We all know them: the conscientious objectors of the digital age. Social media refusers and rejecters—the folks who take a principled stance against joining particular social media sites and the folks who, with a triumphant air, announce that they have abandoned social media and deactivated their accounts. Given the increasing ubiquity social media and mobile communications technologies, voluntary social media non-users are made increasingly apparent (though, of course, not all non-users are voluntarily disconnected—surely some non-use comes from a lack of skill or resources).
The question of why certain people (let’s call them “Turkle-ites”) are so adverse to new forms of technologically-mediated communication—what Zeynep Tufekci termed “cyberasociality”—still hasn’t been sufficiently addressed by researchers. This is important because abstaining from social media has significant social costs, including not being invited to or being to access to events, loss of cultural capital gained by performing in high-visibility environments, and a sense of feeling disconnected from peers because one is not experiencing the world in the same way. Here, however, what I want to address here isn’t so much what motivates certain people to avoid smartphones, social media, and other new forms of communication; rather, I want to consider the more fundamental question of whether it is actually possible to live separate from these technologies any longer. Is it really possible to opt out of social media? I conclude that social media is a non-optional system that shapes and is shaped by non-users.
Technically, Social media is optional. No laws or formal rules require that we participate. As seen in the example above, however, there is a strong social cost to abstention. As an integral aspect of everyday life, social media is increasingly difficult to opt out of. P.J. Rey points this out in his recent discussion of Facebook exploitation. Here, I want to explore why and how this is the case.
Contemporary social interaction takes place in both physical and digital spaces. The social media abstainer therefore necessarily “misses out” on some of this interaction. From the example above, we see that abstainers miss more than just the latest gossip. Indeed, they seem to “miss out” on full social integration. This latter kind of missing out threatens a deeply ingrained human need for sociality, making the costs of social media abstention quite steep. To abstain from social media is to largely and (sometimes) voluntarily dis-integrate the self from the social collective.
You know, there are still substantial numbers of people who manage to find life worth living without a strong social media presence; it’s just that tech-savvy media junkies tend to only recognize the existence of other tech-savvy media junkies. The rest of us are essentially flyover country on two legs as far as they’re concerned. Still, I’ve been dreading the day when they look up from their toy phones long enough to wonder about us. It won’t be long before amazed curiosity turns into something more sinis—oh, yeah? That was fast.
It’s not just love seekers who worry about what the lack of a Facebook account means. Anecdotally, I’ve heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something?
The idea that a Facebook resister is a potential mass murderer, flaky employee, and/or person who struggles with fidelity is obviously flawed. There are people who choose not to be Facebookers for myriad non-psychopathic reasons: because they find it too addictive, or because they hold their privacy dear, or because they don’t actually want to know what their old high school buddies are up to. My own boyfriend isn’t on Facebook and I don’t hold it against him (too much).
But it does seem that increasingly, it’s expected that everyone is on Facebook in some capacity, and that a negative assumption is starting to arise about those who reject the Big Blue Giant’s siren call. Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license.
I’m so old, I remember when the Internet was the escapist alternative to the herd mentality of small-town busybodies. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.