Pushback: Expressions of resistance to the "evertime" of constant online connectivity by Stacey Morrison and Ricardo Gomez
First Monday

Pushback: Expressions of resistance to the evertime of constant online connectivity by Stacey Morrison and Ricardo Gomez



Abstract
As a result of the widespread connectivity provided by smartphones, laptops, and tablets, technology users can and often are continuously connected to the Internet and its communication services, a phenomenon some start to call “evertime.” However, many users who first embraced constant connectivity are now pushing back, looking for ways to resist being permanently connected and contactable. This pushback behavior is increasingly visible in the popular press, in personal blogs, and in a small number of academic studies. “Pushback” is a growing phenomenon among frequent technology users seeking to regain control, establish boundaries, resist information overload, and establish greater personal life balance. This study examines a growing body of both academic and non–academic literature, and identifies five primary motivations and five primary behaviors related to pushback. Primary pushback motivations include emotional dissatisfaction, external values, taking control, addiction, and privacy. Primary pushback behaviors are behavior adaptation, social agreement, no problem, tech control, and back to the woods. The implications these pushback motivations and behaviors pose to communication technology are discussed.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. Methods: A literature review on pushback
3. Findings: Pushback in blogs, popular press and academic research
4. Analysis: Pushback motivations and behaviors
5. Discussion and conclusions

 


 

Introduction

In 2011, the New Yorker published a controversial column, “The Information: How the Internet gets inside us” as part of The Critic at Large section (Gopnik, 2011). The author discussed how cultural transformations ensued by the information age and identified three types of technology users: the Never–Betters, who euphorically exalt the positive contributions of technology to our lives; the Ever–Wasers, who claim nothing has really changed and insist innovation is really nothing new; and, the Better–Nevers, who bemoan the ways in which technology negatively impacts our daily lives and espouse nostalgia for the good old days before the Internet. However, in the almost three years since that publication, the technology user landscape has already changed. A new category of expression is now clearly palpable in the media: a “Better–Less” group of discontents who used to be euphoric embracers of the opportunities of technological connectivity, but who are now looking for ways to push back and resist, to manage or reduce their use and perceived dependence on technology. Formerly embracing the changes that the information age has wrought, these capable and comfortable technology users are now expressing doubt, and looking for ways out.

A backlash to the exuberant reception that accompanied the introduction of recent technology innovations, from smartphones and tablets to Facebook, Twitter and other social media tools, may be inevitable. This paper reviews a growing body of literature, both academic and non–academic, about expressions of resistance to and saturation with communication technologies and information overload.

University of Washington researcher Kirsten Foot analyzed the emergence during 2008–2010 of discourses of pushback in multiple sociopolitical realms. She notes that “recent studies in this vein have focused on identity and class performance aspects of social media refusal” (Portwood–Stacer, 2013) and “Internet resistance” (Woodstock, 2011), but conceptualizes pushback more broadly, to include discourses about reducing or avoiding media use, altering media practices, and efforts to influence media policies (Foot, 2014). Convergent with Foot’s approach, we define pushback to connectivity as a reaction against the overload of information and changing relationships brought about by communication technologies such as smart phones, tablets and computers connected to the Internet. We call this phenomenon “pushback.”

Connectivity pushback is a reaction against the overload of information and changing relationships brought about by communication technologies such as smart phones, tablets and computers connected to the Internet. Overloaded users are pushing back against the permanent connectivity of what some of our teenagers are calling “evertime:” the non–stop expectation of availability through ubiquitous and constantly connected communication technologies. “Evertime” refers to the expectation of constant availability, exacerbated by portable and wearable technologies that tether the users to their online worlds. But the initial feelings of empowerment and connectedness of “evertime” can quickly give way to feelings of saturation, overload and disenfranchisement. Attempting to overcome these negative emotions associated with “evertime,” technology users are resisting and pushing back.

Although resistance to technology is not new, more expressions of pushback have become increasingly common in personal Web sites, blogs, magazines and newspapers over the last few of years. Only recently have expressions of pushback begun to appear in academic research. In this study we review personal sites and blogs, magazines and newspapers, along with academic sources, to suggest a typology of pushback motivations and behaviors. We identified five different types of motivations for pushback, as well as five different types of behaviors. However, it should be noted that all forms of pushback have a two common denominators: a) dissatisfaction or disillusionment with one or more types of technology and/or social media, and b) the users’ desire to pull away from technology usage in some way. A closer examination of the pushback phenomena can offer a better understanding of technology user behavior and lend insight into how people connect with each other, with or without communication technologies. Conducted early in 2013, our study did not include connected objects of what is now called the “Internet of things,” but focused on accounts and analyses of individuals pushing back on computers, mobile phones, and social media. Facebook dominated the public discourse around resistance to social media, though pushback is by no means limited to Facebook alone. Our preliminary typologies can be used to inform future empirical studies about pushback and resistance to connectivity in broader senses than what is included here.

The remainder of this paper presents the methods employed in the study, followed by a description of some of the salient findings regarding pushback to connectivity organized by type of source: blogs and personal Web sites; newspapers and magazines; and, academic papers. We then discuss these findings and suggest a typology of motivations and of behaviors that emerged from a review of the literature. We conclude with some of the implications and possible areas for future research uncovered by this exploratory study, particularly focused on three topics: 1) the possible relationship between different types of motivations and different types of pushback behaviors; 2) the potential growth of privacy concerns given recent disclosures of government surveillance at the hands of NSA; and, 3) whether rational behavior is the only cue that informs pushback and technology choices.

