New Criticals

Care Work and the Stakes of Social Media Refusal


Last month, February 2014, marked the ten-year anniversary of epitomic social network site Facebook. In reflecting on the fact that some of us have been with FB for a decade now, I was reminded of the proposal by Filipino women's advocacy group Isa-Ako Babaeng Astig Aasenso, which called for state marriage contracts to be given a mandatory expiration date of ten years from initiation, at which point the marriage would be automatically annulled if not actively renewed by both parties. Putting aside the practicalities of such a policy with respect to actual marriages, I'm prompted to ask, at this ten year mark, if we users of social network sites like Facebook want to renew our vows (a.k.a. terms of service contracts)? If not, what might it mean to let the relationship expire? If relationships take work, as the common adage goes, do we want to put in the work that a relationship with social networking requires?

In this essay, I meditate on the work of social networking and the implications of users extracting themselves from this work arrangement. Media refusal is a term I use to refer to the conscious disavowal of media, which can take the form of rejecting a specific platform, technology, or corporation (see Portwood-Stacer 2012). In popular discourse, such rejection is often termed "opting out"; in many popular accounts, people describe “breaking up with” Facebook and other corporations. I am interested in active refusal as a tactical response to the perceived harms engendered by a capitalist system in which media corporations have disproportionate power over their platforms’ users, who, it may be said, provide unpaid labor for corporations whenever they log on.  In line with my other scholarship that attempts to contextualize and productively critique practices of lifestyle activism (Portwood-Stacer 2013), I am currently interrogating the tactic of media refusal to understand what strategic efficacy this practice might have, especially in light of considerations of gender and other systems of power.

In autonomist terms, we might see some instances of media refusal as "engaged withdrawal" from an exploitative system of work (Virno 1996). The autonomist approach to labor recognizes that it may be refused, rather than unthinkingly adopted as a natural state of affairs. As Weeks (124) explains, this was one aim of the autonomist feminists who demanded "wages for housework"; they wanted not to valorize domesticity, but to make it something women could feel empowered to refuse rather than destined to embody by virtue of their biology (Federici 1995, 191). Refusing to be on Facebook can be a powerful move toward distancing oneself from the less-than-wonderful aspects of the contemporary media economy, in which social network users do ever more work for corporations with ever less compensation and self-determination. At the same time, though, this kind of refusing move carries different consequences for different subjects, meaning that opting out is less of an "option" for some than for others. In this, media refusal is like all other forms of lifestyle activism. The stakes of withdrawal are higher for those whose offline professional and social success depend on the practices of connection and care that social media enables them to participate in. In coming to a full understanding of the media refusal tactic, we must turn toward the social media users whose activity and subjectivity as both users and as people at large is directly linked to the work of care. These users can be discussed in terms of at least two, non-mutually exclusive, groups (though there may be more): those who are carers by economic necessity, and those whose social and self-identities are bound up with caring roles.

Social Networking and Affective Labor

Before I discuss what is at stake for these users, it's important to understand why social media use can be analyzed as a kind of labor, especially a gendered kind of labor. (Readers familiar with the social-networking-as-labor argument may wish to skip to the next section). To briefly summarize, social media sites mediate social interactions through an online network such that these transactions have the potential to generate value for the owners of the network. In the profit-driven model of many social networking sites, users receive convenient access to their friends, families, and colleagues who are also in the network, in exchange for users supplying behavioral and demographic data that can be both sold outright and used to induce the investments of advertisers (Andrejevic 2009). This is part of what makes users financially valuable for network owners. Additionally, participation of users is what makes others want to participate. For this purpose, the most valuable users are often those who we might say socialize hardest. These are the users whose activities build the "sense of connectedness or community" that Michael Hardt (1999, 96) describes as a major outcome of affective labor.  This labor is doubly hard to see, both because its product is immaterial and because the skills it deploys are affective. It may be triply hard to see, really, because it is the kind of caring work that is traditionally expected of marginal subjects but, when deployed skillfully, it goes unnoticed by those at the center whose livelihoods depend on it to function smoothly (think here of domestic workers and administrative support staff). Dorothy Smith's (2004) feminist critique of sociology illuminates that the tendency for these efforts at care to be invisible is not coincidental, but is instead a predictable outcome of looking at labor from a patriarchally structured standpoint.

