Professor Tero Karppi

Facebook Flow

By Carla DeMarco

While most regard social media platforms like Facebook as a way to connect with others, Professor Tero Karppi from UTM’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology, is mostly interested in examining the disconnection in relation to social media users.

“The idea is to look at social media when it breaks. What are the limits of connectivity? What are the situations when social media sites want to get rid of users?” asks Karppi, a new media expert who has had Facebook specifically at the fore of his research since 2010.

“For example, what social media platforms like Facebook do with users after they die.”

In this instance, Karppi says there are a few options on Facebook when users pass away, including designating a “legacy contact” to take over your account in the event of your death, or once you have confirmed a person has died by submitting an obituary or an official announcement, you can request to memorialize the deceased’s Facebook account, which restricts their personal profile.

Even more interesting are the efforts to encourage one, who is still very much alive, to stay on Facebook when they attempt to deactivate their account: pictures of your Facebook friends pop up with a text underneath that says your friends will miss you if you go. This attempt to influence your decision also ties into other messages that materialize, such as ‘Facebook cares about your memories’ or that you have been friends with one of your contacts for a [specified] number of years; Karppi says Facebook has “devised a platform that appeals to your emotions” and also provides a sense of belonging to a group in which you have meaningful connections in order to keep you signed on.

This feeds into another area that Karppi focuses on in trying to understand social media users, as well as how social media businesses see their users, how they position them, particularly through technology, and who gets to use the information.

“My work considers how much control the user actually has – what processes are controlled by the user, and what are the processes controlled by the platform?” says Karppi.

“I am also interested in the idea of expanding our understandings of social media from that one platform or website to all the other things it connects to, and is beyond our control.”

Along this vein, a research study he conducted in 2015 with collaborator Kate Crawford from Microsoft Research questioned how the information a user posts may be of interest to other actors, such as financial traders, who are looking for a tip-off to steer the stock market, based on posted material on social media. The research culminated in examining one tweet that allegedly had wiped out $136.5 billion of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s value.

Karppi, who completed a PhD in his home country at the University of Turku in Finland and then three years in the Department of Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo prior to coming to UTM, says that he has been always interested in media and communications, but that he was always taught to “go against the grain.” This is what led him to the disconnection pursuit in his current work.

“In the early 2010s people were so hyped and into the possibilities of social media in general,” says Karppi. “Connectivity was taken as given, it was like a dogma no one was interested in challenging. And yet, connectivity always implies the possibility to disconnect.”

“At that point, academics weren’t really focusing on social media platforms; they were interested in doing user-centric research. But it felt like there was another side to this area that needed to be better understood.”

With technology moving at such an accelerated pace, and new social media platforms cropping up all the time, does Karppi worry about Facebook being eclipsed by another option at some point?

“In the beginning, I was unsure whether or not I should take Facebook as my research material because it might disappear within the next couple of years, but here we are seven years later, and it has only continued to grow in a significant way since that time, with 2 billion monthly users,” says Karppi, himself currently just a “semi-active” Facebook user.

“Facebook as an interface may slowly disappear but they can afford to buy the competition, and will own the next iteration of Facebook. Whether it’s called Facebook, Google, Twitter or something else doesn’t matter. What matters are the techno-social conditions we accept when we let these platforms into our lives.”