 

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2. Methods: A literature review on pushback

After a systematic review, we compiled 73 sources, with roughly a third of them coming from personal blogs and Web sites, a third from popular media sources, and a third from academic conferences and journals. In an iterative process of clustering and coding, we identified two distinct themes: motivations that drive users to push back, and pushback behaviors (i.e., the things people do when pushing back). We then looked at all sources and identified the primary motivation and behavior discussed or exhibited by the user/users, as a way to establish the most pervasive expression of pushback in the article. Some sources discussed both motivations and behaviors, and many discussed two or more motivations and/or behaviors, which means the typologies are not mutually exclusive. This was especially true of the personal testimony of bloggers, who may feel a need to defend their pushback choice with multiple reasons, anticipating judgmental or questioning responses from their readership. After identifying primary motivations and behaviors, we returned to each source and established secondary motivations and behaviors, if relevant. Users often express multiple reasons for (motivations) and methods of withdrawing or filtering (behaviors) their technology use. We compiled the data arriving at two sets of measurements: one for primary motivation and behavior and a second for the frequency of all (primary or secondary) user motivations and behaviors as they appear overall in the coding. An assessment of both primary and secondary motivations and behaviors offers an overall picture that is, in some cases, different than when it is based only on primary drivers. We include this information as part of our data in the “overall” category in each case.

 

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3. Findings: Pushback in blogs, popular press and academic research

3.1. Blogs

Personal Web pages and blogs are the most common source for expressions of pushback to connectivity. Ironically, people discontent with aspects of technology use technology to complain about it, though some bloggers, in particular, seem to be very aware of this irony. They address their audience as peers, discussing their experiences in a reflective way, confessing their fears and confusion to those who they presume might share the same concerns. In the March 2012 entry ‘I got rid of my smartphone’ on his blog The rich life, young engineer Casey Friday writes:

A lot of people have asked, ‘Why don’t you just use it less?’ I think that’s sort of like asking a crack addict, ‘Why don’t you just put the crack in the closet and do less blow?’ I don’t even want the option of using a smartphone, because if I have one, I will check it obsessively. It’s a simple fact. [1]

Other bloggers take on a self–congratulatory tone about their pushback, one that could be interpreted as a kind of moral superiority in their ability and willingness to forsake the temptation of technology for a period of time. For example, in “How I unplugged and lived to tell about it”, Michael Hyatt, motivational speaker and blogger explains, “I wanted to experience a complete ’digital detox’” [2]. He accomplishes this by deleting all the social media applications from his iPhone, disabling all e–mail accounts but one, announcing his off–line status on his blog, e–mail accounts and in his Twitter bio. Considering the amount of effort it took to disengage from the Internet, perhaps a certain amount of self–congratulation is in order. This was another aspect of many of the personal accounts through blogs and Web sites: a discussion about how hard it is to extricate oneself from technology use.

A Google search of the phrase “Why I left Facebook” retrieves a myriad of blogs and Web sites with this exact title. As an un–named Google project manager writes on filosophy.org, “Since I’ve left [Facebook], I realized that what I was wrestling with was a somewhat more fundamental struggle: a struggle over the meaning of friendship and acquaintaince (sic) itself” [3]. Social media, (Facebook, in particular) were the focus of pushback by many personal accounts on Web sites and blogs.

3.2. Popular news media

Personal accounts of disenchantment with technology fall short of a movement, but they represent a grassroots groundswell of activity. Sometimes, they are picked up by the press. In one of the earliest expressions we found, Emma Justice (2007) of the Times of London reported the shocking account of a suicide: not a literal one, but a virtual one. “Stephanie Painter’s death was swift and painless. At 9.10pm on February 11 she bid her 121 Facebook friends goodbye with one last ‘poke’ (mood: sorrowful), then left the virtual world peacefully with a quick click of the mouse” [4]. Painter, aged 27, gave a number of reasons for her choice, including issues of privacy and control.

Media coverage of changes in social media user behavior highlights studies, surveys, and polls, denoting what we call the pushback movement as more than a collection of isolated anecdotes. In “The anti–social network: Life without Facebook” (Imam, 2012), CNN.com reports:

With a website that boasts 901 million active users and is launching an IPO on Friday, it seems unlikely that once you get on Facebook, you’d ever leave. But deactivating from the social networking site is not that unusual. Close to half of Americans think Facebook is a passing fad, according to the results of a new Associated Press–CNBC poll. More and more people are stepping away from the technological realm and de–teching. [5]

This observation is echoed in Australian marketing blog Digital ministry. Digital media and marketing specialist John Lynch (2013) analyzed statistics compiled from several sources including Bloomberg’s GlobalWebIndex data. In the business blog post “The ‘key’ demographic 18-35 are leaving social media?” Lynch writes:

My attention was first roused when I saw the latest pronounced dip in January. FB went from 982 to 972 million in that January period. Incidentally it never hit 1 billion users according to Social Bakers hitting a peak at 982 million on Jan 12th (no mean feat of course). The real troubling indicators are in established markets, with the US losing 2.29% and the UK almost 4% of its audience over the last 3 months alone, and many high ‘average revenue per user’ countries such as France and Germany flat lining. [6]

As Lynch notes, Facebook hardly needs to panic over this drop in numbers; however, the average advertising cost per click (CPC) had dropped from a high of US$1.13 to US$.75. It now rests at about $.80 [7].