Overall, the labor of online social networking bears a striking resemblance to what has traditionally been constructed as "women's work"—the caring and relational labor involved in holding communities together and reproducing the conditions that support members' everyday survival, wellbeing, and capacity to contribute to society. As Kathi Weeks (2011) usefully summarizes in her recent study of the concept of work in capitalist culture, a major contribution of 1970s socialist feminist thought was to give recognition to the value generated by the skillful effort of caring for and sustaining families and their individual members, effort that has, historically, been disproportionately expended by women.  Inspired by feminist thinkers, I want to look at media refusal from a feminist standpoint that acknowledges and validates the caring labor performed by social media users. This will involve outlining two distinct kinds of value generated by social media labor, in addition to the value that is redounded back on the networks and their owners (described above). To resist what we might identify as an exploitative labor relation by walking off the job—by refusing social media participation—would mean giving up at least two sources of value that settle on the workers themselves. There are almost certainly more kinds of value than just the two I outline here, I merely offer these as the two that became most immediately clear to me in approaching the issue from a perspective grounded in feminist theory.

Professional and Social Pay Offs

For many, affective work on social media is a professional necessity, either in the form of actually remunerated labor or in the hazier form of entrepreneurial "aspirational" or "venture" labor (Duffy and Marwick 2013; Neff 2012). My media studies undergraduates hold internships where their tasks include managing corporate social media accounts; dexterity with today's (and tomorrow's) popular platforms is a requirement of the job. In my own research on Facebook abstention, I found that many would-be abstainers still used Facebook on behalf of their employers or in execution of their work duties. In other words, they wanted to quit, but had no choice about logging on. Beyond social media use that is mandated on the job, online social networking has become compulsory for imagined future professional achievement. I'm not speaking here of the kind of branded, promotional broadcasting of the self via social media, described evocatively by Banet-Weiser (2012) and Hearn (2008), among others. Rather I mean that social media is clearly a place where real affective ties are forged and maintained as social capital (Ellison, Steinfeld, and Lampe 2007). These ties don't just happen, and simply initiating or accepting a friend request isn't enough; they are relationships that must be conscientiously nurtured through interaction and skillful reciprocal attention (Tufekci 2008). This ongoing work of "caring" for one's professional contacts is not explicitly feminine—it's certainly not career advice that is reserved for female workers alone—but it is reminiscent of the broad "feminization of work" in the post-Fordist, service-oriented economy, as documented so well by Angela McRobbie (2011) and other observers of neoliberalism. Given the centrality of caring labor to the professional and economic livelihoods of so many, it is easier said than done to shun participation if one expects gainful employment, particularly in industries where social networking is a fact of the everyday workplace.

Opting out is also a dubious proposition for those who utilize social media to do a more traditional kind of care work—the work of emotional connection without which families, both biological and chosen, would wither. Nearly all of the people I spoke with in my Facebook refusal research said their family or friend relationships had been affected by their non-participation on the site. Like it or not, Facebook is where weekend plans are made, "Happy Birthdays" are wished, and new babies are joyfully displayed to distant loved ones. I find that many critiques of Facebook participation ignore or understate the genuine expressions of care that are mediated through the platform. To say, for example, that "time spent on Facebook stops us from giving love and affection to others" (Scholz 2013, 3) assumes that we do not spend our Facebook time giving love and affection to others. Though it is problematic that the relationships we create or nurture online are mined as network data, walking away from these relationships may not be a realistic option for people who, for better or worse, depend on Facebook to enable their connections to others. While others have made similar observations that it takes privilege to opt out (e.g. Marwick 2011; Scholz 2013) I want to be specific here in pointing out that the emotional, social costs of Facebook non-participation may be higher for those who carry the responsibility for maintaining family and community connectedness. To refuse the role of carer, whether that caring takes place through an online platform or otherwise, carries greater symbolic consequences for those whose social identities are bound up in the caring role (Weeks 124, 130).

