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On “Media Refusal and Conspicuous Non-Consumption: The Performative and Political Dimensions of Facebook Abstention”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I just did something that I’m sure is not on any “helpful tips” list for aspiring science bloggers.

Some users have "unliked" Facebook

To write this post, I just copied a title from an academic journal and hit <CTRL> V in the headline field of WordPress.

I wouldn’t usually do a cut and paste, but this title brought a big smile and, after all, isn’t consummate fascination the sine qua non of search engine optimization?

The headline above also happened to top an article by Laura Portwood-Stacer, a visiting professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, an article published online in the journal New Media and Society.

The study kept me amused throughout because of my familiarity with the “WooHoo!!!” “Awesome!!!” vernacular of Facebook and the contrast of OMG speak with the dense lexicon of media studies. The research by Portwood-Stacer focuses on those who make a conscious choice  to avoid the social media site.

These are “Facebook abstainers,” people who engage in a “performative mode of resistance, which must be understood within the context of a neoliberal consumer culture, in which subjects are empowered to act through consumption choices—or in this case non-consumption choices—and through the public display of those choices.” In other words, is dropping your Facebook account an act of political defiance?

According to Portwood-Stacer, those who commit “Facebook suicide” or frequent the @NotOnFacebook Twitter account, or post to the hashtag #facebooksucks (Facebook no, Twitter si?) or flee to the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine may be embracing a form of reverse snobbery: “taste and distinction are invoked by refusers through their conspicuous display of non-consumption.” Call it reverse Veblenism or maybe just imagine retro hipsters from Williamsburg casting off the psychological bondage of keeping up with social media commitments.

For the study, Portwood-Stacer went to anti-Facebook websites, read 100 popular press articles on the topic, along with reader comments, and contacted 20 Facebook conscientious objectors.

One refuser named Bruce and his male family members “felt that masculine norms of rugged independence and seriousness—in contrast to the implicit femininity of playfulness and dependence—were bound up in the men’s vocal disidentification with social networking activities.”

Other rejectionists  distanced themselves from the “artificiality” and “narcissism” of it all. “Again, the parallel to other discourses of media rejection is clear—mediums such as the telephone and the television have been accused of similar deficiencies, often with gendered and other connotations inflected by structural social hierarchies. The discourse of authenticity is invoked to distinguish ‘real life,” which is worthwhile, from media consumption, which is not.”

Facebook refusal can also be interpreted in a Marxist-Marcusian framework. “As a media platform, Facebook may be the epitomic site for the creation and discipline of the neoliberal consumer-producer-citzen: through participation in Facebook’s network, individuals are addressed as consumers of commodities; enlisted as panoptic surveillers of their friends, family and even distant acquaintances.”

Facebook refusal quickly bumps up against “the hegemony of the status quo, which by nature works to delegitmate ideological critique and quash burgeoning counter-hegemonic movements.” Portwood-Stacer gives the example of  Billy, a Facebook Luddite who listens to vinyl records and perceives himself to be  an “old man” for reading a print newspaper.

In the end, Portwood-Stacer comes to the conclusion that Facebook refusal is a “limited tactic of political engagement where media platforms are concerned.”

“…as this study demonstrates, the discursive context within which personal refusal is situated matters greatly for how the practice of refusal is interpreted, whether it is awarded legitimacy and whether it will win the support of observers. The discursive context will necessarily be constrained by the ideological forces that shape mainstream conversations about consumption.”

The discursive context may be constrained as well by the $25 that it costs to buy a PDF of the full text of the article in New Media and Society.

Image Source: Enoc vt


Gary Stix About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. BillR 12:05 pm 02/22/2013

    I cancelled my Facebook account simply because I found the constantly changing environment to be susceptible to hacking and possible compromises on my personal information.

    I do not fall within any of the generalities mentioned in this article. The fatal flaw in the study is that it went to sites that were antagonistic to the social media and there is no insight from those who avoid the social network due to a lack of trust in it’s security.

    Link to this
  2. 2. david123 2:34 pm 02/22/2013

    So there you have it, Gary, not only conspicuous abstention from Facebook, but conspicuous disagreement with your blog entry.

    Link to this
  3. 3. Tim May 4:10 pm 02/22/2013

    I never “suicided” out of Facebook, because I never signed-up in the first place. Likewise, no Twitter, no Friendster, no MySpace.

    I adopted word processors with alacrity, c. 1983, and e-mail, c. 1985 (in a corporation). When the Internet became more-or-less widely-available to ordinary people, c. 1988, I started using e-mail there as well. (This was with “elm,” later with Eudora, and for the past decade with OS X “Mail.”)

    E-mail caused me to write longer pieces, to become an extremely fast touch-typist, and was positive in a bunch of ways.

    Twitter, MySpace, Facebook are very nearly the opposite things. They encourage people to fit thoughts into 140 characters, or to just react with “LMAO, OMG!” sorts of things.

    I communicate in e-mail to those I want to communicate with, assuming they also want to communicate with me. I don’t need “Followers” and I don’t need or want to sign up with “FourSquare” to check in every hour to see where my “Friends” are having lunch, or to find out that #LadyGagnam is now “mayor” of #RandomRestaurant.

    Unfortunately, these same trends toward Twitterspeak are now infecting even “Scientific American.” The articles I started reading in 1966 or so required a lot of time, a lot of reflection, even calculation and research. Today, “not so much,” as the kids would say.

    “Are We Just Holograms?” That kind of nonsense.

    (Yeah, I read Susskind’s book. I watch Nima Arkani-Hamed lectures. I _sort_ of understand the AdS/QFT Correspondence. But crap like “Are We Just Holograms?” does nobody any good. And that’s for the main articles and cover stories of SciAm. The blogs are much, much worse.)

