OPINION - The world wasted 1.35 million years on social media yesterday — this is how I'm fighting back

 (Strong Words magazine)
(Strong Words magazine)

How much time do you think you spent on social media yesterday? An hour? Five? The answer is 1.35 million years, if we take the “you” to mean the population of the world. That’s half a billion years of rapt, eye-to-screen commitment, every year.

All those millennia of attention had to come from somewhere, and among the big net losers in social media’s demand for souls has been magazines. They used to fill a lot of the gaps in people’s lives — on the commute, at the breakfast table, in the bathtub — but devices have proved themselves an upgrade.

Advertisers have followed the eyeballs, leaving magazine economics in tatters. Many magazines gave up. The survivors are diminished. Newsstands have shrivelled. No one has entered WHSmith willingly for over a decade now. But it is going to take more than clips of pedestrians falling into uncovered manholes to completely wipe out a format as tenacious as the magazine.

I have been a journalist and editor in the magazine industry for much of my adult life, on big titles in the UK and the US. Not really knowing how to do anything else, in 2018 I launched my own magazine — in part as an experiment.

The world in total spent 1.35 million years of rapt, eye-to-screen commitment, on social media... yesterday

If the costs of big editorial, production and sales teams were no longer sustainable on magazine revenues, what is the smallest number of people it takes to now produce a newsstand quality product? Could that number possibly be as low as one?

My magazine is called Strong Words. It is about new books, and although it requires the services of a designer for a couple of weeks an issue and accepts the occasional contributor, the team sheet has a single name on it: mine. And next week sees it reach the publication of its landmark 50th issue.

All magazines need an audience and a gap in the market, and Strong Words comes from there being no one dedicated source that book enthusiasts can turn to for loads of recommendations they might not otherwise have heard of. No country bombards its people with more books per capita than the UK — readers need help.

It’s also important that it’s a lively experience — no jargon, no pseudo-academic solemnity, no homework. Strong Words is print only and sold on subscription. I also believe that books are woefully underrated as sources of pleasure.

The drama and intensity you find there is often more dramatic and intense than life itself. And you undoubtedly get a superior view on the private lives of others than in the real thing. Who wouldn’t want this enhanced version?

The problem is that all those books aren’t going to read themselves, so for seven days a week for the last six years, with the occasional day off to go to the races, I’ve done nothing but read books and write about them.

That works out at a War and Peace read every week, and a Great Gatsby written every issue. I’ve also worked out that to get to 50 issues I must have written over two million words (the King James Bible has 783,137).

So while I’ll be the first to admit that there’s more to life than books and magazines (not that there’s more to my life than books and magazines), there’s also more to life than social media. And yet we still find half a billion years annually to devote to that infinitely more gormless activity.

The conclusion is clear: follow my example, and magazines will rise again.

Ed Needham is editor and publisher of Strong Words