Review of Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds

Disconnect: Facebook’s Affective Bonds
Tero Karppi

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018
192 pp., illus. 1 b/w, Trade, $88.00; paper, $22.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0306-0; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0307-7.

Reviewed by
Andrew Prior
June 2019

Disconnect is a close examination of Facebook as platform, company, and social context. The scale of Facebook as an entity, and its deep entanglement with contemporary life, is admirably met by this densely woven and meticulous investigation. While other social media studies have focussed on human experience and implications, Tero Karppi emphasises a non-human approach to his methodology: “rather than starting from the individual,” he seeks to map, “the complex technosocial fabric that conditions our possibilities and build[s] a context where being a human occurs and takes shape” (p. 9). In particular, this involves studying the interrelations of affective and economic dimensions, but includes discussion of protocols, legal issues, specific apps, business reports and so on. Of course, by dint of the subject matter, humans do appear everywhere—from our everyday engagements with the platform and its social consequences for us, through to the role our deaths play with social media—but they appear as bit-parts within a broader, systemic study, appropriate to the biopolitical scale of the platform.

The book is structured around the key theme of disconnection, as both a plea for readers to reconsider their relationships with social media and disconnect, and—following Michel Foucault—because disconnections constitute the kinds of ruptures and breaks that reveal the characteristics of subject matter best. The theme is explored in various ways across the chapters: logging out, not participating, dropping connection, and dying. In the introductory chapter Karppi unpicks his position on disconnection as integral, at a fundamental level, to the idea of (social media) connectivity—“Every connection is accompanied by disconnection as a potentiality” (p. 2)—and the significance of this as an ‘existential threat’ for social-media companies, which make every effort to overcome disconnection. Social media are usually framed in terms of relations between people, and social media companies often “downplay the business side”—for example:

“…in his letter to investors, Zuckerberg underlines that ‘Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish social mission—to make the world more open and connected.’” (p. 12)

Nevertheless, as Karppi argues, users are also vital to the business of social media. He charts the fundamental connections between Facebook’s drive to make money through strengthening its user base their approach to ‘user engagement’ as a means to do this, and its approach of modulating affect to increase engagement. Interestingly, despite common understandings of social media as participatory, Facebook avoids reference to ‘user participation’ within its legal documentation and mission, instead using the alternative term of ‘user engagement’ (p. 29). In the next chapter, Engage, Karppi explores this concept of further, showing that from a financial point of view, what users participate in, and how they participate, is of secondary importance to their ongoing, and growing, engagement with the platform.

“Engagement means becoming involved with something, but importantly, it does not define an activity (such as participation); it merely ensures that there will be an activity. Engagement creates a field of intensity.” (p. 33)

Karppi discusses the profiling and production of users through the platform, such that that their modes of engagement necessarily line up with the concerns of Facebook Inc. as a business. The Deluezian notion of the dividual is drawn upon to discuss the ways in which users are split, granularized and sorted, so that, as Haggerty and Ericson put it, their data-doubles can be “used to create consumer profiles, refine service delivery, and target specific markets” (p. 34). Participation is further explored in the following chapter, though here the term is used with a dose of irony, since the chapter’s key focus addresses the agency and autonomy, not only of users, but also of Facebook to act on behalf of the user, “even when we’re not there” (p. 487). Citing examples like Sponsored Stories (removed from Facebook in 2014), the Timeline and Open Graph, Karppi discusses ways in which our participation is not always autonomous, or in some cases, even required. For example, the Timeline is understood not simply as a mechanism to collect your own “photos, stories and experiences that tell your story,” (p. 49) but—through likes, shares and comments—as a way to reframe our own subjectivity and personal history into commodifiable form.

If the first half of this book sets the modus operandi of social media, and discusses a series of concepts around connectivity, the second half focusses instead on disconnection proper: deactivating, dying, disconnecting and logging out. Deactivate explores the concept of digital detoxing or fasting as both a resistance to capitalist production, and from the perspective of drug-use—the idea that that social media are intoxicants. From here, the chapter focusses on the act of committing ‘social media suicide’. Beginning with Sean Dockray’s Facebook Suicide Bomb Manifesto, published on the Institute for Distributed Creativity mailing list in 2010, Karppi goes on to study the significance of deactivation through analysis of two media art pieces: http://www.seppukoo.com/ by Les Liens Invisibles (2009), and Web 2.0 Suicide Machine by moddr & Fresco Gamba. The shift in focus to media art provides a welcome counterpoint to the systemic and affect-based focus thus far, and allows Karppi to begin drawing more pointed political and ethical conclusions. Importantly, these projects—and the concept of digital suicide—are framed not as a way “to end ‘life’ but to separate it from the ‘economics’ and ‘politics’ of social media platforms” (p. 69).

After discussion of virtual suicide, the next chapter—titled ‘Die’—actually talks about death, and the role of the dead on Facebook. There are already Facebook accounts for 50 million dead, and it is “estimated that by 2098 the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook” (pp. 87-88). A little ironically, given the subject matter, the chapter’s former life as a journal article is plain to see – both through explicit references to ‘the article’, and reiteration of contextual information and method that should, by rights, sit within the introductory chapter. This slight oversight in the editing of the book is one of very few shortfalls to the book. Through a fine-grained comparison of the process of memorialising pages (which is relatively easy), versus the removal of the dead people’s Facebook accounts altogether (which is perhaps more complex), we begin to understand how even in death, users can generate revenue (and social value) for Facebook.

Towards the end of the book, there is some overlap with the preceding chapters, yet despite a sense of repetition, Karppi continues to add detail and critical insight through to the end. Where Deactivate explored virtual suicide as artwork, Disconnect focuses on the implications of leaving Facebook for users more generally, discussing Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), the souring of public opinion about Facebook and initiatives like Quite Facebook Day, platform alternatives like Diaspora* and the attempts by Facebook to improve their public image through print media advertising. The book concludes by exemplifying the dividual through the concept of self-production or self-branding, where—as Wendy Chun puts it—“social media make users part of a big-data drama” (p. 127). For example, updating a Life Event produces information that is, in turn, used within social media data mining to extract data from users, which is subsequently hashed “to make the actual identities disappear. Then they aggregate and analyse the data and push them back to users in the form of premediated futures” (p. 130) as a means to achieve target marketing and stabilise consumer identities. Our sense of individuality is compromised at a systemic level in favour of market forces.

The strength of this research is in its absolute attention to detail. The author masters the unruly and competing aspects of this incredibly complex, and swiftly evolving organisation, examining them through a well-chosen range of conceptual frameworks. If there is a weakness, it is perhaps that the focus on disconnection throughout is overly constraining. In fact, Karppi’s scholarly examination of Facebook is precise and far-reaching enough even without a central theme such as this. A particular strength of the book is the way in which the discussion of affect, which can sometimes be nebulous and somewhat abstracted, is repeatedly pinned down into specific mechanisms, policies and strategies, with subtlety and far-reaching insight. Over all, the book is wonderful, and will serve as a valuable addition to the growing body of work on, and critique of, social media generally and Facebook specifically.