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“If you don’t like it, don’t use it. It’s that simple.” ORLY?

August 11, 2011

We’ve had a controversial week here at SMC, with both danah and Bernie jumping into the fray over Real Names (TM) and social network sites.

I’m not engaging with that mess, but I am interested in the response to it. Over, and over, and over again, when anyone– academic, pundit, journalist, blogger, regular person without a fancy appellation– criticizes social media, you’ll see a plethora of comments like the following (real comments from various things we’ve written with names removed):

“How dare you write software and give it to me for free under terms with which I disagree? That’s an abuse of power!”
No, it isn’t. Get your sense of entitlement under control.

The solution is rather simple – don’t join Facebook.

The internet is a big place. There’s room for all kinds of social networks. You don’t have to join every one of them.

It’s common, and easy, to say “just don’t use it.” There’s actually a term for this– technology refusal– meaning people who strategically “opt out” of using overwhelmingly prevalent technologies. This includes teens who’ve committed Facebook suicide because it causes too much drama; off-the-grid types who worry about the surveillance potentials of GPS-enabled smartphones; older people who think computers are just too much trouble; and, of course, privacy-concerned types who choose not to use Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, websites with cookies, or any other technology that could potentially compromise their privacy. (This does not include people who can’t afford internet access or computers, or who live in areas without cell towers or broadband access.)

Of course, we’ve heard this argument before. Worried that heavy metal is satanic? Don’t listen to it. Don’t like abortions? Don’t have one. Don’t like gay marriage? Don’t get gay married. Think gonzo porn is misogynist? Don’t watch it. What these statements have in common is the idea that refusal is the only legitimate way to protest something one thinks is problematic, unconscionable, unethical, or immoral. While I like some of the things on this list and don’t like others, I generally do not buy this idea. Here are three reasons why.

The Cost of Opting Out

Opting-out of watching The Bachelorette because I think it romanticizes sexism doesn’t impact me the same way that choosing not to have a cellphone does. If I choose not to have a cellphone, I am choosing to exist in a world where social norms have adapted to cellphones without adapting myself. Face it, someone without a cellphone requires everyone who interacts with that person to make special accommodations for them, whether it’s contacting them for job interviews, scheduling meetings, or sending information. You could argue that expecting such accommodation reflects a sense of entitlement. But more importantly, not having a cellphone puts one at a serious disadvantage– that’s why programs like Safelink provide mobile telephony to people on government assistance. Cellphones have gone from luxury product to necessary object in a decade. (I would like anyone reading this who scoffs at this to imagine how much more difficult life would be without their mobile.)

The “opt out” argument suggests that refusing to use social media has similar costs. I think this is true in some communities and not others. The type of people who post on HackerNews or on this blog are probably connected to their colleagues and friends in so many ways that choosing, say, Diaspora over Google Plus wouldn’t create too much of a disadvantage. But in many of the communities that danah & I have encountered in our fieldwork, Facebook is an absolute necessity. Like a teen told danah back in 2006, “if you’re not on MySpace, you don’t exist.” A very, very significant percentage of teen socializing goes on over Facebook. While us adults may scoff at the teen practices of flirting, joking, making friends, chatting, gossiping, etc. that go on over Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, this is what makes many teens’ lives bearable: connecting to their friends. Without Facebook, they have no way of reinforcing the friendships that are established in adult-sanctioned spaces like school and church. Or, at least, without expecting their friends to accommodate this idiosyncrasy. And this isn’t at all limited to teenagers. While I have zero love for Facebook, I stay on it because otherwise I’d miss out on 75% of the invitations in my friends group. And I don’t think it’s for anyone else to say that I should expect my friends to cater to my socially abnormal preference, or that I should prioritize my own personal irritation at Facebook over the very human impulses to connect and socialize.

