for social media? Checking your posts for likes or comments? Answering DMs? Perusing your feeds? How much time do you spend thinking about social media?

The second resource we might consider is mental energy. How much mental energy does social media take up? Is it draining or rejuvenating? Does the mental energy you spend on social media make you feel better or worse? How much does social media interrupt your ability to focus?

Next, we need to consider emotional bandwidth. How easy or difficult is it for you to maintain emotional balance while engaging with social media? Do you find yourself having to down-regulate your nervous system after using social media? Does it make it harder or easier for you to carry on analog relationships?

And finally, let’s talk about money. Whether or not you spend money on social media training, strategy, or implementation, you probably use social media to further your career, find clients, or build an audience you can profit from. But how well is that working? Can you attribute, even obliquely, sales or new clients to social media? Or is it something you assume is working without much proof? Do you have results now, or are you counting on results in the future?

For time, mental energy, and emotional bandwidth, we need to ask: How else could I allocate those resources?

And for money, we should consider: What are other ways I could generate the same level of returns (or better)?

So far, these are big conceptual questions. Let’s take a look at a case study.

Why Hillary Rea Quit Social Media

Toward the end of 2022, I noticed a LinkedIn post from Tell Me A Story founder Hillary Rea. Hillary announced that she had decided to delete her LinkedIn profile at the end of the year—just as she had done on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at the end of 2020.

On its own, this announcement was unremarkable. There seems to be a steady trickle of people deciding that social media marketing isn’t worth the hassle. But what stood out to me about Hillary’s post was that she said that quitting Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook over two years ago was one of the best business decisions she ever made

Hillary told me that she started to pull back on social media in 2020.

And it was a hard year to be on social media. We were reckoning with a 9/11 amount of deaths from Covid every day, an administration that seemed hellbent on spreading misinformation, and our own feelings about being locked down in our homes. We were also reckoning with the violent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—as well as the long legacy of police brutality and white supremacy. It was a lot to process.

Add financial insecurity into that mix, and you’ve got a recipe for spiraling into a dark place.

On top of all that, Hillary noticed that old patterns of comparison and self-judgment were resurfacing—patterns she’d worked hard to overcome. Each time she logged on to check a feed, she’d feel like she wasn’t doing enough, or that someone else was doing it all wrong, or that she should have the same level of success as others.I had worked really hard on moving through that—being in this space where I could like fully trust myself personally and professionally. And I noticed those comparison feelings and judgmenty feelings coming bak to the surface,” she told me. 

“So I made a decision in July of 2020 just to not engage personally or professionally.” Hillary stopped posting, stopped checking her feeds. She went dark. Before long, she’d made a decision. “I said, you know what? Let’s have a ceremonial December 31st, 2020, deleting. And so I did.Hillary deleted multiple Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as her Facebook profile, business page, and membership in groups.

We’ll get to how Hillary reallocated the resources she’d been investing in social media in just a bit.

But first, I wanted to understand what she was trying to do on social media in the first place. Was she actually giving something up when she decided to go dark?

“I don’t think I had a strategy. I mean, I know I hired someone to give me a strategy. It was about growing the audience, but in service of what, I’m not sure,” she admitted. She told me that because she wasn’t seeing business results from social media, she wasn’t really worried about giving those up. What did concern her was the personal stuff: “I was worried that I would lose touch with all of those people and that also no one would like think of me anymore.”

Okay, so we know the costs of being on social media: an unpleasant or even harmful mental state, the time it takes to post and manage your account, and the expense of hiring someone to tell you what to do on there. And we know that there’s the potential for a benefit work-wise, depending on the kind of work you do, who your clients are, and what industry you’re in.

What made Hillary the perfect case study for this deep dive into the opportunity cost of social media is that she’s been living the alternative for the last two and a half years. Hillary’s experience—just like the experience of your favorite social media marketer—won’t necessarily be your experience. But her results are really helpful for wrapping your head around the decision.

What Hillary’s Been Doing Since She Quit Social Media

Since late 2016 when she went full-time, Tell Me A Story has “had the best two years of business” after quitting social media. Hillary told me that she has the data to prove it—not just in terms of revenue, but the way she runs the business, the people she’s working with, and the opportunities she’s creating for herself. “I know what works, and it’s all an extension of who I am, what Tell Me A Story is,” Hillary told me with a huge smile.

Hillary’s broad strategy is to model different styles of professional communication for people might want to hire her. And she pursues that strategy in three core ways: free events, speaking engagements, and intentional networking.

Let’s break that down.

First, Hillary offers free events called the Speak Up Sessions. She experimented with format, schedule, and style over the last two years. She uses these events to answer questions and teach, as well as to showcase her own clients.

Next, she prioritizes book speaking engagements. She partners with organizations to run a Five Word Life Story workshop with their people. And she seeks out podcasts where she can talk about storytelling and the work she does with clients. 

Hillary also puts time and intention into reaching out to groups and companies she wants to partner with.  “I am actually spending my marketing time reaching out to seek out the opportunities that I want,” she said. For anyone who was attracted to inbound marketing or social media precisely because it meant you wouldn’t have to cold call or email, “reaching out” for the opportunities you want might seem like a bridge too far.

But here’s the thing: it’s really effective.

Hillary uses Michelle Warner’s Networking That Pays system and has turned intentional outreach into a habit that takes her about five minutes per day. She spends her time thinking about who she wants to connect with and why she wants to connect with them. “I’m really focusing on building big relationships that maybe feel out of reach at the moment.”

I know that activities like pitching podcast hosts, doing cold outreach to potential partners, and offering high-value free events are on many people’s “wouldn’t it be nice if” lists. I hear about it from our podcast clients regularly! But they never seem to have the time to do it.

When we don’t consider the opportunity cost of social media, we don’t recognize what we’re giving up. 

We don’t see that social media time is the time we could be spending on these other tactics that often have a much higher value. Because social media isn’t a free way to reach a lot of people. It actually costs quite a bit.

It seems like the potential benefits of social media are bigger and more likely to happen. After all, social media is where the hype is—at least, on social media.

Those other activities don’t seem as glamorous because so few people are hyping their outcomes. But, I said it on the TEDx stage, and I’ll say it again, the most successful people I know aren’t big names on social media. They don’t have massive audiences. And they might not even have accounts. Instead, they spend their time on marketing and networking activities that dependably deliver massive results—things like podcast interviews, speaking engagements, and intentional outreach.

They recognize that they could spend time on social media promoting themselves or their work. But they also recognize that the potential benefit of social media is outweighed by the cost of giving up the time they spend on a strategy that’s already proved successful—not to mention a less anxious, judgmental, or obsessive mental state.

That’s opportunity cost in action. 

Remember, the opportunity cost of one choice is whatever you give up to get it. When you give your time to social media, you’re giving up time that could be spent on other marketing activities—things that could be easily tied to more leads and more revenue. When you give your time to other marketing activities, you give up the potential to become “internet famous” but you also give up all the potential harm that’s caused by worrying about those platforms.

Just to be clear, I’m not making the argument to quit social media. As of this writing, I still use Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Although, working on this piece has certainly given me pause! But then again, my business has operated at scale for a long time. I’d like to write and publish more books. Social media has been a tool that’s benefitted me greatly—and continues to do so. That said, I’ve dramatically changed my approach over the last few years. And I’m always paying attention to whether I’m still getting benefits from the time I spend on social media or whether that time would yield better results spent on something else.

So, what are the economics of a decision that you’re considering?

Maybe, like Hillary, you’re contemplating completely pulling the plug on social media. Perhaps you’re thinking about whether you want to hire an employee to help you grow your business. Maybe it’s a career change that’s on your mind. Or, ya know, smaller things too!

This week, I challenge you to consider the opportunity costs associated with this decision. If you make X choice, what are you giving up and what are you getting? If you make Y choice, what are you giving up and what are you getting? 

To go further, consider the socially constructed desires and resulting scarcities at play with both choices. Why do you want one option over the other? What seems scarce but could simply be redistributed? 

Keep in mind that what you’re giving up is rarely cut and dry. It’s rarely obvious. You might need to sit with your choices for quite some time to fully understand your options. But when you do, you can be confident about the decision you make because you’ll have truly weighed the options.

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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