Digital natives: digital renegades or digital captives?

[Cross-posted on Corinna di Gennaro‘s blog and Internet and Democracy blog]

A few days ago in the IHT Evgeny Morozov, a Fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, has published an interesting op-ed entitled: “Digital renegades, or captives?” where he analyzes the role of the Internet in promoting civic engagement in authoritarian regimes. Evgeny asks: “What if the original premise was wrong and the Internet is not a great force for democratic change but rather the clay that keeps authoritarian regimes together?” Evgeny alerts us to the dangers of seeing the Internet as a magic wand, which will necessarily promote democratic change and warns us about the importance of context (America vs. non-Western European countries) when analyzing the role of the Internet in aiding political change and political participation.

Evgeny goes on to argue (and I quote his words, again): “We have to be aware of the fact that the Internet has given the youth living in controlled societies infinite venues for digital entertainment – without any religious or social censorship – that may not necessarily be enhancing their digital sense of citizenship and civic engagement. Risking the comfort of their bedrooms – with their hard-drives full of digital goodies – for the gloom of a prison cell does not appeal to many of them. The governments are all too happy to promote this new cult of ‘cyber-hedonism’.”

In other words, the Internet is just a tool – we must avoid technologically deterministic arguments which stress the effects of technology by taking it out of context, and by devoiding it of social agency. Evgeny suggests two ideal types (a la Weber): ‘digital renegades’ vs. ‘captives’ which I think are much more than just another trendy name, but they are two categories which may well turn out to be a really useful analytical tool in studying young people’s civic engagement.

“Unfriending”: Stealth Tactics and Sensible Responses

Unfriending may not be the most dramatic of online offenses. But it is among the most hurtful—in large part because it’s so stealthy.

Let’s say you’ve been dating a guy for a few months. After a messy breakup, you both change your relationship status to “Single” on Facebook, which shows up in all of your friends’ News Feeds. That’s bad enough. But a few weeks later, you go to look at the ex’s profile, just to see what he’s been up to…and notice that you’re locked out! The two of you belong to different networks (meaning the default is that you can’t see each other’s information), and so the truth comes out: you’ve been unfriended. The breakup was a big deal, but being unfriended stings in a totally new way. It feels like you’ve been cut out of someone’s life completely. Not only does he not want to date you: he doesn’t even want to be friends with you.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let’s look at this from the other person’s perspective for a moment. It’s possible that he really doesn’t want to be “friends” anymore…though communicating that through the interface of Facebook seems aggressively passive-aggressive. Far more likely: he’s just trying to take his mind off the drama for a little while.

The issue with online social networks is that they conflate “I like you as a person” with “I want to read constant updates about your life.” Sometimes—as in the case of a recent breakup—you don’t want to cut someone out of your life forever; it just hurts to read a play-by-play version of that someone’s life. Especially when you’re on the outs with someone, the intrusion of their updates into an otherwise innocuous News Feed can feel like a slap in the face.

A lot of people respond to that slap by “unfriending” the problematic person in question. This definitely excises the person from your News Feed. And if you pay any attention at all to your News Feed, this can feel like a good way to get your mind off the social drama; your stream of consciousness isn’t constantly being interrupted by reminders of the person you’re trying not to think about.

The problem, of course, is that when you unfriend someone, you show your hand. Facebook might not notify those whom you unfriend, but they’re quite likely to discover the unfriending eventually. Everything in the interface of Facebook, especially, implicitly reveals the presence or absence of an official connection—right down to the encouraging “add to friend” text under a person’s picture in their profile.

Removing a friendship on Facebook is often just a way to remove someone’s updates from your News Feed—it’s not always as dramatic as “I never want to speak to this person, ever again.” And, since people use their News Feeds in so many different ways, it’s almost impossible to figure out why someone removed you as a friend without just asking the other person.

So, should you ask? It depends. If the worry is consuming you, then just asking might be the best response. But a better first response might just be to interpret positively, and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Real-world confrontations about Facebook friendships can start to feel deeply recursive: if you’re talking, then isn’t there something there? Friendships, relationships, and acquaintanceships are complicated: the single binary of “friend/unfriend” can’t possibly capture all the nuances. If you choose to interpret someone else’s action in the least offensive way possible, you’re not only likely to feel better; you’re also pretty likely to get close to the truth.

And if you’re on the other side? As it turns out, “unfriending” isn’t the only course of action you can take if you want to remove someone’s updates from your News Feed. If you scroll down to the very bottom of the feed, you can click on a small link that reads “Options for News Feed.” This link will take you to a page with the “Less About These Friends” dialog:

If you’re on the outs with someone, it’s easy to add them to the list for a while, and then take them off of it later—all without the public drama of “unfriending.”

Being “unfriended” can be very bewildering. Fortunately, it’s just that—a made-up word, couched in quotation marks. Understanding the way Facebook works can help illuminate the weird phenomenon of unfriendship, and with any luck, offer strategies for dealing with the complications of real-world friendships transposed into online streams of consciousness.