In November 2009, Technewsdaily.com (Murphy, 2010) claimed that young people who are growing up taking computers and the Internet for granted, also known as “digital natives,” were not suffering from technology fatigue or information overload, as opposed to their parents, “digital immigrants”, the generations not born into technology use [8]. The researchers noted a number of sources that argued that technology was not stressful to young people. Arguably, the types of stress impacting younger people may differ from the types of stress that older technology users’ experience. Yet, later research suggested that pushback was very much a result of stress felt by all ages. A 2011 BBC article asked its readership, “Are we addicted to smartphones?”, citing an OfCom report that found a third of adults in the U.K. were smartphone owners and that 60 percent of surveyed teenagers claimed to be “addicted”. A June 2012 article “Social media survey finds many teens feel the need to unplug” on Bloomberg.com reported: “About 43 percent of teens would like to disconnect sometimes, according to a national survey of more than 1,000 people aged 13 to 17, conducted by Common Sense Media, a child advocacy group” [9]. The Web site Digital Trends highlighted data from a sociological study of 425 students in an article entitled “Study: Why Facebook is making people sad”. This paper revealed findings that suggest a direct correlation between students’ time spent on Facebook and reported increases in unhappiness (Flacy, 2012). In January 2013, more data on how Facebook affects users negatively appeared on Time’s Web page in a piece titled “Why Facebook makes you feel bad about yourself” (Sifferlin, 2013). The article quotes the research of two German universities that mirror findings of the earlier 2012 Utah Valley University study. Reliable professional journalism relies on expert testimony or research, and as this work is done, the media has brought it to the public.

3.3. Academic research and studies

Two recent books, Alone together by M.I.T.’s Sherry Turkle (2011) and the Pulitzer Prize finalist The shallows by Nicholas Carr (2011), ask broad ethical questions about how our interaction with the Internet and technology is profoundly shaping our lives, even changing our brains, affecting both the depth of our relationships and the depth of our thinking. References to both works appear frequently in many sources as inspirational work to explore or engage in pushback to connectivity. Other well–known researchers have explored issues that may be related to pushback behaviors and motivations. Microsoft researcher danah boyd (2014) has been working to understand teens and their use of social media, and whether teens are addicted to social media, or simply wasting time. After discussing issues of teen identity, privacy and bullying, boyd concludes that “Teen ‘addiction’ to social media is a new extension of typical human engagement [...] Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other” [10]. Howard Rheingold (2012) has a long record of research on living online; his recent book Net smart suggests five digital literacies for “mindful use” of digital media: attention, participation, collaboration, critical consumption of information, and network smarts, all of which are needed to help us focus on what is relevant when facing the deluge of information available online.

Turning to more explicit studies of technology resistance, rejection and pushback, a recent literature review by Murthy and Mani (2013) reports that technological complexity, technology fatigue, switching cost or loss aversion were among the most consistent reasons for user rejection of technology. Our assessment of academic research published in peer reviewed conferences and journals reveals three different types of perspectives: 1) information and communication studies, 2) psychology, and, 3) youth studies; we will now discuss each of these in more detail.

3.3.1. Information and communication studies: Managing information overload

In 2003, scholar Neil Selwyn wrote:

Not using ICT (information and communication technologies) is one way that individuals can assert some control over their lives — in the same way that for some people there is a symbolic value to using ICT. It is also important to acknowledge that people can move between not using ICT and using ICT throughout their lifetime — and also that use and non–use of ICT will vary from technology to technology. [11]

However, most research continued to focus on a binary: users versus non–users. Discussions of choice by technology users to reduce usage would come much later.

Reijo Savolainen was one of the seminal researchers on how people cope with information overload and technology use. In an often cited study, Savolainen (2007) describes “withdrawing” and “filtering”, still useful terms for explaining technology user behavior. He defines withdrawing as avoiding certain types of technology. Filtering, on the other hand, is management of information by weeding out unimportant or undesirable information from chosen sources. Withdrawing or “logging off” from one or more types of technology continues to be a strong coping mechanism for many. Filtering, a technique of picking and choosing information to focus on and disregarding less important information, also remains a widely used method of managing information. For instance, sorting tools in e–mail software, such as flagging, allows users to skip over less important e–mail. Of the two coping strategies, partial or full withdrawal, in particular, has evolved in a number of ways, becoming user behavior forms of pushback, as we will discuss later.

In 2010, Jennifer Rauch, an Associate Professor of Journalism and Communication Studies at Long Island University in New York, explained the history of the “slow media” movement in the online journal Transformations. Pushback can be seen as a piece of this larger movement that began as an offshoot of a larger central philosophy. In that article, Rauch provides a broad historical framework for seeing the rise of technology resistance. She writes:

Since the turn of the 21st century, people from diverse walks of life have begun to form a sub–cultural movement whose members reduce their overall time spent with media and/or their use of specific communication technologies in order to constrain the influence of digital devices and networks on their personal, professional, and family lives. [12]

She identifies the “slow media movement” as starting with a 17 November 2009 National Public Radio show that first promoted the idea of “digital detoxing” or “unplugging”. These terms provide apt metaphors as concepts for pushback and have been widely adopted by organized groups like Reboot Network, which organizes the “National Day of Unplugging,” now an international event. These terms suggest that avoiding technology is a cleansing or back–to–nature act.

By 2008, papers in journals had already begun to recognize information overload and information anxiety as problems, identifying user concerns with Web–related identity and privacy issues (Bawden and Robinson, 2009). However, concerns about dissatisfaction with social media and identity followed some time later in the academic literature. In “When social networks cross boundaries: A case study of workplace use of Facebook and LinkedIn”, researchers examined tensions between the spheres of work and private life connections made through social media (Skeels and Grudin, 2009). Skeels and Grudin report:

People tried to manage the divide separating work and other friends with the rudimentary available access controls or, more often, by adjusting their posts for a broader audience, but often were dissatisfied ... inadvertent disclosure of information is a common concern. [13]

Here, an assessment of emotional needs and satisfaction starts to become evident. Information behavior begins to recognize that, more than meeting business needs or logistical needs, technology connection is about meeting emotional needs.

University of Washington iSchool professor David Levy has researched information overload for at least a decade. In “No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship”, Levy laments that the acceleration of life brought about by technology reduces thoughtful reflection while increasing stress, and calls for more contemplative practices in scholarship and in the workplace (Levy, 2007). Also at the University of Washington, Kirsten Foot explored pushback behaviors in the political/military, organization/work, and personal/relational realms, and suggested the latter are generally motivated by a desire for freedom from being always on, deeper connection in relationships, creating space for kids to be kids, higher attention to signals/noise ratio, and dealing with privacy concerns (Foot, 2012); some of these motivations were corroborated in our study, as we will see below.

