Sarah Welsh, University of Texas Austin
(Published January 8, 2020)
In my third year of college, my boyfriend broke up with me. Devastated, I deactivated my Facebook so I wouldn’t try to spy on him and make myself feel worse. Of course, this deactivation process was not a true disconnect. After I logged off, I knew that my profile and all the data I had poured into it would be waiting there for me whenever I wanted to come back. The notifications on our apps and social media profiles are specifically designed to induce a dopamine response, beckoning us to constantly check in and to feel a lack when the notifications stop. Justin Rosenstein, the developer of the Facebook “Like” button, has said that this now-ubiquitous function was designed to produce “pseudo-pleasure” (Karppi 113). To help keep us connected to our friends, family, and, yes, ex-boyfriends, Facebook wants us to keep logging in, to know what everyone is working on and talking about, to remember birthdays, and to be a part of the world through its lens. When I deactivated my profile, even though it wasn’t present and accessible, I still knew I could access it—and I did, probably only a few days later. Facebook, of course, is built that way.
In Disconnect, Tero Karppi explores this affective suspension of time and space between connection and disconnection: what happens in deactivation? In deletion? In death? For Facebook, and other companies that rely on their users to provide the content that makes social media platforms what they are, disconnection is a looming threat. The book begins there, by looking at what rhetoricians might articulate as a language of connection, one that is espoused so enthusiastically in Silicon Valley. Of course, this rhetoric also happens to be integral to monetization. Within the first page, Karppi uses a status update by Mark Zuckerberg to highlight the inner mechanisms of the company itself, a company that sees “a huge need and a huge opportunity to get everyone in the world connected, to give everyone a voice and to help transform society for the future” (1). Because the imperative to connect is both what drives Facebook and creates its revenue, the problem for users looking to disconnect is that “connection” seems like something any human being should both want and need. The strength of Zuckerberg’s platform is also a problem for users who want to disentangle their lives from this central operating principle of constant connection. How can you deactivate (or even delete) your profile when everyone else is there, connecting?
Since we have become so connected in this way, there has been an increasing interest in disconnecting. But through Gilles Deleuze’s concept of repetition and difference—whereby repetition is constitutive of difference—Karppi reveals that connection and disconnection is a deceptively simple binary. In the first chapter, he interlaces corporate memos and Facebook policy updates with descriptions of adult summer camps specifically designed for disconnecting. To disconnect, camp participants relinquish phones, laptops, and all other devices. Camps like these see connection in digital contexts as synonymous with addiction, not the positive force that Facebook’s leaders argue is a necessary part of the human experience. Thus, for Facebook (and by extension, other archival social media platforms like it), “disconnection is a problem of control, governance, and design. It is a problem of how to keep users engaged with the platform—how to integrate and control the circulation of users, links, and notes—but also a problem of keeping value, attention, and desires within the system” (Karppi 7). As Karppi repeatedly demonstrates later on, Facebook addresses the threat of disconnection by making that choice nearly impossible for its users. In this way, Karppi shows that the threat of disconnect is a productive force for the company. While rhetorical scholarship has provided critical analyses of social media and the ways we interact within and through these platforms, considering this will to connection as a central operating value might reframe some of the ways we conceptualize (and teach) both digital communication and digital experiences.
Karppi organizes his chapters around seven key terms: Log in, Engage, Participate, Deactivate, Die, Disconnect, and Log Out. Each chapter centers on an affective facet of Facebook, providing a drive-by of its features, but one that displays deep theoretical contextualization. While the book is fairly short, it is by no means thin: Karppi seamlessly weaves process theory (leaning on Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Friedrich Kittler, Wendy Hui-Kyong Chun, and José van Dijk) with corporate discourse and well-chosen case studies. Karppi effectively deploys Deleuze’s dividual and Guattari’s machinic subjectivity to show that while disconnection is a possibility for users, it is one that is already anticipated by the platform and responded to at the user-experience level. That is, disconnecting is not just in binary opposition to connecting, but is in fact another dominant mode of power. Surprisingly yet persuasively, rather than merely suggesting we disconnect, Karppi uses the idea of disconnection to explore the limits of connectivity that Facebook defends so vigorously. In exploring one term through its supposed opposite, Karppi demonstrates the pervasiveness of social media platforms and how their instantiation in our lives cannot ultimately be reduced to a binary of connected or disconnected, off or on.
The theoretical pieces of Karppi’s deep dive into Facebook’s affective bonds are contextualized with carefully chosen case studies that perform a kind of disconnection: websites, art projects, personal experiences, and so forth. I say “kind of” here because, depending on the case, this disconnect may only be perceived or symbolic, like my early attempt at deactivating my own profile as a way to avoid connecting. In the chapter “Deactivate,” Karppi details performances of digital suicide, such as Seppukoo.com and the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine, both of which allowed users to perform a disconnection of their accounts. Significantly, these projects received cease-and-desist letters from Facebook. Such digital suicides are posed within the wider structure of our networks, in Guattari’s machinic subjectivities, and Foucault’s biopolitics, thereby illustrating how these networks structure our world by acting as the environment where we make, sustain, and modulate connections with others. These avant-garde projects illustrate just how much Facebook has become a part of life and, by extension, how disconnecting from traditional and ordered ways of life disrupts capitalist systems by denying those systems the profit of our connections.
In order to further demonstrate what is at stake when it comes to disconnecting, Karppi asks the reader to consider her own death and what will eventually remain on social media. This chilling hypothetical shows that our existence within and through Facebook is so important that the company also values the possibility of an afterlife as well. The chapter “Die” delineates many of the ways Facebook has attempted to keep even deceased users connected because where death leaves a void in an analog world, it is simply another potential disconnect in a digital one. Though Facebook’s desire to maintain the profiles of loved ones who have passed away may not have grown from a place of ill intent, profiles of the deceased remain open for capital gain. For Karppi, “[t]he dead online touch upon different users and become the basis for modes of participation” (89). But this discussion of digital afterlives is also an archival problem: how can one company maintain 50 million graves (and counting)? In recent studies, it seems that Facebook will have to figure that out, since dead users will outnumber the living by 2070 (Öhman and Watson).
In keeping with his own argument, one that deconstructs the binary opposite, Karppi does not end the book with death but with eternal life through algorithmic identity. He reviews a project called Commodify.Us, which allows a user to download and calculate the monetary value of all her Facebook data. By preserving this example for the end, Karppi suggests that we should pursue not disconnection, but rather a productive pervasive connection. In this same chapter, he introduces a technology Facebook has in development: a brain-computer interface. While this seems like a decidedly invasive and far off possibility (not to mention a creepy one), Karppi argues via Kittler that this is also a natural progression of communication media, of technical prosthetics, technics, and tools. Although this level of connection is somewhat predictable, “[i]f thinking becomes the way to control your Facebook profile, then thinking about disconnecting becomes unthinkable in thought” (Karppi 137). Admittedly, the idea of being able to connect to Facebook telepathically (or any of our social networks) doesn’t seem too far off of a possibility from where we are right now. Critically attending and responding to these kinds of media will be increasingly crucial in cultivating an ethics of connection and disconnection. Do we want to disconnect entirely? Can we? Or do we find ways to use these technologies for our benefit? Such possibilities seem almost insurmountable due to the pace of technological development. As rhetoricians addressing questions like the ones Karppi poses in this book, our role seems both more important and even more hopeless.
Despite these seemingly impossible ethical problems, Disconnect presents a number of productive entry points for considering the pervasiveness of social media, the ways memory functions online, and other related aspects of digital life and discourse. This book is a thorough examination of how social media platforms maintain “connection” because any urge to disconnect is a threat to the basic business model. While Disconnect is a strong argument for the strength of the digital ties that bind, Karppi makes a powerful argument for harnessing the strength of the connections that already exist. Similarly, while rhetorical scholars are concerned with the archetype of memory, Brad Vivian in particular has shown that forgetting is an equally powerful, necessary function that cannot be deployed without memory. To operationalize forgetting in digital spaces means to recognize and work with the internet’s relentless memory. Likewise, to disconnect means to operationalize connection.
I could have chosen to fully deactivate and delete my Facebook profile way back when, but like so many others with exes lurking within a vast network of family and friends and acquaintances that took years to build, the thought of such a disconnect didn’t seem like an appropriate or sustainable response. Are there ways to disconnect while remaining connected? To use those connections to protect privacy and the algorithmic identities we have created that are nearly impossible to erase? As users, we might do well to reckon with the relentless memory of Facebook, to forget (within) these spaces, and to effectively disconnect by affirmatively embracing the power of our singular connections.
Karppi, Tero. Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
Öhman, Carl J., and David Watson. “Are the Dead Taking over Facebook? A Big Data Approach to the Future of Death Online.” Big Data & Society, Jan. 2019, doi:10.1177/2053951719842540.