I’d like to point readers to a terrific three-part essay by Laura Portwood-Stacer on three reasons why people refuse media, addiction, asceticism, and aesthetics. We can apply this directly to what might become an increasingly important topic in social media studies: social media refusers, already (edit: and unfortunately, as Rahel Aima points out) nicknamed “refusenicks”. There will be more to come on this blog on how to measure and conceptualize Facebook (and other social media) refusal, but let’s begin by analyzing these three frameworks used to discuss social media refusal and critique some of the underlying assumptions. [A note I’d like to include after reading some comments to this piece: the reasons for refusal listed here are certainly not the only reasons people refuse media. Second, critiquing some of the assumptions made by current refusal paradigms is not an attempt to argue we shouldn’t theorize refusal; indeed, it is an attempt at just the opposite, to build towards a more accurate understanding of refusal.]
The “addiction” framework seeks to pathologize media consumption practices, and if we agree with Foucault’s point that much of the discourse around pathology (for him, mental illness) is actually about constructing its opposite, the “normal,” we might see the “Internet addiction” genre as really about normalizing our own supposedly non-addict behavior. The result is that, according to Portwood-Stacer,
Consumer culture and the corporations which power it are thus left unproblematized, while individual pathological behaviors are subjected to scrutiny and critique
We are encouraged to understand the tendency to succumb as indication of personal moral failure […] a rehash of the neoliberal responsibilization we’ve seen in so many other areas of “ethical consumption”
Vaughan Bell has a terrific piece on how “‘internet addiction’ relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the internet is.” Further, on Cyborgology earlier this year, Jenny Davis provides additional critique, looking at how the addiction paradigm wrongly assumes that the Web is separate from everyday life. If social media is simply socializing, or communicating, can we really be “addicted”?
Putting these thoughts in conversation with each other, it seems that the “Internet addiction” paradigm is not about refusing this media at all, it is about reframing our anxieties and difficulties as something we can fix. We construct an Internet Illness to create an Internet Normal; both of which are predicated on a digital dualist fallacy: these are technological problems with technological solutions. When problems are wrongly centered on technologies and the responsibility is laid on individuals we forget the social problems at root in service of a self-help industry ready to sell you treatment, or, at a minimum, get lots of advertiser-supporting page-views.
Second, Portwood-Stacer describes asceticism as another reason for refusing media. The ideas is that one’s life could be improved by eliminating a specific media platform, like Facebook; that is, to,
subject their personal behaviors to ethical scrutiny, and then, importantly, to employ technical solutions aimed at satisfying any problems which are identified
This tendency involves “depriving the self of a desired object in the interest of purifying the self,” Further,
Many media refusers, instead of or in addition to wanting to become more productive selves, also express the desire to become better friends, partners, parents, and community members through their reduction in media consumption. Might we see these kinds of selves as resisting the logic of neoliberal individualism then?
I agree fully, but would like to diverge a bit from Portwood-Stacer’s essay because I see this a bit differently, and perhaps a bit less optimistically. In my essay on The IRL Fetish, I argue that the social media fast/diet genre is really about making two mistakes in order to demonstrate how special and real one is while others are robotically attached something virtual and trivial. The first mistake is to underestimate the offline-ness inherent in social media. Research shows those using social media more tend to do more offline and face-to-face. Indeed, much of Facebook is what you do when not on Facebook; your Facebook contacts are mostly your face-to-face contacts, your Facebook photos are mostly of what you are doing when not tethered to a screen, etc. The second mistake follows from the first: incorrectly thinking logging off of Facebook is really disconnection. Spending the day off of Facebook is where we build interpersonal connections that flow back onto the site when we next log on. Not-Facebook is where we take the photos we’ll later upload, where we think the thoughts that congeal into status updates, etc.