3.3.2. Psychological perspectives: Unhappiness, anxiety and addiction

Clinical psychology included the idea of “unplugging” as it first became popular in 2010 (Rowan, 2010). In January 2011, American Psychological Association (APA) sanctioned a series of four research studies which are discussed in the paper, “A two–process view of Facebook use and relatedness need–satisfaction: Disconnection drives use, and connection rewards it”. The researchers conclude that:

Overall, Facebook use appears to be a positive phenomenon, although perhaps not as positive as face–to–face sociality. However, Facebook may also offer an overly tempting coping device for the lonely, one that feels good but does not actually address underlying feelings of social disconnection in life. [14]

The paper further speculates on the possibility that signs of addiction are apt to appear in lonely participants attempting to use social media or the Internet as escapism, but who afterwards feel greater disconnection, loneliness and dissatisfaction with the technology. The researchers explain, “The portrait that arises is of a person who is addicted to a coping device that does not approach problem–resolution directly but, rather, approaches a pleasant distraction from problems.” [15]

In the summer of 2011, at the Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security, Carnegie Mellon researchers presented the paper, “‘I regretted the minute I pressed share’: A qualitative study of regrets on Facebook”. Acknowledging that previous research has correlated Facebook usage with positive psychological well–being, they address the negative aspects of the social media site. Through the creation of a detailed taxonomy of regrets, they found that such user regrets were primarily a result of sensitive topics, emotional content, and content reaching an unintended audience. They write, “Furthermore, our results agree with many news stories that report that regrettable postings on Facebook can yield serious ramifications for users.” [16]

Another APA study, published that same year, examined the use of Facebook by user personality, apparently building on the findings of the earlier report cited above. The study indicates “more agreeable, more conscientious, more emotionally stable and less extraverted users reporting greater levels of regret for inappropriate content.” [17] Also in 2011, Yahoo! researchers found “that for many people, identity is faceted across areas of their lives, that some of these facets are incompatible, and that this incompatibility impacted technology usage.” [18] Taken as a whole, these studies present an emerging picture of troubled user needs and technology usage, emotional discontent having begun to germinate. These research studies are evidence of the early signs of pushback motivations such as privacy concerns, fear of addiction, and emotional dissatisfaction with technology.

One of the first serious academic papers on student internet addiction was published in January 2013. The participant sample was of 2,257 students from 94 different countries. Though only a small portion of the students examined were identified as addicted (3.2 percent), the paper established criteria for judging Internet addiction as a real affliction [19].

The focus on conference papers and journal articles dealing with information technology user satisfaction and behavior over the past two years has increasingly centered on either social media or stress in the workplace or the combination of both. Social media is examined in terms of perceived cognitive cost to the user (Bowman, et al., 2012). In the workplace, employee behavior working with social media has been studied to determine how workers can best limit information overload, reduce invasion of work into their personal life, and how employers can limit uncertainty and the anxiety that precipitates adopting new technology (Bucher, et al., 2013). Empirical studies, specifically about Facebook, include the seamy side of human emotion and behavior such as the phenomenon of mourning on Facebook Web sites, where “online memorials provide opportunity for public wailing at the virtual wall, turning grieving into a kind of free–for–all spectator sport.” [20]

Another example of the dark side of Facebook was proposed by Krasnova, et al. (2013). They discussed the concept of the “self–promotion — envy spiral” by which Facebook users often suffer from envy of their peers, particularly in regard to vacation and travel postings. As a result, these users may begin to promote themselves aggressively on the site, even exaggerating their postings, as a way of compensating and coping with their feelings of envy [21]. Further valuable information is provided by the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “Coming and going on Facebook”, which found that “61% of Facebook users have taken a voluntary break from using the site at one time or another and 27% plan to spend less time on the site this coming year.” [22] Together, these studies shed light on possible reasons for the rise of Facebook user dissatisfaction and why some users are “pushing back”.

3.3.3. Studies of youth: Discontent among digital natives

In addition to boyd’s work, mentioned earlier, other scholarly work has examined the experiences of younger technology users. Previous research had suggested that “digital natives”, people born into the age of everyday technology usage, fared much better in terms of adopting technology, responding positively to it, and managing technology better than their parents, the “digital immigrants”, those not raised in a technology–heavy environment [23]. Not surprisingly, the Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) published the findings of one of the largest U.S. research studies of children 8–18 and their relationships with a variety of media outlets, finding a sharp increase in all media usage. Corresponding scholarship called for “unplug–don’t drug,” in other words, pushback instead of medication, as a treatment option for troubled youth [24]. However, a 2010 Stanford research study suggests that: “Regression analyses indicated that negative social well–being was positively associated with levels of uses of media that are centrally about interpersonal interaction (e.g., phone, online communication) as well as uses of media that are not (e.g., video, music, and reading).” [25]

Common Sense Media, a non–profit child advocacy group, released, in the summer of 2012, a quantitative study compiled from a survey of 1,030 “social media natives”. The findings include overall positive feedback from teens about social media. They replied that it helped their friendships and rarely affected their lives negatively. Yet the researchers note the beginnings of what might be “Facebook fatigue” with a substantial number of teens specifically stating that they wished they could unplug [26]. These conflicting studies suggest that there are issues of needs satisfaction and technology use amongst younger demographics, refuting the earlier impression that digital natives are always blissful users of all forms of technology. While young people may be more adept at adopting and using new technology, it does not necessarily follow that they are happy as a result. Evolutionary biologists suggest there is a cognitive limit (around 150) to the number of people with whom we can sustain stable relationships (Dunbar, 1992). The extension of this limit to online relations has been argued to remain relatively constant by some, including Dunbar himself (Bennett, 2013), while others argue the limit of 150 may be irrelevant in the new world of weak ties of social media (i.e., McCue, 2010).

