The case for a social study of technical departure

Hello there. My name is Jed Brubaker and I am one of the very fortunate interns working with the Social Media Collective this year — a perk of which is a return to blogging here on the SMC blog. Typically you will find me in California where I am a PhD candidate in the school of Information and Computer Sciences at UC Irvine studying digital identity infrastructure, technological subjectivity, and sociotechnical representation. Those are kind of heady terms. In truth, I study dead people. I research how the social media systems and the accounts we maintain while we are alive continue to live and be used (by both people and machines) after we are gone.

Ever since I got to Microsoft Research I have been thinking about a different kind of leaving. Not MSR, of course — I love it here. During my internship I am conducting a study of why users choose to “leave” a technology — in this case the geosocial mobile app Grindr. Grindr is one of a newer breed of geolocative apps intended to facilitate the discovery of and interaction with other users in one’s vicinity. Grindr does this by showing you the profiles of the 100 closest users who are online at any given moment. But while most of these apps loosely operate in the online dating space, Grindr targets gay male users, complicating notions about the app’s purpose, and thus, what it means to leave. People variously insist that it is an app for “hooking up”, “finding a date”, or (quite literally) “gaydar”, while Grindr’s website ambiguously explains that it is meant to “help you meet guys while you’re on the go.”

But what does it even mean to “leave”? Along with Kate Crawford and Mike Ananny (fabo mentors extraordinaire!), this is exactly what we are trying to better understand. Afterall, while you can easily remove Grindr’s app from your phone, you can’t as easily remove yourself from the physical spaces you inhabit each day. Those guys you’d supposedly meet “while you’re on the go” are still all around you. This suggests that leaving may always be partial, incomplete, and that the social reasons people leave are just as important as the technical ways in which they go about doing it.

Listening to people’s stories of leaving feels somewhat familiar to my work on death and social media.  Leaving is a tricky concept for a computer to understand, something death illustrates well. For example, how does one close their account if they are no longer alive and able to do so? Like many email providers, Hotmail (perhaps unknowingly) efficiently solves this problem by closing your account after 270 days of inactivity. I’ve been told that the limit used to be 90 days, but that the outcry of people traveling abroad for more than three months (among others, I’m sure) indicated that perhaps 90 days was too efficient. Away for 3 months on internship, I am having similar problems with some UC Irvine systems that presume I am still in Southern California.

Even if users diligently uninstalled software and closed their unused accounts, we are left with systems that presume users make an active choice to leave, or that our clunky methods of inferring departure (e.g., inactivity) are sufficient.  Relevant to death, these systems also presume that users are able to make such a choice. Non-use, backpacking in Europe, an MSR internship, and death — to a computer, they can look very much the same.

Grindr’s particular intersection of the social, spatial, and technological nicely demonstrates the importance of taking a sociotechnical approach to studying departure. And of course, stories of leaving also help us think about arriving at, returning to, and inhabiting technological systems. What does it mean, after all, to be a “Grindr user”? Avoiding any spoilers, I can tell you that so far it has been a wild and fascinating ride.

(Image from Grindr’s presskit.)

6 thoughts on “The case for a social study of technical departure

  1. David Fearon

    Yes, this (leaving) is something I hadn’t really thought about. This article by Jed Brubaker is a great contribution to bring this subject to out attention.

  2. nriggs

    This idea about “leaving” is really great – of course, it makes me wonder when, exactly, we “arrive” wherever it is…or at the whatever it is…that machines keep a log about. I also wonder if death really does count as “leaving” the Internet. Can’t a post-mortem Fb profile keep the spirit of our relationships alive?

    1. David Fearon

      Interesting Comment from It is good to stretch our minds a bit and think about things we may not have thought about before!

  3. hola,
    Tengo que reconocer que hasta hace poco no me motivaba demasiado
    elblog, sin embargo ahora estoy leyendolo frecuentemente y me esta
    interesando bastante.
    Sigue asi!

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