The Civic Responsibility to Critique

I’m a serious feminist and I spend a lot of time running my mouth about the sexist portrayals of women in the media. I teach media criticism to undergraduates. I think that each individual has the right– nay, the responsibility– to criticize the media environment in which he or she lives, whether that be movies, advertising, internet sites, or big honking Kenny Rogers Roasters signs that turn their apartments orange. This is because media both reflects and determines the values of society. If the vast majority of portrayals of women in the media are of skinny, white, vapid, boy-crazy sex objects with fake breasts, this contributes to a social environment in which women’s worth is determined by their attractiveness to men. It influences young girls looking for role models, it affects how older women feel about themselves, and it justifies pretty rancid behavior towards real, non-fictional women. I am totally into empowerment and whatnot, but it’s hard to buck a trend that’s pervasive, constant, and rewarded. Because I think these portrayals are socially damaging, I think it is my responsibility to call out sexist images when I see them, and ask for them to be changed, whether or not I am consuming the media in which they appear.

I think the same principle applies to internet sites. Members of a community (nation, state, book group, dining club, whatever) have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic, whether those are government principles, media representations, website policies, or laws. In fact, this is such a cultural norm that the right to protest is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the US Constitution. Yes, websites (and media products in general) are run by private companies rather than civic institutions, but they influence society just as laws and government policies do. And there’s a very long history of citizens protesting immoral or unethical corporate behavior, from The Jungle to the DRM protests. It sounds a bit silly to argue “if you don’t like canned food that may or may not be full of botulism or e-coli, don’t eat it.”

It’s Not Free

Social software is not free. Like television, social software sells a product– users, or “eyeballs”– to third parties. Sure, lots of social media companies are focused on building up usage rather than monetizing, but they will need to make money at some point. And unless they make a premium subscription model work, they will most likely rely on monetizing user information, whether providing analytics to businesses, selling advertising, selling user data to data-mining and profiling companies, or engaging in behavioral targeting. Google Plus isn’t free; Facebook isn’t free; 2 and a Half Men isn’t free (although I don’t know who would actually fork over cash for it). The exchange is personal information for media product.

Only the most staunch pro-market capitalist would argue that a customer has no right to complain about a product or service that she is paying for, either directly or through the exchange of personal information.

Our Role

And finally: as humanist and social science scholars of software and social media, our overall mission is to analyze the underlying values and presuppositions enshrined in technological objects. Technological artifacts are not neutral. They reflect the culture in which they were made and the society in which they are used. They have all sorts of embedded ideologies and cultural artifacts. (A nice example is the metaphor of the “file cabinet” and “file folders” that runs through Microsoft Windows, a paradigm restricted primarily to 20th century Western office culture. Incidentally, it might make you feel very old to realize that the “save” icon in most word processors means nothing to most young people. They’ve never seen a floppy disc and if they had they wouldn’t understand the association with “Saving.”) Our job is to point out these things, and to engage proactively and positively with users and technologists, not just other academics. After all, given that values are embedded within technologies, it is to be hoped that these are values we agree with, that benefit society, that encourage exploration and learning and positive engagement, and that don’t unfairly target marginalized communities. Given this larger social mission, “if you don’t like it, don’t use it” is not really simple at all.

61 Comments leave one →
  1. August 11, 2011 9:22 pm

    Hear, hear. I did leave Facebook in a self-righteous huff, having had enough of how they treat their customers. I took the “Don’t like Facebook? Leave Facebook.” approach.

    Then I came crawling back, six months later.

    I was socially isolated. It was too difficult to keep with with people when I couldn’t be reached as easily as other family and friends. The cost of not participating in the free service was too high.

    • c.cobb permalink
      August 18, 2011 11:22 pm

      Sigh. Hey Steve, how much money do you give to FaceBook? You aren’t a customer, you are a gob of data and a pair of eyeballs that FB sells to it’s paying customers (hint: advertisers). Amazing how many don’t make that distinction.

  2. August 11, 2011 9:49 pm

    Oh, trust me. People don’t accommodate you when you don’t have a cell phone or regular phone (I’m deaf). There’s a *shit* load of stuff that assumes you have a telephone number and requires that you give it over in order to (name just about any activity you’d like).

    Anyway, excellent points here.

  3. August 11, 2011 11:13 pm

    Good article, but I’ve a few points to make:

    “I would like anyone reading this who scoffs at this to imagine how much more difficult life would be without their mobile.”

