If you complain about social media (especially if you post that diatribe on Twitter or Facebook), your friends will tell you one thing over and over: If you think it’s so bad, don’t use it in the first place. Criticism, they propose, is a waste of breath when all you really need to do is opt out. Consider the case of Curt Schilling, who was recently told by some that he should just “get off Twitter” after he struck back at those who had tweeted (truly awful) insults about his daughter.
Those who do manage to escape rarely fare much better: We often treat people who try to extract themselves with contempt, responding as if it were little more than an anti-modern affectation. When Iggy Azalea announced that she was quitting social media, many gloated, with a touch of disdain. As one entertainment gossip site sneered, “This chick doesn’t seem to be quite tough enough for the spotlight. … [S]hould we all just give her her wish and make her irrelevant? She said she’d be wildly happy about it.” Where some elicit scorn for staying, others generate just as much when they go, doomed to mockery either way.
In his new book Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, journalist Jacob Silverman argues that we’ve yet to develop a language for discussing what it means to really give up on social media. In a phone conversation (which, naturally, we arranged over Twitter), Silverman told me that responses to critics of social media tend to be strangely antagonistic, reminiscent of the “Love it or leave it!” proclamations that often chase criticism of the United States. And yet we often regard those who do extract themselves—and those who refuse to participate in the first place—as pariahs.
More troublingly, the very conversation about opting out may already be part of the social media machine. As Silverman notes in Terms of Service, “new features on social media tend to be opt-out rather than opt-in.” Services like Facebook ostensibly give us ownership of our data, letting us chose when and how we’ll be tracked. To take control, however, we have to delve deeper and deeper into the sites themselves, digging for options that are, as Silverman puts it, “carefully buried.” Dealing with Facebook on our own terms means engaging with it, more and more deeply. In the process, Facebook all but co-opts the very act of opting out, ensuring that we never really get away, especially when we’re most eager to.
To some extent, the problem may be that social media has become increasingly essential to the ways we relate. In 2002, a friend told me she worried that her refusal to get a cellphone made her too much like her 80-year-old grandmother, who still didn’t have a landline. Today, that nonagenarian grandmother is probably on Facebook, and my friend herself may well come across this article via the Twitter app on her phone.
Silverman suggests that the obligation to participate in social media has become a kind of blackmail, thanks to the way it has become central to what he called “the work of friendship” in our conversation. This term is a telling one, not least of all because it suggests that friendship itself has become a corporate commodity. “I’m not anti-friendship,” Silverman told me. “Friendship definitely requires work. You’ve got to put in time, emotional labor, to show that you care about someone. But when our friendships are being monetized, that makes them much more problematic.” Moreover, when we attempt to labor outside of these structures, we may be laboring alone. Try to stand outside the sharing economy and there’s no way to know what you’re missing, no way to know, as Silverman put it, whether something “essential” is passing you by.
Of course, marketing his book requires Silverman to engage with modern social media, obligations that he meets with ambivalence. When he tweeted the Facebook event page for his book launch party, he added, “please register for this event and then delete your FB account.” And in May, he’ll be giving a talk at the Mountain View, California, headquarters of Google, a company that he harshly criticizes throughout Terms of Service. When I asked him about the seeming paradox of promoting a book opposed to social media through social media, he acknowledged the attendant difficulties, remarking that he feels “obliged to go enact” the very things he’s criticizing. However, he admitted, no one—not his publishers, not his agent—is telling him that he has to tweet about his book. Social media feels essential, even when we find it contemptible.
As Silverman argues in Terms of Service, opting out may have more to do with privilege than truly radical rebellion. Very few have the luxury to extract themselves completely. Even Azalea explained that her management would go on tweeting for her after she withdrew from Twitter, ensuring a persistence that would be available to few others driven from the site. It should come as little surprise to find that the moguls of social media stand largely alone in successfully hiding themselves from prying eyes. As the New York Times recently reported, construction on the properties of social media executives is often shrouded in secrecy. But even they sometimes fall prey to the quirks of their own sites: Mark Zuckerberg’s sister Randi was apoplectic when one of her friends shared a Facebook photo (which Randi herself originally posted) of Mark at ease.
If true privacy is increasingly rare, so too are the number of ways in which we can be private. Writing in Future Tense, Grady Johnson observes that ceding our privacy may become increasingly essential to our health: “One day soon it may be considered ignorant and irresponsible not to be constantly monitoring your child’s health data, much as it is with opting out of vaccines today.” It is, Johnson suggests, increasingly nonparticipation that comes at a cost, as access to biometric data becomes the basic price of admission for many forms of modern medical care. Privacy and security no longer necessarily go hand in hand.
At a very different level, Silverman told me, much the same is true for many young professionals. Today, he said, “We’re all working and living so precariously, and if we have a job we’re looking for another one.” In such a climate, “there’s a real practical incentive” to maintain a social media presence. Failing to attend to our networks might not just mean missing out on a party; it might entail overlooking a job announcement or losing track of an important connection.
According to Silverman, there’s no way to win when we approach social media as a zero-sum game, no way to take anything from it without providing some value to platform owners. He ends his book with a profile of Kade Crockford, an American Civil Liberties Union activist working to extend the Fourth Amendment to our digital lives. With this, he suggests that further reaching efforts like “privacy and data retention laws” may be more important than outright refusal. So too, he argues, might local attempts to devalue the data we feed to our networks by disabling location services, avoiding corporate hashtags, and otherwise refusing to “do the platform’s job” for it.
“We need these exercises in digital critique as much as acts of refusal or boycotts,” Silverman writes. Questioning social media should not require one to log off for good.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.