Technology & Science

Refusing Facebook has social cost

People who choose not to use Facebook, cellphones or other technological tools may pay a hefty social price, says a researcher who studies social software.
A journalist uses the new Facebook Deals application on a mobile phone at its official launch in London (Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters)

People who choose not to use Facebook, cellphones or other technological tools may pay a hefty social price, says a researcher who studies social software.

"In many communities, particularly with people under 25, Facebook is a crucial part of social life," said Alice Marwick, a postdoctoral fellow at Microsoft Research.

"It is where the gossip goes on; it's where the flirting goes on; it's where event planning goes on; it's where knowledge sharing goes on. If you're not participating in the social network, you're really not participating in the collective life of the group that you're associated with."

That can result in social isolation.

Popularity of social networks

According to a survey released by Canada’s privacy commissioner Wednesday, 51 per cent of Canadian adults use social networking sites  such as Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn. Forty-five per cent of users said they are concerned about the risks to their privacy posed by such sites.

A similar U.S. survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project found 50 per cent of U.S. adults and 65 per cent of adult internet users use social networking sites. Roughly 60 per cent of users aged 18 to 29 visited social networking sites daily.

Marwick added that logistical problems may also arise when people choose not to use technology such as a cellphone that is normal and usual to have in our society, especially when individuals are looking for a job or trying to get an apartment.

"It requires everyone around you to accommodate something that's slightly socially unusual."

Marwick was speaking to CBC's Spark  about "technology refusal" — the choice made by some individuals to avoid certain technologies such as social media or cellphones over concerns about issues such as privacy — not because they can't afford it or don't have access to the technology.

Earlier in the month, she blogged about her concerns about the way people tend to respond to people who criticize social media — they point out that services such as Facebook are provided by a business for free and suggest, "Just don't use it."

Marwick wrote that the statement encapsulates "the idea that refusal is the only legitimate way to protest something that one thinks is problematic, unconscionable, unethical or immoral."

"I generally do not buy this idea," she wrote.

She said that the social costs of not owning a cellphone are so high nowadays that non-profit groups provide mobile devices to low income people and the homeless.

And when it comes to Facebook, she is aware of its importance within her own social circles.

"While I have zero love for Facebook, I stay on it because otherwise I'd miss out on 75 per cent of the invitations in my friends group," she wrote.

"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."

Facebook not really 'free'

'In many communities, particularly with people under 25, Facebook is a crucial part of social life,' Alice Marwick says in an interview with CBC's Spark. Marwick studies social software at Microsoft Research. (CBC Spark)

She also noted that social networks such as Facebook don't, in fact, provide their services "for free."

"They're doing it because they're selling the users to advertisers," she said. That is, Facebook users offer something valuable to the company.

She noted that tools like Facebook are largely created by people in northern California and reflect their values, which emphasize transparency, visibility, certain attention-getting techniques and measurements of popularity that may not serve the best interests of users around the world.

For example, the inability to anonymize Facebook user data resulted in arrests of Egyptian activists using social networks to organize the Arab Spring protests earlier this year, she said.

"Maybe these aren't the values that work for everybody," she added.

Marwick acknowledged that corporations are free to set the terms of wireless and social networking services that they offer.

But she added, "that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to change the tide of public opinion or even just try to have social discussion — a civic discussion as individuals — about what we like and don't like about these tools."

On the other hand, there are indications that choosing to use Facebook may result in health costs. A study released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University this week found that compared to adolescents aged 12 to 17 who spend no time on social networking sites, those who do were: