“I’m doing great, but you won’t see that in your social media feed”

An interview with Ramona-Riin Dremljuga on “partial disconnection” from social media

Raimund Minichbauer: Our interview departs from your study on people who decided to disconnect from one or more social media services after actively using several of them. Could you please give some basic information about the study?

Ramona-Riin Dremljuga: I worked on this study for two years, preparing it since 2015 and conducting interviews from February 2016 to May 2017.[1] It started from my personal experience with social media, which made me partly want to stay away from it, but not completely. When I discussed it with people, I realized that they knew a few other people who had done that – disconnected, but not entirely. I started conducting interviews with only a few people, which has grown to more than twenty people to this day. The interviewees were from various ages between their twenties and forties and from various backgrounds in terms of their educational backgrounds, profession, etc. For instance, there were programmers, teachers, businessmen, sportsmen, and students of different levels. Some of them were more knowledgeable in using technology than others and also had critical knowledge concerning social media and technology, but others only used social media for very basic needs. Despite their different backgrounds they were all skillful with technology and had rather positive attitudes towards media use in general.

The previous research on disconnection was mainly about people who did not have access or who have cut themselves off from all access to either social media or technologies in general. Today, new technologies are so deeply intertwined with everyday life that total disconnection is hardly possible, and I believe that a total disconnect from new media and communication tools is not what most people really seek. I think it is more about trying to figure out what the most reasonable balance between connection and disconnection is. I have been interested in people who deliberately decided - without being asked or forced - to give up a certain social media account or some of their social media accounts but remain connected via other similar means, including other social media that they were using simultaneously with the one they left from. For example, there were people who gave up their Facebook accounts while continuing to use Instagram or Twitter or other cases in which someone kept their Facebook account but gave up all other social media accounts such as LinkedIn and Reddit. So there are different cases, but the most popular platform to leave was definitely Facebook – or it was most common to find people who had left their Facebook profile.

RM: What is the difference between partial disconnection and a mere consumer choice such as deciding that e.g. Twitter might be more suitable than Facebook for one’s needs?

RRD: The difference comes from the extent of their decision. They began using that social media platform once which they now quit using, so they must have had a reason for connecting at one point. They might have seen it as useful, were curious about its features, were attracted to the opportunities it created, or their friends were there and they needed to be included as well – regardless of their reasons, at some point later on they decided to delete or leave the account. And the interviewees did not make this decision as a plan for how they wanted to use media in the future, but rather for that certain moment in their lives. It was a rather spontaneous act for getting rid of something they didn’t want to experience at that moment in their lives rather than the execution of a thorough plan that they had sculpted for their future lives.

RM: What were the main areas of critique or discontent? I guess you asked people about the reasons they left.

RRD: Actually, I chose to rather not ask this question directly. I was interested in the whole story – how they would talk about their experiences in social media beginning from the point when they started using social media up until the present time of the interview. Throughout the conversation about their media practice, the topics of what it was that they appreciated in social media and what was frustrating for them would come up, along with what it was that specifically made them decide to leave some social media. The people had clear needs that they felt were not fulfilled by the platforms they left behind or even misunderstood. We could say that the overall reason was the “cost efficiency” of the platform compared to their expectations to it. They felt that they were giving more than they were getting back – emotionally, not quantitatively. However, another issue was the expectations of other users to them. If you are on a platform, you are expected to be active and engaging, and there are some social rules and expectations that arise from using social media. For example, the assumption that if someone posts news on Facebook that it’s not worth mentioning when meeting face to face; or that a phone call that was not agreed on beforehand would mean that something has happened instead of simply being a regular alternative to instant messaging. There were some moments – or social norms with dehumanizing aspects – created by these social media platforms that users did not appreciate.

RM: What were the main patterns in finding alternatives? If I understood you correctly, people were basically just quitting one social media platform and then starting to search for alternatives a few weeks later. It was instead more like switching from one to another or quitting and also searching for alternatives at the same point in time?

RRD: Yes, instead of creating any new user accounts elsewhere or testing out other platforms, they utilized the other options they had from before – the accounts they used in addition to the ones they disconnected from – or more traditional media. They would call each other more often and then their friends would begin picking up the same habits. Some switched from using both Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to only using the latter, whereas others gave up messaging apps altogether and used email instead. The switch was always made to tools that they were already using.

RM: Have there also been attempts to switch to alternative social networks like Diaspora* or Mastodon?

RRD: No. I think the focus was never on searching for new/additional social media tools anyway. The main focus was on leaving a platform, because they found it to be too time-consuming or invasive or unnecessary, etc.

RM: How did people’s social media practices change after they disconnected?

RRD: I would say that they did not change their practices too drastically, because prior to disconnecting they would have already been more prone to being connected in the ways that they preferred. That was one of the preconditions that actually allowed them to disconnect, since they already believed that they were capable of connecting and communicating without that platform, or they saw it as a possibility. So they did not change their communication practices a lot, but I think the people around them did to some extent.

In some cases, people returned to the platform from which they had disconnected, because they were asked or somehow forced to do so. In these cases, the people who remained on the platforms were so relevant to those who had disconnected that they prioritized the other users’ needs over their own. However, when they did so they had already defined their practices on that social media platform much more specifically so their use was much more limited than it was before disconnecting from that platform. I guess there was a kind of purifying moment after the disconnection – even if they had returned, they had already fundamentally changed their media practices and didn’t feel like continuing in a similar way to how they did before they disconnected. To give an example from Facebook: Someone was asked to rejoin because of some information that needed to be shared to a specific group. That person would go on Facebook, but only to that specific group, because that was why he was needed there. All of the notifications and messages and the like – he did not check them. So I would not see this as something that a person forces themselves to do, like “oh, there are 100 notifications, but I should not look at them." It’s simply that they go in and out for those specific reasons, and they don’t care about the rest any longer. That is definitely a change from the previous practices where people often went along with the ‘regular ways’ of using the platform’s features and not focusing on what they needed from the platform.

RM: What were people’s concerns regarding what might happen after disconnecting, and which parts of those concerns materialized and which did not?

RRD: The main overall concerns come from public discourses and the main assumption that disconnecting will have a serious negative effect on your life, on your relationships and on your connectivity. The interviewees shared those views and said: “I know that I might lose connections.” “I will be cut off from information, which is actually relevant to me.” “I know I might miss out on some events.” Everything very much related to being left out. I would say that none of those people were afraid of what disconnection would bring, they were just acknowledging the negative aspects of disconnecting which they might experience after becoming "non-existent" on certain social media. However, in reality their experiences were totally different. People found disconnecting to be beneficial. It was one of the most interesting points for me to realize that the people who had not experienced the collectively assumed negative consequences did not say: “Hey, hey, hey, that is not how it works! I have done it and it is actually quite different!” Instead they continued to repeat and say: “Yes, you might be left out, you might lose some people around you,” etc. The common negative consequences feared were so evident in our conversations; as if whenever you give up on using some social media platform you lose something even though you only felt like you gained something from the changes in your social media practice.

I know also from personal experience that people don’t really want to discuss this. It is not that it is uncomfortable, but as it is not done for educational purposes, it is not seen as relevant for discussion. Moreover, there are some negative assumptions and attitudes regarding people who are off of certain social media. For example, it is assumed that when someone leaves a platform, it can be seen as a point of criticism towards the remaining users and not the platform itself. Or when someone leaves the platform because s/he considers it not to be useful, it is perceived as suggesting that the remaining users spend their time on activities that are unworthy of resources. As a result, the remaining users often start making excuses or explaining why using social media is relevant to them even though they understand the motivations of those who disconnected. However, as this is a very personal decision and preference, which is not seen as giving an example to other users, these discussions remain short, one-sided and declarative, and not fruitful argumentation. 

RM: What were the main benefits?

RRD: I think that the main positive result was that they devoted the time that they used to spend on social media to other things that were more relevant to them, like family time. In the end it, it turned out that what they spent their time on was not so relevant after all, because everything that they did instead seemed to be more enjoyable or preferable to their previous experiences of spending time on the platforms. They also found ways of doing things that were more efficient, like calling instead of messaging, which might get something done in five minutes instead of waiting for a reply the whole day.

RM: How did the networks of connected friends develop?

RRD: The interviewees were very positively surprised. They had the concerns about being left out that I mentioned, but they reflected that although some people did stop keeping in touch as much as they used to in some cases, in most cases their networks actually respected their decisions, even though there may have been some questioning of whether it was reasonable at first. In many cases, it was found that something may have happened, something might have been wrong with that person. There was that kind of concerned attitude. However, all in all, everyone reported that it went way better than they assumed. So people would follow and would actually start calling them more. They would send them the invites or questions or whatever that they used to get over the social media platform through other media or communication tools. So they found themselves still, if not even more, connected to the relevant people in their lives and less connected to the people that they cared less for, which was not really a problem for them. In a way, it was filtering out the most relevant contacts that they needed in their daily lives, but it was definitely not the case that they lost any relevant contacts. The communication flows between the people turned into something more practical after they disconnected. They were more need-based. When people needed to contact them, they could. It was as easy as before, just done through a different channel, but what was left out was the excess information that was not as relevant to them.

Another interesting aspect was that after disconnecting people realized that their friends that knew them well and who were aware of their interests would sometimes point out the news that they would have missed because they were no longer on that social media platform. So the news that was relevant to him/her actually found a way to him/her in an indirect way, because people that were still connected and knew him/her well, would care enough to let her/him know.

In practical terms, the people that I talked to disconnected in very similar ways: They mostly did not announce on the platform that they were going to leave. At the same time, they did not just stop going to the account. They deleted or disabled it instead, which results in being unreachable via that platform as their name is no longer displayed in the lists anymore and other users can, therefore, no longer locate that person with their name. Close friends figured that out very quickly while trying to reach each other on those social media platforms. However, they easily found other ways of connecting with that person, because while the social media was the most habitual, it was not the only method of contacting them. Other people also later found other ways if reaching the people that disconnected be either asking those close to them or by using "professional" tools such as email or making phone calls.[2]

RM: One of the findings you mention in your abstract is: “The idea of networks becoming more valuable for users as its population grows is challenged.” Could you please explain this a bit more in detail?

