Logging off--and luring them back

Tero Karppi
Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 9:56am
Mary Gooderham

Academics have spent the last decade studying connectivity, the rush to adopt social media that has more than two billion people around the world on Facebook and counting.

For Tero Karppi, an assistant professor in UTM’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, the focus has instead been disconnection. 

“I always tended to go against the grain,” says Karppi, who specializes in social media and media theory. His new book, Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds, explores what happens when users try to deactivate their Facebook accounts, as well as what that means for business and for society.  The book will be published by the University of Minnesota Press on Oct. 16.

He started researching the topic in his native Finland, where the technology-savvy population enthusiastically began to use Facebook around 2010. “It was becoming a really big thing and expanding widely,” recalls Karppi, who was among the early adopters, especially as far-flung friends, family and colleagues used social media to stay in touch and up-to-date. “It was an interesting phenomenon how quickly it spread.”

He noticed that it was also difficult to say goodbye to this increasingly compelling platform. European media artists started to do special “Quit Facebook” projects, while many people tried to give it up simply to avoid the distractions of the medium.

Karppi, who came to UTM a year ago, says that Facebook deactivation more recently became an issue with users concerned about privacy and the company’s use of data.

“The #DeleteFacebook campaign became a trend after the Cambridge Analytica crisis,” he says. “And the news about 50 million hacked Facebook accounts in September will push users to re-think their connectivity.”

It is no wonder social media companies see user disconnection as “an existential threat” and make wide-ranging efforts to fight it, he notes. For example, there are messages with photos saying, “This person will miss you if you leave.” And when it comes right down to it, “leaving is hard or practically impossible for some,” Karppi says. “You lose something.” Indeed, people who do disconnect often find themselves returning to Facebook, which the company makes easy, letting them pick up their accounts right where they left off.

A combination of factors makes the platform irresistible, he says, especially engaging content that captures users’ attention and the fact that they are surrounded by a network of friends and followers. “It becomes a habit, a part of your daily life. It’s no longer optional or even something that you deliberately do; you check it like you would look at your watch to see the time.”

Given this passive yet penetrating nature, those who try to disconnect from social media are lured back in, which ensures a continuous market for Facebook or whatever future platforms the company offers, Karppi predicts. “I’m quite pessimistic in the sense that I think the social media logic is here and there’s no way to stay out.”

His research at UTM includes a new project looking at what happens to the profiles of users residing with companies like Facebook.

“We have everyone liking each others’ photos and you have two billion users; what do you do with them now?” he says. “Social media is part of our lives and we need to understand how it works, who benefits from it and what kind of future we want. Hopefully, we can have an influence on the role that social media plays.”

Students are highly involved in the topic of social media because it is ubiquitous in their circles, he says. “For teaching, the challenge is to go beyond the daily user experience and show what's behind the interface.”

Karppi himself remains on Facebook, although he’s removed the notifications on his phone so he’s less captivated by the platform’s beeps and buzzes. “I at least have the illusory feeling of being in control.”