This point was driven home for me when I began connecting on Facebook with my partner's extended family. My partner's Long Island family is close-knit and traditional, all heterosexual couples in which the men are the breadwinners and the women run the households and care for the children. Nearly all the wives are on Facebook; most of the husbands aren't (and I've heard some of them declare their abstention with pride). In my observation, Facebook mirrors the offline social world, in which women plan the get-togethers, send the birthday and holiday greetings, transmit the family gossip, and just generally stay present in everyone else's lives. The men of course benefit from all this – they attend the family gatherings and certainly keep abreast of the news that gets announced online—and this is made possible by the time and effort their partners put into social networking. It's work the women are genuinely happy to do; they are sincerely devoted to their families and they are comfortable in a social role in which they facilitate the transmission of information, affection, and resources among their loved ones. Of course, people maintained families before Facebook and they continue to do so without it. But Liking baby pictures and telling someone to get well soon when they post a status about being sick—those are ways that many women (and others) live out their roles as carers in 2014. One wonders then whether, without participating in online social networking, they would as readily be able to live up the standards of affective support they and their families expect.

Bear with me as I return to the marriage metaphor in contemplating our decidedly complicated relationship with Facebook, who often appears to be an irredeemable life partner. Like marriages, our continued relationships with social media platforms are freighted with temporal inertia and relationship baggage; we stay because we’ve already invested the time and we fear the loss of social ties and identities were we to leave. Some people try to fix bad marriages; others file for divorce. But what are the consequences of walking away from one's relationship with Facebook? Such a question must be answered before we conclude that refusal is a viable solution to the problem of social media labor and exploitation. Much as with the institutions of marriage and domesticity, the rewards for participation in online mediated sociality are only sometimes visible but nevertheless deeply woven into the fabric of many contemporary societies. The negative effects, too, come into and out of sight, sometimes making themselves strongly felt, sometimes receding from notice. Perhaps the valuable social work done by those who do have the wherewithal to opt out of the Facebook labor relation is to illuminate for us the consequences of making that "choice" and exposing the pressures of a system in which we do not all have equal freedom or incentive to make it.

Author's Note

I would like to thank Dan Greene and Tara McPherson for their feedback on an earlier iteration of this essay presented at the American Studies Association conference in November, 2013. I would also like to thank Christina Dunbar-Hester, Seda Gurses, Finn Brunton, and Peter Asaro for reading and commenting on a later draft of this essay. Thanks too to Tamsyn Gilbert and Lisa Nakamura for recruiting me to write it!


1. Another response to exploitation is to use demands to expose and destabilize unequal power conditions. Such was the logic behind the feminist “Wages for Housework” campaign; presumably the art project “Wages for Facebook” was similarly inspired. For an excellent discussion of Wages for Housework and its roots in autonomist philosophy, see Weeks (2011) and the work cited therein.

2. Tiziana Terranova (2013) seeks to recognize value-generating labor where it has previously been unseen as such; namely in the social maintenance efforts of online network users. Mark Coté and Jennifer Pybus (2007) similarly argue that the building of social networks and online subjectivities on social network platforms is a kind of immaterial labor in line with Maurizio Lazzarato's oft-cited definition, as that which "produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity" (1996, 133). Readers interested in these arguments should also consult the contributions to Trebor Scholz's 2013 collection, Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, Brown (2013), as well as the entire ourvre of Mark Andrejevic. Andrejevic (2011) and other critics of digital labor take up a tradition in media studies of attempting to unveil the unequal conditions that structure the relationship between media owners and media users. A foundational work in this tradition is Dallas Smythe's "On the Audience Commodity and its Work" (2006), an essay generally credited with being the source of the idea that the audience is a commodity which is generated by television programming and then sold for a profit to advertisers. Bill Livant (1979) took up this work, highlighting the parallels between the modern media audience and the labor force theorized by Marx and Engels. With Sut Jhally, Livant elaborated on the labor performed by audiences in producing the commodity of their attention. Jhally and Livant developed the concept of "watching extra" (1986, 126) to capture the value-generating labor undertaken by commercial television audiences. We might understand the activities of online social network users as a kind of "socializing extra," in which control the biggest networks—the owners of the means of communication—are best poised to take the upper hand in such an exchange. Once users are recruited to the dominant networks, they are pushed to socialize "harder," so to speak. To give just one example of this, when one doesn't log in to Facebook regularly, one is inundated with emails reminding one of specific individuals with whom one is missing out on interacting.

3. Of course, such work is not only or always performed by women (a contentious term in itself for feminist theorists).

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