    L8tr, homes!

    Link to this
  4. 4. Molecule 4:39 pm 02/22/2013

    Dear Gary Stix you forgot many important parameters for a few social networks, I am not talking specifically about Facebook, but it could help to have it in mind.

    Also let’s note a very important point with the below [*supos*] These are just supposition, I don’t have proofs, but because this is legal in most country and profitable I don’t see why it would not be done.

    (1) Resistance on appropriation of personal information for commercial purpose.

    (2) Resistance against on-line manipulation through more and more sophisticated techniques such as :
    a) [*supos*] tracking users well beyond simple cookies, so with browser profiling, associated with geolocation, you need now a floating IP with a specific machine (or at least browsers if you have a main stream OS).
    b) [*supos*] using the full power of social science to optimize users reactions and make you feel like a puppet [personal feeling] when you think about it! GREAT!
    c) using tricks [*supos*] so you don’t spend too much time thinking about what you write (shallow content effect) and have a more open look at the screen so you get better chances to attracted to advertisements, like offering an extra-small windows to input texts with an extra feature so as soon as you want a larger text and try to space it with the return key it send the message straight away [saw it, of course it may not stay like that fore ever] (so you basically need an external editor).
    d) the nice feature that people by default can publish what they want on YOUR wall, so the open door for pushy on-line behavior you got to answer to! Winning effect for participation.
    e) I am quite afraid that the average vocabulary could sharply decrease to the profit of face recognition neurons and the LIKES. Also buttons such as likes and don’t like, really get on my nerves why do our answers should be so stereotypical? What about nuances? What about a little javascript window that would allow PRECISE EMOTIONAL DISCRIMINATION, with a few variables like : disagree ——-> agree; unimpressed ——> impressed; not-interesting ——-> interesting; etc.. and finally a general dislike ——-> Like
    f) I could go on and on, but basically on one side we get huge systems homed in only one country and having for main goal to make advertising money with an as good knowledge as possible of the users, and in the other side the user should just say YES PLEASE READ IN MY MIND (I shall precise here that this is an hyperbole, SN don’t read mind) GIVE ME MORE OF IT. It’s unbelievable (for me) that this is working! The people who though about it are PURE GENIUS, because they master technology and understanding of most people behavior at an amazing degree!

    3) We now have side effects like :
    (a) text boxes on other site become smaller and smaller, right now it feels like WRITING ON A POST STAMP! Why? I have a big screen + If I spend a lot of time writing, my advertising absorption decrease, but other people absorption increase because you have more content! By the way I think PEOPLE COULD BE VIEWED MORE LIKE PARTNERS and less like sheep to shear it could just bring the whole thing to a new dimension.
    (b) nagging to come back by e-mail of course, but also from other people.

    Oky think I am done with this topic, I hope you enjoyed!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Molecule 4:45 pm 02/22/2013

    One more thing, we can be Impressed! Surprised! Amazed etc. Without having anything to do with like or don’t like, for example I can be amazed by horrible things so : I don’t like it at a bowel level, but may be the experience was very usefull for future decision, so I like it on the usefullness scale, SO I LIKE IT AND DISPLIKE IT AT THE SAME TIME, so one button is definitly not enough!

    Link to this
  6. 6. Molecule 4:50 pm 02/22/2013

    “Facebook refusal is a “limited tactic of political engagement where media platforms are concerned.””

    You got many other places to express yourself even online, and choosing the one everybody use is the surest way to look like everybody else !!!!!!!!

    Link to this
  7. 7. American Muse 7:31 pm 02/22/2013

    Is Stix being paid by Facebook for this piece?

    Facebook will go the way of MySpace one day. Sharing pictures and petty thoughts with acquaintances and strangers is not my way of exposure with the world.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Molecule 8:15 pm 02/22/2013

    @ Tim May : Nice to read you!

    “trends toward Twitterspeak” : quite general and probably a side effect of the multiple devices we are exposed too! Basically if you really want to concentrate on a topic for many hours you need to shut distractions out, so no interruptions with : xy-account checking, email, multiple phones, fax and even door bells sometimes, and not many people do it, the new information is always supposed to be more interesting than what we are doing right now! And it’s very well in tune with a maximization of business possibilities, because while you think hard, you don’t buy anything :-)

    Link to this
  9. 9. Laroquod 1:42 am 02/23/2013

    @Molecule Exactly. It would be more accurate to say that Facebook *indulgence* at this point is a “limited tactic of political engagement where media platforms are concerned”. Certainly everyone I know who is into Facebook is less aware of what else is going on online that isn’t a viral meme, than everyone I know who is not into Facebook. The difference is quite striking actually. Can you say ‘echo chamber’?

    Link to this
  10. 10. sjfone 7:39 am 02/23/2013

    Jeepers, I’m beginning to feel really bad about the 50 pictures I post daily on Facebook and what I had for breakfast for the last two weeks.

    Link to this
  11. 11. bluefish 1:17 pm 02/23/2013

    This article seems a little on the lopsided end of things as far as how it classifies people who choose not to use facebook or other social media.

    I suppose it can’t be helped, the only nonusers who are visible are the ones who are vocal about it after all.

    Link to this
  12. 12. bucketofsquid 1:45 pm 02/25/2013

    I quit using Facebook because they kept getting caught trying to engage in criminal activity. I was already not particularly fond of it due to a lousy interface but stealing my work isn’t acceptable.

    Link to this
  13. 13. dubina 4:35 am 02/26/2013

    Facebook is an enormous waste of time if you have something better to do.

    Link to this

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