A computer monitor sitting on the ground, with the screen smashed

Technology protest: what do you do?

Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research write about some responses to social media protest:

It’s common, and easy, to say “just don’t use it.” There’s actually a term for this– technology refusal– meaning people who strategically “opt out” of using overwhelmingly prevalent technologies. This includes teens who’ve committed Facebook suicide because it causes too much drama; off-the-grid types who worry about the surveillance potentials of GPS-enabled smartphones; older people who think computers are just too much trouble; and, of course, privacy-concerned types who choose not to use Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, websites with cookies, or any other technology that could potentially compromise their privacy. (This does not include people who can’t afford internet access or computers, or who live in areas without cell towers or broadband access.)… [There is] the idea that refusal is the only legitimate way to protest something one thinks is problematic, unconscionable, unethical, or immoral… I generally do not buy this idea. Here are three reasons why.

The Cost of Opting Out

Opting-out of watching The Bachelorette because I think it romanticizes sexism doesn’t impact me the same way that choosing not to have a cellphone does. If I choose not to have a cellphone, I am choosing to exist in a world where social norms have adapted to cellphones without adapting myself. Face it, someone without a cellphone requires everyone who interacts with that person to make special accommodations for them… not having a cellphone puts one at a serious disadvantage…

The Civic Responsibility to Critique

Members of a community (nation, state, book group, dining club, whatever) have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic, whether those are government principles, media representations, website policies, or laws. In fact, this is such a cultural norm that the right to protest is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the US Constitution…

It’s Not Free

Social software is not free [the blog means price for those of you who immediately thought about liberty]… Only the most staunch pro-market capitalist would argue that a customer has no right to complain about a product or service that she is paying for, either directly or through the exchange of personal information.

I was, frankly, tempted to let this slide by in a linkspam, but we’re a bit quiet around here this week, so, let’s talk about varying forms of technology protest. Here are some of mine:

I left Facebook and will probably leave LinkedIn (just need to get some opinions from colleagues on whether this will be professionally damaging) over those sites’ like of using users to advertise products (LinkedIn just turned this on, here’s how to opt-out and here is their response to criticism), and Facebook’s continual cycles of making information shared with advertisers or applications and later making it opt-out in response to another wave of protest.

I am undecided on Google+: I intensely dislike their wallet-name policy, perhaps especially given that the initial policy was “name you are known by”, but it also has a lot of the features I miss about Facebook (in-line comments, longer entries than Twitter), so the cost of opting-out is a consideration for me there.

I keep some data in the cloud and use some Google services, although not as many as a lot of tech people (my personal email is not in Gmail, for example). There’s some cost of opting-out there too: cloud computing may be a trap but I notice Richard Stallman has an organisation that pays people to be his sysadmins (or could, at least, I can’t say I am certain whether RMS admins his own boxes). I could host my own Status.net instance, Diaspora, etc, but I don’t have the time or money. There’s also reader/friend cost: many more people follow me on Twitter than on Identi.ca as it is, almost no one ever logs into Diaspora that I’ve seen. I am simply not powerful enough to force my friends to follow me to different sites, so to some extent I stay where they are.

Most recently, I bought an Amazon Kindle which is fairly well evil (ie, so DRMed it’s possible that it will grow legs in the night, scan and eat my paper books, and make me ring Jeff Bezos in future for permission to read them). This is actually a response to even more nastiness to some degree: at least Amazon sells some recent e-books to Australian customers, relative to almost all of the ePub vendors anyway, and moreover sells them at the US price as opposed to the special markup (about 100%) Australians pay for anything electronic or Internetty. So that’s flat-out poor options, there.

I am committed to the right to complain about things I use in general: to be honest I think a lot of the “leave if you don’t like it” criticism, at least from people who are themselves apathetic, is rooted in “it’s not cool to care about things, don’t make me watch you caring”.

How about you? What services do you stick with and complain/protest about, and why? Which ones have you left/not signed up for despite temptation, and why?

Note: a bit of amnesty would be nice in this post. We’re talking about people’s choices, and frantic attempts to convert everyone to your version of technology purity will stop the conversation. If someone says that they are actively seeking an alternative to service X that has property Y, that would be a good time to mention service Z, which offers X-like functionality with more Y. Otherwise, let people talk.

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at puzzling.org with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

17 thoughts on “Technology protest: what do you do?