The influence of social media is not just what happens when looking at the screen, but also how the logic of social sharing via those sites is carried around with social media users almost all the time. Thus, as Whitney Erin Boesel states,
it may be technically impossible for anyone, even social media rejecters and abstainers, to disconnect completely from social media and other digital social technologies
And PJ Rey,
social media may not have a direct impact on the lives of non-users, but non-users are nevertheless part of a society which constantly changes as the mutually-determining (i.e., “dialectical”) relationship between society and techonology unfolds. Social media is non-optional: You can log off but you can’t opt out.
The result of making these conceptual mistakes about social media refusal is to invent and valorize one’s own disconnection: ‘I don’t waste my life on something so trivial, I appreciate the real; my life has depth and meaning.’ While the Internet Addiction paradigm is about constructing a pathology to declare our own normalcy, the Internet Asceticism paradigm is constructing the normal, boring, ordinary, quotidian blind follower of social media to declare our own special non-use, casting ourselves as a little more real, deep, special, and unique than the rest. And now, as we will see, we have intruded on Bourdieu’s territory, making for an easy segue:
The third reason for media refusal in Portwood-Stacer’s essay is aesthetics, that we might develop a taste for refusal. The essay rightly points out that while taste is often thought to be something that cannot be helped, it is also a product of one’s socialization. Boudrieu’s Distinction looked specifically at how taste is much like a massive social competition, a constant recreation of social hierarchies via taste-declarations and performances, and that all of this has everything to do with class, status, and privilege. From Portwood-Stacer’s essay,
Statements like “I don’t even own a TV” rub some people the wrong way precisely because they seem to indict the tastes of those who do enjoy watching television. Even if that’s not what the TV refuser intended, the underlying reification of taste hierarchies is what makes their aesthetic preference seem so hipstery and off-putting.
It takes some amount of priveledge to opt out of certain things, and we can apply this “asceticism of the privileged” to Facebook as well. To the degree that Facebook is about maintaining social networks and connections, knowing about the right trends and events, or what Bourdieu called “social capital,” then rejecting this capital can itself be a display of privledge (even if it is not always). Brushing off Facebook is sometimes a way of saying ‘I don’t need this common form of connection like everyone else, I am so well-connected I can do without it.’ Being able to navigate a world of complex social networks without Facebook, a platform that facilitates this process in many social circles, is a profound display of privilege and status, one that the Facebook abstainer might (consciously or unconsciously) want others to marvel at.
The tl;dr of all of this is to move forward in studying media refusers, social media refusers, Facebook refusers, “refusenicks”, etc, and I think we need to begin by shedding the digital dualist “online” and “offline” conceptualization that “refusal” seems to imply. This has four main consequences for thinking about social media refusal: (1) Social media communication is not something one can be “addicted” to any more than offline communication. (2) Because, for many, social media is enmeshed in everyday life we cannot simply blame social problems on the technologies themselves. Nor should we pathologize individuals by victim-blaming ourselves out of taking on the social processes that create the problems. (3) We should not mistake social media use as the opposite of refusal; on and offline as zero-sum is a common misunderstanding. Getting offline is often what drives the content of what is posted online. (4) Refusal should not be conceptualized as time away from the screen. This is far too literal understanding of social media, it affords too much agency to someone to simply “opt out,” and it obscures the fact that refusing the effects of social media is not simply achieved by tapping the ‘log out’ icon on a screen.
The still tl;dr is that the Facebook refusal paradigms (1) normalize our social media use by constructing the addict ‘other’; (2) fetishize our social media non-use by inventing some pretend pure offline to (3) declare our own special privilege as someone who doesn’t need Facebook.
Note: Boaz rightly observes in the comments that I originally stated that these three are the “most popular” frameworks, which is not something I can really support.
Luke — October 15, 2012
I'm surprised that none of these frameworks focuses on the desire for privacy. Joining something like Facebook puts a great deal of one's private life in public view. Is privacy such an outdated concept that it isn't even considered a valid reason for non-participation in social media?