The preceding overview of press, blogs and academic literature on technology pushback leads us to the next section, where we analyze the motivations and behaviors we uncovered in the literature.

 

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4. Analysis: Pushback motivations and behaviors

After analyzing the different source materials on pushback to connectivity, including blogs, popular press and academic sources, a typology emerged with five types of motivations, and five types of behaviors. Each one is described in more detail below.

Five motivations for pushback

We were surprised to find five remarkably consistent types of motivations that lead people to push back and resist connectivity. While our preliminary reviews had led us to expect that users might indicate a desire to push back against technology as a result of frustration with the operation or continuous learning of new technology, or as a reaction to technology upgrading cost, this was not what we found in the literature. Instead, we found that the motivations for pushback and resistance that appear in the literature were deeply grounded in emotions, as we will see in the five types of motivations that are described below.

One exception to this trend is the literature review by Murthy and Mani (2013). Their study relies heavily on older academic research and technology trade publications, mostly based on literature published before 2010 and with many references to literature pre–2000. In that study, the authors argue that technological complexity, technology fatigue, switching cost or loss aversion were among the most consistent reasons for user rejection of technology (Murthy and Mani, 2013). Our findings do not corroborate these claims. Instead, we found that the “cost” that users today are most concerned with is the emotional cost of technology. Even in regard to privacy, which is undeniably a legal and civil rights issue for users, the greater user concern about privacy was typically rooted in either fear of embarrassment or frustration with an inability to control an online identity, more than it was a matter of a fear of piracy, theft or disclosure of legal or financial matters.

Below are brief descriptions of the motivations for pushing back against technology and the technology user behaviors that we found emerging from the literature. These are followed by a chart with their relative frequencies, both as a primary characteristic (exclusive) and as an overall characteristic (non–exclusive).

 

1. Emotional dissatisfaction: Users pushing back because their needs are not being met1. Emotional dissatisfaction: Users pushing back because their needs are not being met.

 

Emotional dissatisfaction is often accompanied by disappointment, a result of having had high expectations regarding the technology that were not satisfied. Emotional dissatisfaction can involve bitterness or even anger, as users had adopted a form of technology use with hopeful expectations only to be disillusioned. Some research suggests that this is as much a result of the personality of the user as it is an issue with the technology (i.e., Moore and McElroy, 2011; Krasnova, et al., 2013). An example of clear emotional dissatisfaction is expressed in a blog:

For me, Facebook wasn’t even a tool that fosters maintaining real relationships with old friends (and I mean real life friends). For me, it somewhat detracted from the genuine catching up that happened when I actually ran into someone from my past. I love the mystery of running into people, and learning about where they’ve been directly from them, rather than from a secondary feed of snippets and status updates from their manually–curated Facebook profiles. [27]

In another example of the growing unease and dissatisfaction about communication technology, Susan Conley writes:

So for months I’ve been feeling stuck — I’ve got this snazzy Smartphone, and I should probably use it. And I’ve also been feeling a little worried — what is this phone doing to my brain anyway? Why do I have this email compulsion? ... And I’d been feeling scattered. I’d been feeling like all my thoughts were light ... maybe it’s not the Smartphone’s fault, but [Nicholas] Carr says that because of these phones, all of us ‘stop having opportunities to be alone with our thoughts, something that used to come naturally.’ I knew I was going to have to throw my Smartphone away too. [28]

 

2. External values: Pushing back due to political, religious or moral reasons2. External values: Pushing back due to political, religious or moral reasons.

 

These people often cite a desire to reconnect with family or adhere to political religious beliefs that encourage selfless behavior and face–to–face interaction with others. Some people cite concern with the politics of the Internet, fearful that marketing, consumerism and distraction are enveloping the user. For example:

‘Everyone now wants to know how to remove themselves from social networks. It has become absolutely clear that our relationships to others are mere points in the aggregation of marketing data. Political campaigns, the sale of commodities, the promotion of entertainment — this is the outcome of our expression of likes and affinities’. These are the opening words for the Facebook Suicide Bomb Manifesto written by Sean Dockray and first published in the iDC mailing list May 28, 2010. [29]

 

3. Taking back control: Users pushing back to regain control of their time and energy3. Taking back control: Users pushing back to regain control of their time and energy.

 

The concern is primarily about time management and feeling that some technology use, often a specific type of technology, like social media or Web surfing, is “stealing’ productive time from the user. This is a very frequent secondary motivation among technology users. Brittany Ancell writes, “While I was constantly searching for ways to become more efficient at work, I was idling away my free time with trivial eBay pursuits and constant email monitoring.” [30]

 

4. Addiction: Pushing back as a result of technology addiction4. Addiction: Pushing back as a result of technology addiction.

 

Variations on the term “addiction” are frequent in user testimony. This fear is expressed in both younger and older users, arguably more often in younger people. “‘I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,’ says one student in the study. ‘I feel like most people these days are in a similar situation, for between having a Blackberry, a laptop, a television, and an iPod, people have become unable to shed their media skin’.” [31]

 

5. Privacy: Users pushing back due to fear about their privacy being violated5. Privacy: Users pushing back due to fear about their privacy being violated.

