social media shministim
Last night, I was surprised 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 on why people refuse media (addiction, ascetism, and aesthetics), focusing in on social media and digital dualism. Jurgenson’s take is certainly worth a full read, but for the purposes of this post, here’s his tl;dr version:
The term in question? Refuseniks, loosely used here to describe people who actively refuse to participate in Facebook, Twitter, and/or other social media networks. (Whether or not they also refuse what Alexis Madrigal has recently dubbed “dark social” remains to be seen.) Refuseniks, as in the Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate abroad in the USSR (largely) pre-Gorbachev. This original meaning, which derives from the refusal papers handed down by the authorities, doesn’t however fit too well. The closest analogue might be the controversy around Facebook’s former deactivation-not-deletion data retention policies, as memorably compared to ‘Hotel California:’
But then there’s Refuseniks, as in the various groups of activists who refuse to be conscripted into their country’s military forces on moral, religious, or ideological grounds. Conscientious objectors. War Resisters. Draft evaders. Today, the term most immediately suggests those who refuse to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces—Wikipedia details some of these recent movements here.
This is not to indict Portwood-Stacer or Jurgenson, of course. At some point, the term seems to have blurred, and entered popular tech lexicon to connote refusal-in-general—something that I’ve been blissfully unaware of for a while, as it turns out. The earliest iteration I can find referring to internet usage is this 2004 blogpost, and social media followed not long afterwards. In a 2011 article published in the runup to Facebook’s IPO the New York Times goes as far as to trumpet nonusers as “resisters” and “rebels.” Netlingo, meanwhile extends the term to essentially mean cyberludditism, and to include mobile phones, TV, and technology in general. So, media refusal, okay.
Yet there remains something troubling about likening this choice not to participate in whatever-social media to anti-conscription resistance, with its attendent jail time. About equating Facebook, hegemonic demographic billionaire though it might be, with the horrors of war, genocide, apartheid and occupation. Will future generations of schoolchildren will learn to swap out the words and sing “I ain’t go study Twitter no more?”
Perhaps that’s too strong. Perhaps I’m mired in a certain politics or pedantism, or both. Still, there remains something intriguing in the (re)framing of refuseniks as conscientious objectors. In addition to the trifecta outlined above, then, why else might someone choose to balk at social media? Especially in a time when not having a Facebook account may be exponentially detrimental to your professional and romantic life?
Certainly, it’s not hard to find reasons to distrust social media. Privacy concerns, data mining, a willingness to ketow to totalitarian governments, and artistic censorship are among the most cited for Facebook. Most chilling is the fact that Facebook profiles are now being used as character evidence in court. Recent legal precedents, meanwhile, mean that the intersection of Sharia and Skype can result in a speedy divorce. Despite its admirable willingness to stand up for its users, Twitter, too, has recently come under fire for its corporate partnerships. Together, Facebook and Twitter they’ve arguably become a facet of interventionist foreign policy. Even users who choose to opt out of social media are not immune to its effects. As PJ Rey argues,
Arguably, the same thing could be said about the military—or online advertising, for that matter. It’s non-optional too: you can refuse to serve, but you can’t opt out of its effects on society, culture, environment, and so on. This isn’t, of course to flatten the very different magnitudes—and consequences—of military and social media objections. (Personally, I’m a lot more thrilled by the former) I do also want to emphasise that abstaining from social media remains a choice not enforced by law or violence, however disadvantageous it might be.
Here, it’s worth briefly returning to the explanatory frameworks—addiction, ascetism, aesthetics—set out by Portwood-Stacer. While insightful, her essays do intimate that users are above all concerned with the way they are perceived by others. Using—or not using—social media thus becomes another opportunity for personal branding via self improvement. Privacy and data mining concerns similarly seem to privilege individual self interest in this way. Yet shouldn’t conscientious objection turn on more collective, even moralised concerns? Dangerous as these concerns might seem, it’s a little difficult to see them on the same terms as, say, human rights violations.
Users who renounce a platform after previously engaging with it, and those who staunchly refuse ever sign up in the first place would both appear to have markedly different experiences, which this current terminology doesn’t reflect. (In the military, this might be understood as the difference between desertion, and conscientious objection or outright refusal.) Finally, it’s worth bringing up the phenomenon of ‘grey refusals.’ Softer and less confrontational, these include those that might be granted for medical reasons, for example. What might the social media analogy be—a deactivation versus a deletion? Something else entirely?
Image via Wikimedia
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