show image

Theodora Sutton

DPhil student at the Oxford Internet Institute

The Facebook group fighting anti-tech rhetoric

Why do people hate their phones so much?

As an anthropologist specialising in ‘Digital Detoxing,’ I’ve watched years of anti-tech rhetoric play out through over-used riffs: “Facebook friends aren’t real”; “the Internet is like a drug”; or, “back in my day we read a book.”’My research aims to dig deeper into throwaway lines like these to better understand our relationship with modern technology.

Anti-tech rhetoric appears to be mirroring many similar moral panics that historically greeted new technologies – in essence, concerns around technology aren’t really anything new. Yet pundits continue to tell us to switch off in aid of our health, our integrity, and our relationships. A few months ago, I found consolation in an unlikely place – a Facebook group called “what if phones, but too much”. 

“What if phones but too much” [WIPBTM] members share anti-tech memes that spread like wildfire across the web: young people mesmerised by a screen, a restaurant sign reading “No Wifi! Talk to each other! Pretend it’s 1993!” or an image of a phone that resembles a prison, proclaiming “People are prisoners of their phones. That’s why they’re called cell phones”.

A deep irony lies in these memes – sometimes they seem like they’re expressly designed to spread rapidly on social media itself.

But there’s a key difference in how WIPBTM share the same memes – this time not in agreement, but with exasperation. The name itself, “What if phones, but too much” is taken from an article listing fake synopses of the show ‘Black Mirror’. The group’s name offers the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that we are already living in a techno-dystopia.

Under an image of a handful of pills branded with social media logos, group comments read:

“I’m addicted to recruiters reaching out to me to tell me about an exciting business opportunity on LinkedIn.”

“It’s 11:30pm behind an abandoned building. I look around to see if there are any cops around. I take a deep breath, reach into a bag. I produce a smart phone and quickly type “what is the capital of Bulgaria,” and then exhale while saying “Oh yeah”.

A lot of anti-tech memes display a lack of understanding about technology use. The internet is nothing like a drug – a closer comparison would be food, where there is room for some activities to be more enriching than others.

Others particularly seem to take issue with young people, and feature the older generation chiding the younger one. Memes that feature ‘kids these days,’ as zombies ‘mindlessly swiping’ online, seem to imagine that the technology itself holds dangerous, spellbinding qualities.

“Do you think I’m just staring at a glowing rectangle? And I’m hypnotised?” asks Mark Gartsbeyn, 22-year-old founder of WIPBTM, as I interview him over Skype. “I’m talking to my friends! I’m watching television! I’m sending out emails!”

“I don’t care about this hunk of silicon and plastic and glass. This is not what is entrancing me. It’s not this physical thing; it’s what I’m using it for.”

A favourite tweet of mine from Sonia Livingstone – a psychologist specializing in young people and the internet – similarly reads, “…but why is swiping mindless? Isn’t it keeping up, checking what’s new, monitoring one’s environment, noticing if there’s a problem, stuff humanity has always needed to do”.

Asking why a young person is using a given piece of technology can reveal a rich and complex picture of use: and that picture is never that it’s wholly wonderful or wholly terrible, but a spectrum in-between. Memes relying on such oversimplification are frustrating because they fail to recognise that, whether it be for communication, learning, or relaxation, technology use is a meaningful act.

A lot of the content shared on WIPBTM is taken from members’ personal Facebook feeds, and there will often be a caption explaining that it had been shared ‘un-ironically.’ “That really emphasises the disparate worlds,” Mark explains, “of your local feed, of family and high school friends; and your internet bubble of, nobody who you know, but who you relate to a lot more.”

In this way, it does appear that the group is a space of solace – and relief. Posts on the group are often creative, re-working images over and over, and incredibly intertextual, referencing countless memes that I had never come across before. The group is now some 40,000 members strong.

At some point during its growth, Mark noticed that the group was doing more than joking and commiserating: members were asking where such assumptions about technology use come from, and discussing broader technological issues within society.

“Originally it was sort of like, ‘we’re gonna goof on these one-dimensional baby boomer memes that criticise kids these days,’” he says.

“But really, it’s a big academic question as well, that a lot of people are trying to tackle. So it has inspired me to think critically about technology and digital spaces: to abandon technological determinism, and think of these societal and cultural and political issues that are infused *with* technology.”

It’s this element of the group that caught my attention – critical conversations about technology occurring outside of a university setting is exciting to see. Spontaneous discussions often emerge on the group to engage with societal issues in the context of new communications technologies: exploitation of workforces, poverty, surveillance, ableism, parenting, or what it means to put ‘Powerpoint’ on your CV. The discussions often result in frustration, shut-downs, and sarcastic jokes, but crucially, the conversation is taking place.

In light of recent speculation that Facebook membership is in decline, a story like WIPBTM seems to demonstrate a continued engagement with the platform. A WIPBTM caveman-themed spin-off group, another called “thank mr banky” referencing the artist Bansky, and the ‘boomer’-themed “*shakes fist* millennials,” equally form part of a nebulous array of Facebook groups which play with surface-level societal critique. The more I learned about them, the more I realised that these groups represent a new subculture.

“If you want to go deep on Facebook group dynamics, there is a lot there.” Mark says. “When people say ‘Facebook is dead,’ it’s like, it’s not dead for a lot of people. Maybe you’re tired of your mother-in-law, or your uncle who keeps posting bad minion pictures, or whatever.”

“But this is a silly online community that is specifically living online, living in a place that would have been impossible ten years ago, which I find really wonderful.”

“We’re spending a lot of time talking about how awful social media is, and I have a lot of problems with them as corporations, don’t get me wrong. But having these mass spaces available can produce some really interesting, bizarre, hilarious, comforting things.”

Using the very tool that anti-tech rhetoric often lambasts and ridicules, this group forms part of an online subculture, challenging surface-level ideas and speaking back to them in a creative way.

WIPBTM is a reminder to me as a digital anthropologist that there are stories in digital culture everywhere you look – and that every day people are creating meaningful experiences with their devices.

Maybe it can also be a reminder to others – ‘boomers’ or not – that some young people are very much engaged in discourse around technology and society, and they’re using unexpected tools to do so.

Theodora Sutton is DPhil student at the Oxford Internet Institute. Her research in digital anthropology examines digital detoxing and the widespread cultural narrative that sees digital sociality as inherently ‘lesser’ or less ‘natural’ than previous forms of communication.