 

Some technology users fear that they are being monitored and/or their online identities are in jeopardy. Blogger Michael W. Dean writes,

Facebook is starting to act like The State. Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has updated their “user agreement” to say that they can sell any of your photos and not pay you. And they can use photos of your face. They could sell a photo of you smiling with a gun to an anti–gun campaign. If you’re overweight, you could end up in the “before” photo for a weight loss pill. etc. ... Facebook is spying on you. Of course these days, you are being spied on everywhere, all the time, by governments and corporations, but Facebook is the worst of the worst. And their privacy settings are useless. [32]

These five motivations are expressed with different frequencies in the literature we surveyed. The following figure shows the frequency for each one both as a primary type (exclusive categories, percentage of total) and as an overall type (non–exclusive categories, do not add up to 100 percent).

 

Frequency of motivations for pushback in recent literature
 
Figure 1: Frequency of motivations for pushback in recent literature (n=73, blogs, press and academic papers; primary denotes unique behavior; overall is non–exclusive, does not add up to 100 percent).

 

It is interesting to note that while emotional dissatisfaction is the most frequently reported reason to push back and resist online connectivity, taking back control over one’s time, energy and attention is most frequently reported as a secondary reason for pushback. Privacy, on the other hand, is the least frequently reported reason driving pushback (both as a main driver or as a secondary one). Perceptions around privacy may be changing, particularly after revelations of widespread U.S. government surveillance of online communications in the U.S. and abroad.

Five pushback behaviors

Behaviors for pushback and resistance to connectivity were overall more consistent in the literature, with a heavy predominance of one type of behavior: adaptation. Technical solutions, social solutions, and radical solutions (complete withdrawal) were less prevalent; also, a small cluster of pushback behavior is actually a resistance to the pushback, claiming that there is “no problem.” The frequencies of pushback behavior are displayed in the following figure.

 

Frequency of pushback behaviors in recent literature
 
Figure 2: Frequency of pushback behaviors in recent literature (n=73, blogs, press and academic papers; primary denotes unique behavior; overall is non–exclusive, does not add up to 100 percent).

 

 

1. Behavior adaptation: Manage technology use to reduce dissatisfaction1. Behavior adaptation: Manage technology use to reduce dissatisfaction.

 

Several adaptations to previous behaviors in relation to technology use are displayed in the literature: manage time (only use at specific times), manage applications (for example, drop Facebook and use only e–mail, or vice versa), digital fasting (for example, an hour/day/week of no media), and dummy accounts (to reduce spam or other unwanted communication). These types of behavioral adaptations are the most frequently cited. They are directed to responsibly managing technology use in a rational, more efficient, more “mindful” way that creates better life balance. After discussing why he is leaving Facebook, blogger Michael Dean writes where he can be found instead:

I’m not leaving the Internet. I love the Internet. I’ve been on it since 1990 (before the World Wide Web), and I’m still going to be around. I just hate Facebook. You can find me on Twitter, here. You can find Freedom Feens, my thrice–weekly podcast with Neema Vedadi, here. You can subscribe to that via RSS or iTunes, and post comments on the site, and I sometimes comment back. You can subscribe to the torrent link here. [33]

 

2. Social agreement: Collective decisions to limit media use2. Social agreement: Collective decisions to limit media use.

 

An interesting modification of the behavioral adaptation is the social agreement: rather than individual change, a group agrees to use communication technology in a different (restricted) way for a certain period of time, often in the context of a gathering. A common example is users agreeing to turn off or put away their phones in a meeting or at a restaurant (and the first one to use it pays the bill!), or having restaurants offer a five percent discount to dine without your phone (Kim, 2012). A new trend in weddings (regular people, not celebrities) is to have parties “unplugged” by having guests check their phones at the door or explicitly request guests to turn them off (Feiler, 2013). More broadly, there are unplugging events such as the “National Day of Unplugging,” initiated by the Reboot Network, creators of the “Sabbath Manifesto.” Per their Web site:

We increasingly miss out on the important moments of our lives as we pass the hours with our noses buried in our iPhones and BlackBerrys, chronicling our every move through Facebook and Twitter and shielding ourselves from the outside world with the bubble of “silence” that our earphones create. If you recognize that in yourself — or your friends, families or colleagues — join us for the National Day of Unplugging, sign the Unplug pledge and start living a different life: connect with the people in your street, neighborhood and city, have an uninterrupted meal or read a book to your child. [35]

 

3. Tech solution: A technology intervention to reduce media use3. Tech solution: A technology intervention to reduce media use.

 

The tech solution ironically places the control in a technology solution to prevent information overload. Most common is the downgrade of a smart phone to a “dumb” phone. This category also includes parental controls over times or applications, or the use of a “kosher phone,” a phone where Web browsing is blocked or limited to specific sites, and in which only rabbi–approved apps can run (Jeffay, 2013) or similar devices programmed to restrict content and/or times of use. In an increasingly common move, many people have abandoned smart phones for “dumb” phones. The tech solution forces the user to conform to more limited technology. For example, an anonymous blogger expresses the following sentiment:

Smartphones are impressive gadgets that allow us to conveniently do many things and interact in ways that were unheard of 10 years ago ... it ultimately comes down to my own personal journey and me trying to figure out what I want from life. Sometimes it’s good to take a step back and evaluate things from a wider perspective. Am I making the best use of my time and resources? Do I really NEED some of the things I have? When it came to my smartphone I felt like it was something I could — and should — do without. [36]

 

4. Back to the woods: Dropping out from technology altogether4. Back to the woods: Dropping out from technology altogether.