RRD: I was referring to the network effect, which indirectly suggests that the value of being in a network increases when the network grows. The fact that you are able to connect to virtually "anyone" in the world with the tiny click of a button is assumed to give you more opportunities. The more people that you are connected to and the more people that they are connected to allows your visibility and your reach to extend. This is what is often seen as a beneficial factor of social media, because you might become connected to people that you would otherwise not be connected with. However, I think that the practices of the interviewees actually proves that this is not what people want or what they need in many cases, because the fact that they are willing to give up their visible network or the opportunity to share needs with friends of friends of friends and gain a lot more information, is not as relevant to them as their personal needs.

RM: You speak of partial disconnection being an "indirect political attitude.” How could these political implications become more explicit and actualized? You wrote that the respondents do not self-identify as part of a new movement of disconnectors. Are such movements developing, e.g. from the concept of "slow computing" or "slow media"?[3]

RRD: I would say not at this stage. My understanding of a movement is that it is organized and people are connected to each other in a way, which is, as far as I know at least, presently not the case for these individuals. About the political aspect of this: I mentioned it in that way, because many of the previous research has addressed or revealed the politics of disconnecting, and how disconnecting is an attempt at addressing the issues of control and the power relationships between the platforms and its users, wanting to gain control over the decisions that are being made about how users should experience social media instead of the platforms forcing their users to use their systems. In the cases of my interviewees, it was not very common to voice serious criticism or concerns over the privacy issues when using a platform. The act is always representing some disagreements and in the background, I think it does have a political charge.

RM: Sharing the information, for instance, of the positive experiences as opposed to the common assumptions about disconnecting could may also be done through such movements.

RRD: I think that sharing the information about the good stories of disconnecting is actually being done by people who do it as an experiment. You see all these stories online about people who are doing a digital detox, taking a month or a year off of social media or technologies. Then they come back and they write about their amazing experiences. So I think it is being talked about, but the people I talked to are not the type of people who would start talking about their experience. They even felt a bit weird talking to me, because this is their regular life. This was just a decision and not an experiment or like a detox camp.[4]

I think that the most relevant learning point from this is just the fact that we should realize how diverse disconnection can be – or connection. I am, for example, now focusing on people who have not even created their own social media accounts but who are on social media by using their partner’s or their family’s accounts.

RM: There is a tradition of researching non-participation or refusal of media and technology. How would you situate the "partial disconnection" in the broader field of resisters who never began using certain online services in the first place to the excluded who haven’t got the possibility to participate?

RRD: I actually tried working on this when I started to conceptualize the study and found that there are so many different cases and separate concepts: non-use, slow adoption, passive use, avoidance, abstinence, disengagement, de-domestication, disconnection, resistance, refusal, appropriation, etc.[5] There are so many different ways that you can experience social media and where you could then be placed in that spectrum, or what is rather a matrix. I would say that "partial disconnection," such as giving up some but not all social media, is definitely not on the refusal side, because they see more perks than negative aspects of using different technologies. I would rather put them on the appropriation side, because they disengage from certain parts of the media only to proactively improve their experience. None of them promised to be off that media forever. It is just something they have chosen for now, and they don’t think about the extent to which they will continue their practice. I believe that it is going to be much more common for people to knowingly disconnect from some parts of the media ecosystem. My only hope is that it will be greeted with less assumptions and prejudice.

Ramona-Riin Dremljuga is an independent researcher with a day job in managing media projects. In her research, she focuses on contemporary media practice and the intersections of connection and disconnection from social media.

Language Editing: Lina Dokuzovic



[1] The initial part of the study was realized as a Master's Thesis at Aarhus University. An article in which further aspects are developed will be published in AoIR’17 special issue in Studies of Transition States and Societies.

[2] These aspects will be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming article (cf. footnote 1).

[3] See, for example: http://progcity.maynoothuniversity.ie/2017/11/slow-computing-a-workshop-on-resistance-in-the-algorithmic-age/ or http://en.slow-media.net/manifesto.

[4] For a critical analysis of "digital detox," see, for example: Adam Fish, "Technology Retreats and the Politics of Social Media", tripleC 15(1): 355–369, 2017, http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/download/807/992.

[5] To make sense of the different ways of how to see it and to group my participants in a way, I ended up with a side product that I call "modes of disconnection." What I had learned from reading previous literature on the topic and hearing about people’s experiences, I differentiated three modes of disconnection: (1) experimental disconnection practice where people try out and experiment with disconnection short-term; (2) precautious disconnective practice, which is used to modify one’s media practice and relationships for a better daily experience for an indefinite period of time; and (3) long-term disconnecting practice, which assumes a drastic change in one’s media use with a long-term nature.