    I stopped using my mobile 5 years ago and I’ve never owned a credit card. Is this an attempt to live off the grid: no.

    The mobile caused constant interruptions and I found it hard to avoid replying/answering to its bleating, thus losing concentration and flow of thought. You make the point that not having a mobile imposes a sense of entitlement, forcing the majority to adjust to one’s abnormal preferences; I don’t see them as abnormal, I see them as individual. For me the sense of entitlement belonged to whoever was making the call, they’re interrupting my life and they want me to stop what I’m doing NOW to fit in with their needs. For business my company has a landline (handy for arranging job interviews) and email/dropbox/google apps/GotToMeeting do fine for sending files, arranging meeting, working collaboratively. With my iPod I can video call my brother on a different continent, check my Twitter accounts, email, and play social games; I just need WiFi access and I’m good to go. Is my life more difficult? No. It’s better. My friends know how to contact me, and because they’re friends they accept my individual preferences just like I accept their abnormal taste in music, beer and football teams.

    The credit card thing is simpler, have you seen the interest rates they change? I don’t like being in debt, and even though at times it had been a struggle to meet month to month repayments I just couldn’t bring myself to cave in to so-called cheap credit: there’s no such thing as cheap credit – certainly not without a catch. Has it made my life more difficult? It’s certainly not as convenient, but these days my debit card gets me by for most things.

    Just because everyone else is using a phone or a credit card isn’t a good enough reason to do so yourself, there’s a term for that too: peer pressure. You can opt out, you shouldn’t ever have to do something you don’t feel comfortable with.

    ——————————-

    “Members of a community (nation, state, book group, dining club, whatever) have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic, whether those are government principles, media representations, website policies, or laws”

    Yup, couldn’t agree more. Protesting constructively is healthy and should be encouraged by engaging with various groups and/or individuals. You don’t learn anything by listening to empty-headed nodding numpties.

    However, there’s no obligation on government or multinationals to do absolutely everything every single person, or minority group, wants because they think their way is better. I don’t like Facebook – mainly because it’s fugly, so user unfriendly, and may or may not contain e-coli – but some of my friends and family do. Am I missing out on part of the conversation? Yes, probably. Do I care? Not particularly. Like me, they work in different places, they socialise with different people, and they have conversations all the time. Personally, I don’t feel a great need to be in touch them every minute of their waking lives, online or off, because I have my own life to be getting on with. So, I opt out of going to the pub, or rejoining Facebook, because I’m comfortable with who I am and who my friends are. I’m not so socially paranoid I let peer pressure dictate how often I MUST be contactable.

    —————————–

    ‘The exchange is personal information for media product.”

    This is the most interesting point. As 90+ % of google’s revenue pretty much comes from advertising it’s obvious why they’re clamping down on Nyms: they dilute the re-saleable value of the marketing gene pool. Google isn’t a search engine, it’s an advertising platform … revenue defines the business model.

    I don’t have an issue with people using false names online, they may have a damned good reason to do so. In the end, you get to know people by what they say and how they act – names have damn all to do with it. Do I expect google to relent, cave in to the pro-Nyms? No. Although, if it was critical to keep my personal identity as a source private I doubt I’d be using G+, FB or MySpace to get my message out … even with a Nym.

    • August 14, 2011 7:42 pm

      Yes Yes Yes. Agree, from here in Silicon Valley. I’m on all the common social media sites, have had a cell phone since an unwieldy carphone in 1988 and none of it has made my life better as much as it’s made it more complex. Frankly.

      Social media are a time-suck, cell phones and email set an expectation of “instant availability” and even though I have all the time in the world now that I don’t work, I have no time because I waste it online.

      Don’t get me started on “check-in” functionality (who cares that you are at Harry’s Hot Dogs) and one day someone has to make a convincing argument for the significance of Twitter other than a means of communication in a national revolution, and even then…gotta wonder.

      I participate in social media for entertainment and occasionally find a nugget of info I can use, but not as often as I am hanging out wasting time there. I laugh at people who posture in their posts (“Drinking a fine red and smoking a Cuban cigar”) or post messages more appropriately private (“I had a great time last night, you were so much fun! ♥♥♥”) .

      I thank God I don’t have to worry about what employers will think about “my personal brand.” When I want to hang with my friends I call or email.My real community is IRL and always will be.

      The pendulum always swings and we’re just at the front end of all this stuff. It’ll all shake out but I wonder the cost.

  4. Sean Chitwood (@darkmane) permalink
    August 12, 2011 3:25 am

    Ok, I will agree with your second point, we have a right to complain about a service. Whether it be as a user or an outsider. But what we don’t have the right to do is believe the aphorism: “The customer is always right” because the reality is that many times customers make unreasonable demands. In the case of G+ many of the outspoken critics are making unreasonable demands on the order of “FIX MY PROBLEM NOW!”. Even though I tend to agree with the critics, I am willing to be patient and allow time to pass so that arguments can change minds.

    Google and Facebook have made decisions backed by reasonable scientific studies. These studies point to trends, so there are counter examples but that doesn’t mean that the studies aren’t valid.

    As to your first point, you seem to believe that making moral or ethical stances shouldn’t have costs associated with them. That flies in the face of the wisdom in Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the teachings of Gandhi or Jesus. Sacrifice is required or the stance has no meaning. If you aren’t willing to make the sacrifice, then maybe you do not hold your beliefs as strongly as you think.

    As to your third point: How much is your name and address worth? Who can you sell it to? Nothing and you can’t are the answers. Can you get a job looking at ads? No.

    The value does not come from the data, the value that advertisers pay for comes from the aggregation and the infrastructure to display the ads to large groups. This is a situation where the sum of the parts has value when the parts do not.

    • DanB permalink
      September 22, 2011 1:34 pm

      I’ve read Letter from a Birmingham Jail more than once, and I’m not unfamiliar with the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi — not to mention Thoreau. Yet nowhere do I remember any of these teachers suggesting that the first reaction to wrongful behavior should be a radical one. Oftentimes dialog can be more effective than confrontational action, and in such cases it makes perfect sense to start with dialog.

      • Debra Dunkle permalink
        September 25, 2011 12:56 pm

        DanB, You’re right- Dialogue is the attempted start in righting a wrong, see Dr. King’s work and, more recently, Soulforce’s civil rights work.

  5. Jeremy permalink
    August 12, 2011 12:25 pm

    “If you don’t like it, don’t use it” isn’t an argument. It’s a command. A rather facile command, too, as it simply restates the rules already established: if you don’t use your real name, you can’t use the service.

    A “Love it or leave it”-type rebuttal is a direct translation from rules into imperative voice. It’s a conformist’s go-to response against any criticism of the system. It’s popular, and it seems to work.

    However, it adds very little to a conversation on the merits of the rules themselves. So it’s difficult for me to give it any respect, since it doesn’t debate the rules, it just repeats them.

    • August 21, 2011 1:47 am

      The rules may state to use one’s “real” name, but their implementation only has to do with how realistic a name seems.

  6. August 12, 2011 2:24 pm

    The problem with social networks isn’t so much about opting in/opting out as it is about how they were designed. Social networking sites are made by people who view users as just that, users. They tend to fail to notice that when you give someone a space on the web to call their own, they develop a sense of ownership of it and instead, treat users like logins and hits. I assure you that few Silicon Valley execs plan for user revolts or protests about their sites and feel perfectly comfortable to dictate site policy on down because that’s the way it’s always been. They haven’t caught on to what social media really is. To them it’s just a trendy buzzword and a site design pattern set.

  7. tony permalink
    August 13, 2011 12:02 am

    interesting article, but i feel saddened by those who link, yet don’t offer their own thoughts,
    they should abide by their own ideals and join in the conversation and realise that it is in fact the point of social media and not an seo tool

  8. August 13, 2011 10:41 am

    “If you don’t like it, don’t use it” isn’t an argument. It’s a command.