 

As an extreme reaction, some people are going completely off–line, or at least adopting severely limited Internet usage, barely minimal phone use, or both. They do it for themselves or for their families, and it sometimes goes unreported precisely because they are dropping out. In one example, a mom takes the family off–line:

With the help of her family therapist, Jindra, a single mom, devised a technology intervention ... From that point on, there were no iPads, no computers, no television, and no Wii. Phones are allowed, but only when necessary. The boys did not take to this plan easily ... Although he does want his computer time back sooner rather than later, Erik (10 years old) is enjoying this new lifestyle. ‘I realized there’s a lot of other fun things to do. Going to the park is now nicer than staying inside and sitting in front of the computer for an hour.’ [37]

 

5. No problem: Whatever it takes, just take it all in5. No problem: Whatever it takes, just take it all in.

 

Finally, in an opposite reaction, some people are also reacting to pushback, claiming there is nothing wrong with technology and their use of it. These are critical enthusiasts without reservation. Alexandra Samuel (2010) wrote: “If longer–term digital fasts can remind you how to integrate offline moments back into your daily life, that’s great. But you don't need a digital fast to justify meeting your needs online, and you don’t need to unplug in order to justify plugging back in.” [38]

 

++++++++++

5. Discussion and conclusions

While compiling the sources for this study of the literature, we did not approach the work with preconceived hypotheses. We began by searching for information on behavior and quickly became interested in why pushback was occurring, not just “how”. Searches in academic databases, (such as Academic Search Complete, Google Scholar, IEEE Explore, Compendex, and Google) included, but were not limited, to the following terms: digital fasting, technology resistance, unplugging, disconnecting, information overload, information anxiety, slow media, connecting versus disconnecting, digital overload, digital suicide, Facebook suicide, slow spaces, social media diet, digital Sabbath, over–connectedness, techno–stress. After reading through numerous blogs and Web sites, it was apparent that many of the reasons stated were emotional in nature, not monetary or strictly pragmatic. Emotional dissatisfaction, distinct from external values (another motivation), was clearly a very strong motivation resulting from the user’s emotional needs not being met. Similarly, the word “addiction” is heavily bandied about on Web pages and blogs. Control was another repeatedly important issue reported by users.

Interestingly, pushback has few demographic boundaries. The literature review includes testimony from teenagers to older adults across gender, class, and nation. In fact, like the Internet, pushback appears to be a global phenomenon. Technology users around the world, express deep concern about the technology tools that have become integral to their lives.

From a human–computer interaction (HCI) standpoint, this response raises questions about technology design and how to better serve users. From an economic standpoint, pushback calls into question how long each new technology innovation can last as a viable profitable enterprise, and whether business models need to account for these motivations and subsequent behaviors that manifest as pushback. From a psychological perspective, pushback sheds light on the deeper emotional needs and desires that people seek to fulfill through technology. From a humanist and philosophical position, it suggests that the Internet, accessed in so many ways, is not an easy answer to the human desire for connection with others. But in the end, this desire for connection is what frequently drives people to remain tethered to their devices, despite the feelings of dissatisfaction with technology.

The following are some areas that may warrant additional research:

Possible correlations between pushback motivations and behaviors

What kinds of motivations drive different types of pushback behaviors? While searching Web sites, blogs, and newspaper reporting, the common user behaviors defined by social agreement, adoption of tech. solutions, and behavioral adaptation became apparent. A daughter who signs a contract with her father to accept US$200 in exchange for giving up her smart phone has entered into more of a social agreement, than a legal one, to limit her technology use (Gross, 2013). In another approach, the user abandons a smart phone for a “dumber” flip phone and is obviously exercising a technology switching behavior, or what we’ve called a “tech” solution (Anonymous, 2011). Deactivating a Facebook account, but still using other technology is clearly a type of limited withdrawal, a means of controlling technology by limiting the type of technology used regularly, in other words, a form of behavior adaptation (Jung, 2013).

Each of these behaviors is often related to a particular motivation or motivations. Behavior adaptation, for example, was often accompanied by the motivations of emotional dissatisfaction, taking control, and addiction. The “Tech Solution” behavior was more likely to have “Addiction” as the primary motivation. Future study regarding the correlation between motivation and behavior could be exceptionally useful to gain a greater understanding of pushback. The exception is the “No Problem” behavior category, in that it does not correlate to any of the five motivations. However, it is a potential user behavior directly oppositional to the other behavior extreme of “Back to the Woods”. In fact, given that our search was focused on finding people exhibiting signs of pushback against technology, we were surprised to find as many sources as we did that found no problem with technology usage.

Paranoia and privacy

We were also surprised by the lack of concern with privacy. It was neither a primary or secondary concern amongst users in the literature. Addiction (or fear of addiction) and taking control (which revolves around feeling of wasting time) were strong secondary issues for many users. In fact, concern about wasting time was as strong a concern as emotional dissatisfaction, though emotional dissatisfaction was more often expressed as a primary concern. The Snowden disclosures about U.S. National Security Agency spying on American citizens and others abroad, which gained much media attention in the second half of 2013 and early 2014, would likely generate a renewed interest in privacy as a driver for technology pushback, something that needs to be further investigated. Given our study, it is clear from the breakdown of user behavior that few are interested in forsaking technology altogether or using technology to limit their usage; for example, dumbing down the phone or disabling the laptop’s Internet capabilities. Author Jonathan Franzen has reportedly permanently disabled his computer so that he cannot access the Internet while writing [39]. From our research, this is an extreme and uncommon coping behavior. But the generalized lack of concern for privacy, at a time when privacy is all but disappearing, is most troubling. In the words of Ross Douthat (2013), “‘Abandon all privacy, ye who enter here’ might as well be stamped on every smartphone and emblazoned on every social media log–in page (...) the Internet, in effect is a surveillance state.” How will awareness of privacy evolve and shape people’s uses of technology and social media, especially given the recent media attention on government surveillance and privacy invasions by U.S. government agencies?

Rational behavior

Behavior adaptation is the way that most technology users are managing their technology use when they are troubled by any of the five motivations identified in this literature review. That said, this is a broad category that encompasses a number of technology usage strategies. Essentially, our findings indicate that users are technology friendly overall, but have decided to withdraw or limit their use of one or more types of technology. Given the modern inundation of technology options, a pushback to reclaim time, or avoid unfulfilling experiences might not be surprising. Response to technology that is only partially satisfying involves rational management of technology by: limiting usage, scheduling usage to limit addictive or compulsive behavior, or forsaking some technology altogether while still using other technology that provides greater satisfaction.