  1. Jane O

    Thank you for this post: I have just turned off all the opted in boxes in Linked in, twittered and facebooked the message so people know. I was a ardent supporter of the protest against Phorm and the various companies that were trying to foist that on the general public so I am relatively vigilant where technology is concerned. So yes I use Facebook a lot (started because several people I needed to stay in contact with were using it, so I got sucked in), Twitter not very much, Gmail a lot. Having said this I am constantly keeping an eye on what these apps are doing with my data – all my privacy controls on Facebook are set to customised, I deliberately set my Gmail location to somewhere I am not, and I have just sorted out Linked-in. Because of this slow creep by the companies in regard to the selling of data, I consider myself a slow adopter of new technology. When I do adopt, I am in a constant battle to keep my data private.

  2. John

    My main compromise that I’m aware of is using Amazon despite their patenting “one-click” shopping (a software / business method patent). I haven’t done anything to protest it, although I’d like to.

    My reasons for continuing to use Amazon (in particular, its “marketplace”) include that, thinking utopically, I’d like to see advertising disappear altogether* and be replaced by a more neutral “trade directory” system that you could search to find a product; and Amazon Marketplace seems to be one of the available forms of something like that.

    * In my ideal world, it would be illegal to make a product or service recommendation for reward. On a personal level, I try to dis-reward advertising; if I’m about to buy something, but remember I’ve seen it advertised recently, I generally buy a competing product instead, so targetting advertisments at me is likely to be counterproductive anyway.

  3. Shinobi

    I refuse to use an e book reader. I object to the idea that I should have to buy a peice of technology in order to read something that I could read perfectly well in book form.

    Unfortunately I will pay a price as some stuff is being published in only e-reader formats now.

    1. Jayn

      I was considering a Nook (it would save me a lot of space) until I realised I’d still have to buy my books at full price. C’mon, give me a little break on the price. A dollar. Hell, 50 cents. Something.

      1. Deborah

        Unfortunately, Amazon has set the expectation that e-books should be substantially cheaper than paper ones. But in publishing houses, the cost of paper and ink and shipping are insubstantial compared to the cost of authors, book designers, marketing, and all the other overhead. Those $10 Kindle books are killing publishers. (But yes, small discounts of a dollar or so, as you suggest, seem more reasonable.)

  4. Catherine

    I think that it’s always worth at least remembering that in the situation for which boycotts were named (i.e. the one with Captain Boycott), the community didn’t just refuse to buy from him. They refused to work for him or sell to him. Why I think it’s important is that I think consumer choice is often overvalued as a tool, when it is in actuality just one part of this kind of social action.

    I’m pretty pro-privacy and anti-advertising and just plain lazy about joining or using a lot of social media (the ones I use most are more niche-market). For me, though, the problems I face are mostly just “rich people problems”: my data could be reused in ways I don’t like and I could be advertised to in ways I don’t like. I hate the distraction of advertising that makes me think I need to buy more when I am already among the richest people in the world (middle-class American). But at the same time, for me to focus too much of my time on avoiding advertising is a distraction from working on the bigger problems like hunger and disease that prey upon the majority of the world’s people. So, for me, it’s less about opting out of anything than about making sure I’m opting in to things like my faith, to listening to others, to budgeting charitable giving as a substantial part of my expenditures, to going outside my comfort range. In my own situation, I have to be careful not to fall into the trap of “consuming correctly” that really only serves my own identity without effecting any kind of change for anyone else–it just keeps me being a consumer.

    I do think that these conversations about social media are important, though. We are all making choices about whether or how to use them, and I think we should use them intentionally (in the philosophical sense of “intentionally”).

  5. Denise Paolucci

    I got tired of social networks that existed only to sell your data to marketers or use your content as a vehicle for selling space to advertisers, so I started my own. ;)

    Seriously, though, one of the major reasons for starting DW was that a network (LiveJournal) which had previously been user-driven was moving more and more towards being the same advertiser-and-marketer-driven space that Web 2.0 consists of. (I watched it happening, and fought very, very hard against it from the inside. When I quit the company, I knew the rest of my former team would keep fighting, but I also knew they weren’t going to get listened to, because I’d had the benefit of not needing the job 100% to keep the household afloat, while the rest of my team did; they didn’t have the same ability to push as hard as I had.) Even though the site had been sold to a different company that didn’t view “monetization” in the same fashion, I saw the writing on the wall, and I didn’t like it.