    And from the other side of the coin we have “I want things done my way because I believe I’m right”, which is far more of a command – the non-conformists go-to response that gives no ground and brooks no compromise.

    However, it adds very little to a conversation on the merits of the rules themselves. So it’s difficult for me to give it any respect, since it doesn’t debate the standard arguments, it just repeats them.

  9. August 13, 2011 2:04 pm

    Only history can judge that whatever we think we are a part of has long-term merit. Whatever the digital absolute necessity is, I will eventually be forced into because I will have no other economic or marketing orientated choice. We should always heed great advice, but do I wish someone invented a new word like “advirtue” (freedom as advertised).

    Yet for the few years when I can still surf the web and arrive at blog pages which receive not a single comment, I will enjoy this relative freedom. Having to do what’s good for you is an implicit threat and not an explicit invitation. The human container will get bigger and bigger, then when it is way too big for me to ignore, show me where to sign. I will follow simply because I’ve become a follower. Then I will keep my thoughts entirely to myself.

    IMHO diversity still lives outside the socially humungous container (at least for now). I ask myself a rhetorical question, that If tomorrow in the decades to come, that the great social norm becomes a form of right wing fascism and, in particular, where not following that norm will really hurt me, should I still sign up? I know how much of me is owned in owning so little.

    [Em]
    “Emeri Gent” @thoughtspaces

  10. Colin Odden permalink
    September 7, 2011 12:48 am

    “Members of a community (nation, state, book group, dining club, whatever) have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic, whether those are government principles, media representations, website policies, or laws”

    Sure. However, we’re not Members of a Community; we’re Users of a Service. I think a lot of the tension comes from human beings doing community-like things in a capitalist space, and bona fide space is in decline both in the absolute and proportionally (the latter because the interwebs are surprisingly non-public for how functionally public an online space can feel).

    If anything, the crisis of commercialism (for the seller) has become consumer anomie: Getting buyers to keep buying but to act like citizens, investing themselves in a commercial space as though it were theirs, is a testament to humans’ ability to spontaneously generate community anywhere, and a triumph for those who have been trying to sell people things via their need for connection. It’s actually a pretty amazing consumerist perversion of Tocqueville.

    “Only the most staunch pro-market capitalist would argue that a customer has no right to complain about a product or service that she is paying for, either directly or through the exchange of personal information.”

    Hmm. I’m anti-capitalist, but I still argue that the way in which you’re paying is unrelated to your *contract* with a service. Again, you’re not a citizen (you say “members of a community” earlier, and then “customer” above; to the extent that capitalism pervades public space and we have to be both, I don’t think it implies your conclusions). You can vote with your feet/wallet/whatever, as I did when I ditched Facebook/Myspace/Friendster/etc.. It wasn’t worth it to me to appeal to those services to change their terms, and they owe me nothing. My choices were to stay quietly, stay noisily or leave, and no one put a gun to my head.

    Rather, perhaps you have every right to complain, but the company with whom you’ve engaged in business has every right to ignore you.

    If, for example, we were all to go to someone’s backyard and have a party — woo, party! — and the backyard’s owner wanted to set conditions on how we have that party, either that we have to pay money or he gets to sit and watch or he gets to dance with us, fine. If we don’t like it, we can find another backyard — get our own, use someone else’s, whatever — or ask to renegotiate, but once we start the party I’m not sure how we gain some extra entitlement to act like we have ownership of the space (as one commenter put it, “develop a sense of ownership” — you can play my guitar, get familiar with it, and “develop a sense of ownership,” but that development has zero to do with whether it’s still my guitar). We’re still just a bunch of people, consumers, doing something in a space someone else owns. That != Community, even though it often looks and smells (and quacks) like it.

  11. karmalube permalink
    September 16, 2011 7:52 pm

    In 1972 I threw a full beer bottle through my TV screen as a statement about all the crap being broadcast. I have never replaced it.
    When telephones still had bells in them, the first thing I did was remove the brass bells. The phone would then only give a soft purr as opposed to the desperate sounding ring that came with it.