Pushback is more than resistance to technology because it makes people uncomfortable, or frustrated, or robs them of their time, though all of these issues have been expressed repeatedly by users and we have defined them as motivations. Underneath these real motivations are deeper questions troubling technology users. These people eagerly spent money, time, and energy using technology to gain something and found it wanting. Sherry Turkle tells a story of a young woman she met who was thrilled to be able to regularly Skype her grandmother for free, only to feel guilty and troubled as a result of simultaneously e–mailing while talking. She is not paying attention and her grandmother is unaware of her multitasking. They are “alone together.” [40]

Self–proclaimed Catholic blogger, writer, and speaker Brandon Vogt wrote this on his blog after a week–long digital fast from social media and blogs:

My Internet fast revealed the sobering reality that I rarely do what I love. Instead of sitting in a comfy chair at night to read a book for an hour, I scan through a hundred irrelevant blog posts. Instead of praying, I fire up Facebook. Instead of playing with my kids, I send text messages and watch YouTube videos. If nothing else, the digital fast realigned my priorities. Now when I open my computer I think, ‘tomorrow, when I look back at this moment, would I have wished I was doing something else?’ Often, the answer is yes. And then my laptop slowly closes. [41]

Ever–Wasers might easily argue that the new technology is no more a problem than TV was when it came out and critics railed against the waste of time and mindlessness of the new entertainment. The difference is that entertainment is only a small part of the new landscape. Social media, smartphones, texting, video calling, blogging, e–mailing and even YouTube videos are meant to make it so much easier to share, connect, and create with other humans than ever before. Instead, technology users are expressing a sense of loss. Virtual connection is not turning out to be as rewarding as so many of us thought it would be, and a growing number of people are saying “better less.”

Of course, as a human invention, technology is designed as a response to our needs and desires. It reflects who we are. Our study suggests that human beings may be “hard–wired” with conflicting desires: a need for meaningful connection with others and an equally great need for distraction. Technology simply grants us access to both simultaneously. Our emotional issues with technology use may be more accurately ascribed to our frustration with ourselves.

Having avoided online distractions for a full year away from the Internet, technology writer Paul Miller concluded this in a blog post:

I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the Internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the Internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the Internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The Internet is where people are. [42]

If technology both helps us to connect and at the same time drives us apart we need to learn to manage it, and know when to push back. Longing for connection to people is what makes it difficult for users to push back on technology, what brings them back despite possible emotional dissatisfaction. But technology seems to over–promise and under–deliver: as users, we need to take control back, and make informed decisions about how we will manage our use of technology, or risk having technology manage us. End of article

 

About the authors

Stacey Morrison is a recent MLIS graduate of the University of Washington iSchool.
E–mail: slmorr01 [at] uw [dot] edu

Ricardo Gomez is Assistant Professor in the University of Washington iSchool.
E–mail: rgomez [at] uw [dot] edu

 

Acknowledgements

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the iConference, Berlin, February 2014; it received some media attention following a press release by University of Washington.

 

Notes

1. Friday, 2012, paragraph 13.

2. Hyatt, 2012, paragraph 3.

3. Anonymous, 2013, paragraph 3.

4. Justice, 2007, paragraph 2.

5. CNN.com, 2012, paragraph 4.

6. Lynch, 2013, paragraph 3.

7. Nakajima, 2013, paragraph 2.

8. Mark Prensky (2001) first introduced the concepts of digital natives and digital immigrants in “Digital natives, digital immigrants”, in the journal On the Horizon. These are now widely used terms.

9. Kharif, 2012, paragraph 2.

10. boyd, 2014, p. 80.

11. Selwyn, 2003, p. 110.

12. Rauch, 2010, paragraph 1.

13. Skeels and Grudin, 2009, pp. 100–101.

14. Sheldon, et al., 2011, pp. 773–774.

15. Sheldon, et al., 2011, p. 773.

16. Wang, et al., 2011, p. 11.

17. Moore and McElroy, 2011, p. 272.

18. Farnham and Churchill, 2011, p. 367.

19. Kuss, et al., 2013, pp. 959–966.

20. Bucher, et al., 2013, pp. 1,659–1,660.

21. Riechers, 2012, p. 2.

22. Krasnova, et al., 2013, p. 12.

23. Rainie, et al., 2013, p. 2.

24. Prensky, 2001, pp. 1–6.

25. Rowan, 2010, pp. 60–68.

26. Pea, et al., 2010, p. 327.

27. Common Sense Media, 2012, p. 27.

28. Anonymous Associate Project Manager at Google, n.d., paragraph 5.

29. Conley, 2012, paragraphs 5–7.

30. Karppi, 2011, paragraph 1.

31. Ancell, n.d., paragraph 2.

32. ICMPA, 2010, paragraph 1.

33. Dean, 2012, paragraph 4.

34. Dean, 2012, paragraph 6.

35. Sabbath Manifesto, 2013, “Join our unplugging movement,” paragraph 2.

36. Anonymous, 2011, Conclusion.

37. Berman, 2013, paragraphs 3–5, 12.

38. Samuel, 2010, paragraph 12.

39. Grossman, 2010, p. 2.

40. Turkle, 2011, p. 14.

41. Vogt, n.d., paragraph 7.

42. Miller, 2013, paragraph 53.

 

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Editorial history

Received 28 October 2013; revised 29 April 2014; revised 28 May 2014; accepted 29 May 2014.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Pushback: Expressions of resistance to the “evertime” of constant online connectivity
by Stacey Morrison and Ricardo Gomez.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 8 - 4 August 2014
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4902/4106
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i8.4902.





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