    I’m still exploiting that “I don’t need the job to keep the household afloat” status with Dreamwidth; user payments aren’t yet enough to support paying me, or anybody else in countries where there isn’t a serious exchange rate and cost-of-living advantage, a living wage for working full-time on the site. But we’re getting closer and closer, and I still haven’t lost the dream of an entirely user-supported social network with zero outside advertising, investment, or venture capital. It’s totally an idealistic experiment, but so far it seems to be working.

  6. Liza

    I’ve been having very mixed feelings about Google products ever since the whole G+ pseudonymity thing–no surprise there. After leaving pro-pseudonymity feedback several times I closed my G+ account in protest, and I’ve been contemplating moving away from Google Calendar as well, and thinking about what search engine I would switch to (not Bing, that’s for sure, but I don’t know what would be better. Suggestions are welcome).

    It’s a difficult thing. Google’s various services are omnipresent (I use search, calendar, maps, Android phone…) and they mesh so well together, it’s hard to stop using them in favor of something else. And I’m sure they planned that–not in any malicious way, but just to retain customers.

    And as you said in the post, there is a cost when one opts out of anything like that. Enough of my friends are on G+ that I actually created another account last night, pretty much solely for the Hangout feature. I used a brand new email address and a pseudonym that doesn’t look like a pseudonym. I won’t get my account suspended that way, but nobody I know will be able to find me–I’ll have to add people individually and tell them who I am. I wish I could just have an account with the same username I use on Dreamwidth, LiveJournal, AIM, and everywhere else. You know, the name my friends know me by.

    1. exhipigeonist

      Hey Liza!

      Just a quick reply to suggest an alternative to Google (and Bing, etc.) search. I use and really adore Duck Duck Go. It has user privacy as a top priority and, really, I don’t see any practical disadvantage compared to using the more commercial systems. I may not get the thousand+ hits for some search terms as I may with Google, but the relevant results are still at the top which is what’s important.

      While it’s difficult to get out of other services, such as social networking ones, due to all the connections you lose, search is personal activity that isn’t affected by your peers in the same way so it’s easy to change (though Google tends to be the default in many spaces).

      I highly recommend others try out ddg and see if it works for them, too!

      Sorry, apparently this wasn’t ‘just a quick reply’ at all =)

  7. AMM

    The most common reason why I don’t a lot of the neety-keeno-kook Nieuwe Technology(tm) is that I don’t have much use for it.

    The idea of “social networking” by computer just doesn’t work for me. I need the real-time response from people in order to keep my communications in the realm of sanity. Cyber “friendship” is as unsatisfying as making love to a porn site. I tried Facebook, but I just couldn’t figure out why anybody wants to do it. Besides, I’m reluctant to reveal too much of myself under my own name, lest a potential (or current) employer Google me and find out something awkward.

    I’ve never tried twitter because it usually takes me hours or days to even think of a response to an event or post, and hours more to write anything coherent. (On most blogs, by the time I’m ready to comment, the dogpack of commenters is long gone.)

    I have a cell phone, but if it were up to me (and not my employer), it would stay off except when I’m travelling or meeting someone.

    E-books? They still look less handy than, say, paperbacks. (They don’t look like they would fit in a pants pocket.) Also, it’s a lot easier for me to find a hardcopy book in my house or office based on what it looks like than it would an E-book.

    Actually, because of coordination problems, I avoid GUIs, too, to the extent I can. My company recently switched me from Unix development to Windows, and I’ve taken a huge productivity hit because of my problems with using a graphic interface.

  8. G

    Just checked my Linked In account to see if my opt-out to social advertising was still set, and that option has disappeared. Whether that means they’ve shut down the ad program or they’re no longer allowing opt-out I don’t know.

    I try to be careful with Google. They already know too much about me and, as we see with the current nymwars, they are hard at work getting more and more information about me all packaged up for sale. That’s one of the reasons I am not signing up for Google+.

    Ironically, another reason I am not going to get on Google+ is that I can’t risk losing access to my Google accounts (which seems to happen to many Google+ users for any or no reason) because I have an Android phone. The phone requires a Gmail account so I keep a Gmail account just for that while my main email activity is elsewhere.

    The cloud is taking over many of our daily activities and making them easy and convenient but the cloud companies have not figured out how to provide services that are both useful and secure. The latest sad story is from Apple.