    I have never had a cell phone. There is nothing that important that can’t wait until I get to a land line. Today I use Skype and I don’t have a Skype number. For myself, a telephone is a convenience. I use technology on my terms to suit my needs just as I build my own computers to suite my requirements.

    As far as my friends go, if people can’t accept my views, values and beliefs or the way I use technology, then they simply remain casual acquaintances.
    I enjoy serenity and tranquility and I am willing to forgo the use of any technology that would intrude upon that. I don’t see this as a sacrifice but an empowering choice.

    People live at such a fast pace it seems that in time, the world will simply end up a little grease stain in space.

  12. November 27, 2011 4:57 pm

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  13. December 28, 2011 9:11 am

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  14. Sarah permalink
    January 31, 2012 5:37 am

    I gave up on Facebook about 6 months ago and it has been the best decision I could make. And you know what? My social life is just the same as when I was a user. More people have phones and email than Facebook – these two communication methods are far more private and will be around forever. I am 20, a student and many have followed and closed their accounts and all have commented that they have more time to enjoy life and it is a much better experience overall. Facebook is completely ANTI social and caters to narcissists and attention seekers. Pick up the phone or meet up for coffee, and in your downtime instead of absorbing incessant rubbish from Facebook, go for a walk around the neighbourhood or do something you enjoy. The reliance people have on this network is absolutely disgusting, and the sooner people realise that leaving is the best thing they could do for themselves and society the better off we will all be.

  15. Luke permalink
    October 25, 2012 11:10 pm

    For a long time I’ve been trying to explain to people how flawed the argument don’t like it don’t buy it is. I also notice people like to add the phrase “simple as that” on to the end of it. It proves that they’re parroting the phrase.

    For example I see people arguing all the time about charging for downloadable content for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. The person arguing for it to be free will likely have someone come at them with “don’t like it don’t buy it”. The problem here is that it doesn’t apply. The person obviously doesn’t want to buy since they’re arguing for it being free but that doesn’t stop people saying don’t like it don’t buy it. The phrase is used in an attempt to excuse something from criticism but what they never realize is that it almost always doesn’t apply and doesn’t make sense.

    I’ve seen some people use it when the person they were addressing had already stated the reason they weren’t buying something but for some stupid reason they use that argument anyway.

  16. April 12, 2013 9:45 am

    I have a cell phone but I barely use it. I call maybe one person a week or two. I answer only calls from the few people who could not catch me on my home number. I ignore calls that are not attached to an entity I know or do business with. I text maybe once every few months. I use the calculator on my phone more than the phone itself. The screen is so small, I find it extraordinarily maddening to use, and I have a pretty “big” smartphone. It’s a nice gadget but I’ve had it for about 2 years and still have not used it to its full potential. I can upgrade but why would I?

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  2. Technology protest: what do you do? | Geek Feminism Blog
  3. אקלקטיקה אהובתי » תפתחו חשבון בפייסבוק. זה לא כזה נורא
  4. Twitted by wear_here
  5. Twitted by OldkidLG
  6. antimeria
  7. Moe van privacykriebels : DigitalAnts
  8. Digital Culture Links: August 15th 2011 | Tama Leaver dot Net
  9. “If you don’t like it, don’t use it. It’s that simple.” ORLY? « Social Media Collective [ VOID-STAR.NET ]
  10. Opting out | Spark
  11. Full Interview: Alice Marwick on Technology Refusal | Spark
  12. Teaching Social Media: One Week In! « social:vitak
  13. Spark 155 – September 18 & 21, 2011 | Spark
  14. The Consequences of Facebook « thegman7
  15. The process we went through to start blogging « Mr. P. Tucker's education Blog
  16. The process we went through to start blogging « Mr. P. Tucker's education Blog
  17. bookmarks, issue 22 | my name is not matt
  18. tiara.org » Blog Archive » Social Media Syllabus
  19. Can People and Businesses Succeed if They Reject Social Software? | Human Resources Software
  20. Review of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus « Culture and Social Media Technologies
  21. Quitting Facebook Is The New 'I Quit TV' (You Hipster, You) - FourTech Plus
  22. Rejecting Technology | Coding & Decoding

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