Boaz — October 15, 2012
On the point about addiction, you refer to an article that says that internet addiction is a fallacy, basically because its not specific enough. As a Facebook refusenick myself, I did feel an addictive quality to the site. When the site was stable, I could adjust, and use it as a communications platform. But the forced changes happened frequently enough, that it never felt like just a communications platform that I could understand. With the change to Timeline, in which old status updates, photos, and comments changed context and I was given only limited ability to control how these were shown to my contacts, yet another change of platform and mode of commication occurred. I also objected to the algorithmic ordering of my list of contacts, in which people were highlighted in a way that had sense and meaning mixed together with randomness. I found myself obsessing over the meaning of these orderrings, and when I tried to turn it off, found that that option was no longer available. Despite having found some utility from the site at times, I did feel it had addictive properties built in. I think we might distinguish some of these from some of the core utility of the commications platform. At some point, the negatives outweighed the positives for me, and I stopped.
I like a lot of the analysis you do on this site, but this particular one is hard for me to swallow. Being put into a category of "Facebook refusenik", a group requiring further study is not so pleasant. In any case, thanks for all the interesting work you do here.
Louise — October 15, 2012
Interesting - love this analysis. It seems entirely valid to challenge the dualistic idea that on-line and off-line are two competing worlds. But at the same time, I don't think there's always a free and unweighted flow between them.
You're right that off-line life generates 'content' for FB. But the reverse also needs to be looked at. It could be precisely because refuseniks feels that FB is becoming a 'condition of possibility' of off-line activity that they don't want to take part. I.e., the extent to which off-line activities are planned/organised on-line may make refuseniks feel as though off-line life is increasingly generated on-line (increasing the fear of FB as totalitarian and coercive).
Owl Pellets: Office, Socially Mediated, Cuban Missile Dick » The Grumpy Owl | The Grumpy Owl — October 15, 2012
[...] Refusing the Refusenicks Paradigm: Speaking of which, Nathan Jurgenson offers his thoughts, which are, as they often are, against “digital dualism.” [...]
Deborah Lupton — October 16, 2012
Just wondering where 'techno-phobia' and related anxieties about using new digital media as well as 'time-crunch' issues fit into these three categories, if at all. I think that fear of trying new technologies underpins a lot of digital refusal, particularly among people of a certain age. There is the concern that learning how to use new technologies will be too hard, too demanding and add to an already crowded life in terms of time that (it is assumed) must be spent to master them as well as to use them regularly. I am confronted with these reactions all the time among fellow academics.
scott f — October 16, 2012
"Brushing off Facebook is sometimes a way of saying ‘I don’t need this common form of connection like everyone else, I am so well-connected I can do without it.’ Being able to navigate a world of complex social networks without Facebook, a platform that facilitates this process in many social circles, is a profound display of privilege and status[..]"
Nathan, I'm still unconvinced by this point. I quit Facebook even though I'm not at all well-connected and not being on there has a cost I'm very much aware of. And anecdotally the same is and has been true of most people I know who do not use Facebook. Your framing of refusers as elitist and privileged has never sat right with me.
In fact my experience is that those with above average social capital flaunt their social media use, because their Facebook profile is a living document of that privilege. *My* profile, which had only the tiniest trickle of wall posts and never got new pics uploaded (I didn't have a camera or hang out with anyone who would take photos of me), was a public document of how poor I was in social capital. Deleting my profile obscured that fact, making it harder to size me up, which benefited me at the time. In other words, by making offline realities about social capital more public — thanks to friend counts, number of wall posts, comments on status updates, etc. — Facebook reinforces those facts and makes it harder for the have-nots to be taken seriously.
tl;dr: You've got it backwards. If anyone is privileged, it's the enthusiastic social media users with tons of Facebook friends and activity. They love the site because it's irrefutable proof of their connectedness and status. Those lower on the social ladder are more likely to maintain a Facebook profile with great reluctance (like many people I know, and myself when I used the site), or eventually, to quit.