    1. G

      Sorry, made a mistake about Linked In. The social advertising settings are still there for opt out. I just didn’t see them.

  9. G

    Good point from cmars on HN:

    I’ve come to realize that fragmented, disconnected identities on separate websites is a feature. Yes, the dots can be connected by someone with significant resources. But why should I make these connections easy to make, or searchable? Doesn’t do anything for me.

  10. Megpie71

    Okay, this is me online:

    I have a number of different accounts here and there, but if you look for me in most “social media” you’ll be disappointed. I don’t play WoW any more (because one of their updates borked the graphics, and the only fixes they’d offer were “take a hugely lagged slowdown and like it” or “no base textures and like it”). I walked away from Facebook (which I hardly used in the first place) because I was annoyed at their rather straightforward “you are a demographic, not a human being” policies. I have a twitter account which occasionally gets the dust blown off if there’s something interesting happening online that I want to monitor with that level of granularity (but most of the time I don’t bother because I tend toward the verbose and summing things up in 140 characters is damn difficult for me). I’m visible at a few blogs, mostly as a commenter. I have an account (free) with Livejournal, which I keep up for the OpenID and the commenting access, but mostly I post to my Dreamwidth and InsaneJournal accounts (the DW is the primary journal, IJ gets cross-posts). My primary email is through yahoo, and it’s effectively a POP box where Thunderbird drops in once every 15 minutes while I’m online, grabs what’s there, and ignores it the rest of the time. My gmail account forwards to the yahoo one. I don’t use any IM programs, or IRC, or anything like that. If I’m playing an MMO, that’s what I’m doing: playing, not chatting. I’ve never bothered with LinkedIn.

    My browser is Firefox with AdblockPlus, NoScript and Taco (new one) plug-ins active. I don’t like ads, and if I can avoid looking at them, I will.

    My mobile phone is pretty much reserved for making and taking phone calls – it has internet capabilities, but I’ve never bothered activating them because I don’t see the point in using up my prepaid credits on something with a screen about 7cm by 5cm. I don’t use ebook readers because firstly, I’m Australian and they’re only just starting to penetrate the market here, and secondly, I don’t see the point in spending upwards of $200 (which I haven’t really got to spare) on another piece of easily-breakable single-function technology. My MP3 player is a Creative Zen, which looks like exactly what it is: a small hard drive with a headphone jack, loaded with all my music and a bit of software to act as an OS. My last organiser was a Palm m350, which is still sitting in the cradle in my room, acting as an alarm clock. If I could find a decent piece of relatively low-cost, relatively robust technology which could replace the PSP, the Palm, the mobile phone, and the Zen, I’d get it, but so far I haven’t run across anything which catches my eye (and at present, I can’t really afford anything new anyway).

  11. Vera

    I don’t use my main credit card email address with any social networks. I got into the habit of using a burner email for any marketing driven websites back in the day and continued that as I moved into social networking. Now I have a few so that when social networks and online services merge they can’t force me to tie my accounts together. Also, random people who know my credit card email can’t find me on twitter or facebook or whatever just by setting their address book free on the internet. Facebook’s habit of changing the privacy rules means that I can never trust them not to reveal any info I have given them. So I just don’t give them any. I’m on FB because that’s where the pictures of my extended family are and it works really well for marketing events and projects.

    I don’t use my main fandom email address for any google products, I have a google ID for that.

    This is my method of keeping balance between online engagement – which I really enjoy and value – and maintaining my privacy and control of my personal information.

  12. deborah

    I opt out of Facebook, and it is costly to me to do so. My overseas family keeps in touch primarily by posting on Facebook, and distant friends are also primary Facebook users. I know what’s going on mostly by keeping in contact with those few Facebook users who still also communicate via e-mail, phone, IM, etc. G+ will probably have the same problem, because I’m opting out of that as well. I also don’t have any Google accounts, which frequently bites me professionally — I can’t check Google analytics or use shared Google Docs, for example.

    That being said, I’m on other social networks, and many of them do know who I am in real life. If I were setting up those accounts now I would be more paranoid, but I live with the reality of what I’ve done in the past.

  13. Gin

    What I like about this discussion, from reading thus far, is that there’s been no implication that a person isn’t nerdy/geeky/tech-savy if they choose to opt out, for whatever reasons.

    In ‘real’ life, people have often tried to embarrass me because I’ve chosen not to use every possible available social network, but study IT.

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