Boaz — October 16, 2012
I would also add that the framing of this article, in which you "critique the underlying assumptions" for the various reasons for refusing Facebook, suggests that there is not a single valid reason amongst all of these for not using Facebook. It is this that I find offensive. You may say that such and such group of people say that their reason for stopping Facebook is this, but in reality you believe they actually have another reason. That may well be true. But to go after all these reasons in themselves and try to invalidate them seems way too strong to me. Do you really think that of all the various articles written about the problems with the Facebook platform itself, with the ethics under which the company often operates, the use of a changing proprietary data format (the Microsoft approach to maintaining customers), and some of the social dynamics that seem to be encouraged by the platform, that there are *no* valid reasons for not using the site?
Why do the refusers need to be refused? Why not allow them to refuse?
Laura Portwood-Stacer — October 16, 2012
I really appreciate the comments here. I just want to point out that my three posts are not meant as an exhaustive typology of the possible discursive frames for refusal. In my own empirical work on Facebook refusers, I've found many more (and these aren't even the primary ones - just the ones I decided to dig into in these essays). So if you're a FB abstainer and feeling like these don't match up with your experience, that's perfectly valid in my opinion!
Boaz — October 16, 2012
Thanks for the clarification, Nathan. I definitely agree that its a good project to clarify these reasons for using or not using Facebook. I struggled myself to put into words what it was that would either make me uncomfortable at times, or I would find useful. In the end however, I do still feel that I made the right choice (at least for the foreseeable future) to not use Facebook. And my reasoning did sometimes fall into these categories.
" it should be clear that i am doing theory, critiquing other theories, etc, and not prescribing whether people should refuse or not. that would be a very different article."
Agreed, but if all the reasons examined turn out to be faulty, its hard to avoid the conclusion that those using these reasons are making a mistake in their refusal. If I say that I felt that Facebook was addictive, I wanted a life with fewer interruptions and more sustained time, and I found a lot of the ways in which I interacted on the site and others interacted to be ugly, your analysis would say that I am incoherent, or acting against my interest.
In any case, I do look forward to seeing further developments in this. I'd just hope that some of the intuitions that do come out of these paradigms (Facebook certainly often feels addictive, ugly and requiring of extroversion) don't get lost along the way.
Thanks for engaging. As I said, I appreciate the analysis on this site, even if I don't always agree with it.
social media shministim | THE STATE — October 16, 2012
[...] to come across a pretty problematic term in an otherwise thoughtful blogpost from Nathan Jurgenson, “Refusing the Refusenicks.” In it, he summates and critiques Laura Portwood-Stacer’s excellent tripartite essay [...]
Boaz — October 17, 2012
I still disagree with a lot of this, Nathan. Let me just say a few things about the addiction part. You quote the articles by Bell and Davis to show that “internet addiction” is not real, that it is a category mistake, and that it is like saying that one is addicted to communication. I agree with this in general, but I think it does make some sense to talk about addiction to the Facebook platform. The software and the context change regularly enough that there is always some randomness built in. One doesn’t have a firm grasp on just who one is communicating with. I think it is designed this way to give both an illusion of control, together with some real lack of control. This dynamic can pull you in, and can change your relationships with people in ways you did not intend, often for the worse. Certainly its going a bit too far to create a specific name for a mental illness associated with this, but to me at least it seems clear that there are similarities to what we usually describe as addictive behavior. So, yes, the term “internet addiction” probably doesn’t make a lot of sense in the sense of being addicted to the internet, but as a catch-all term for the internet based activities that can be addictive, it may not be so bad. Certainly nicotine or heroine are addictive. Would you say that gambling can be addictive? Perhaps pornography might at least somewhat usefully be described as addictive. And I think aspects of Facebook can be addictive as well. In this case, given that Facebook doesn’t allow turning off certain parts of the site, stopping Facebook due to the addictive parts does seem like it makes some sense. Perhaps in some strict sense (I’ve read some Foucault, but not a lot), addiction is a second rate way of talking about some behavioral issues and may serve other institutional ends. But it brings with it a host of metaphors that seem to be at least partially relevant to what can occur with Facebook. I would also add that speaking of addiction can be a language with which to critique an industry. We can criticize cigarette companies for enhancing the addictive properties of cigarettes, we can criticize the gambling industry for their casinos that lull people in and ruin (a small percentage) of those lives, and we might similarly criticize Facebook for creating an addictive site that often doesn’t give back as much as it takes.
Boaz — October 19, 2012
Regarding asceticism, I also find your logic a little strange here, Nathan. To me there would be two aspects to analyzing whether there are good reasons regarding asceticism as to not use Facebook. The first would be an analysis of asceticism itself. Is it a good thing? Do people really want to live a more ascetic life? I would say, yes. Some people do prefer to live a more ascetic life than may be that of the average American. The second question would be as to whether being on Facebook makes it more difficult to live an ascetic life. It seems to me that the answer is yes. The continual pushing towards expanding your network, and creation of weak links does seem to make a lower key, more introverted life harder to live. Now, it may be that one can effectively use Facebook and live what feels like a more ascetic life. In my experience, I could do this some of the time, but when there were major site changes, I would have to spend a fair amount of time adjusting my use so that I could live with it in a way that felt comfortable. Given that I had little choice as to these major changes, I felt disrespected by the site. In any case, asceticism did seem to me to be an important frame regarding thinking through whether or not I wanted to use the site. (Yes, re. social science, we should go beyond our own experience, but it seems a reasonable jumping off point in defending these reasons.) You say that invoking ascetic reasons for not using Facebook involve a fetishizing of off-line activity (IRL, as you say). This may be true in some cases, but I think its fair to say that there are more or less gregarious social networks, and Facebook is on the very gregarious end of the scale. One doesn't have to be a social media refuser to be a Facebook refuser, and I don't think its fair to conflate the two, though maybe you didn't mean to do this. Or maybe you just think that asceticism itself is wrong and a bad lifestyle choice. But that's another issue.
Cyborgology Turns Two » Cyborgology — October 26, 2012
[...] 10. Refusing the Refusenicks Paradigm [...]
Refusing the Refusenicks Paradigm « n a t h a n j u r g e n s o n — October 30, 2012
[...] This post originally appeared on Cyborgology – read and comment on the post here. [...]
Origins of the Augmented Subject » Cyborgology — January 15, 2013
[...] of the social world is increasingly shaped by interactions between both atoms and bits. Even if one refuses direct interaction with digital information, its fingerprints are ubiquitous across the realm of [...]
Dedewa — April 2, 2013
So basically what you're saying is that those who refuse facebook are primarily elitists who think they are special, people who hold themselves above the common horde.
This is classic bully/lynch mob behaviour -- and exemplifies the clique/crowd mentality that facebook brings out.
Come on; EVERYBODY knows what's wrong with facebook. Everybody has the same initial reaction to it -- discomfort, anxiety, disgust. But then they settle in as ego and peer influence, and that great old human emotion -- needing to belong -- gets the best of them.
Also : "you can log out but you can't opt out" -- this is also what i would consider a somewhat vicious lie. It is up to humans to react to, and to shape the technologies that surround them. We have a responsibility to refuse these things, so that they change, or get replaced, by better things.
Returning to the stream that cannot quench | Complex Fields — June 22, 2013
[...] both the platform and my habits within it. Some have tried to contextualize and describe the act of abstaining from such sites as Facebook. I find some helpful language there – it’s true that I have an aesthetic attraction to [...]
Thomas Jackson — January 4, 2014
What is the sense of continually attaching yourself to these different sites knowing that many individuals are more prone to become addict to the social media sites? For me addiction to these sites and addiction to any kinds of substances (heroin, drugs, alcohol, etc.) are the same in terms of destroying people’s lives. What do you think of this idea??
Yukio — December 21, 2014
I'm surprised that social media are always portrayed as a neutral medium. The point shouldn't be whether I'm normal or not in using or refusing them, but instead whether the medium is a result or the cause of social behavior.