First Monday, Volume 19, Number 11 - 3 November 2014

"No media, less life?" Online disconnection in mediatized worlds
First Monday

No media, less life? Online disconnection in mediatized worlds by Anne Kaun and Christian Schwarzenegger

In times when media are mundane fellows that are disappearing from our consciousness; when media usage is partly habitualized and therefore invisible, looking at disconnections rather than exclusively connection enables us to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to live in mediatized worlds. Media disconnection beyond digital divide and knowledge gap is, however, rarely addressed in current studies of mediatization. This paper is an attempt to explore specific forms of disconnection in conjunction with connection enabled by media. By using forced disruption of the daily stream of online engagement as a method, the article discusses how online disconnection can contribute to an understanding of media participation and its role in the everyday lives of young adults.


The absence of disconnection
Participation and absence
Methods and material
An eye on the invisible: The centrality of specific platforms and services
Lonely without the cloud — The experience of disruption as exclusion
“Where are you?” — Place and online media (dis-)connection
Conclusion: Media disconnection in mediatized worlds




‘The lady at the other end of the line is obviously irritated and annoyed rather than friendly. She tells me to ‘check online for our stock and offerings’. As I am sure that an explanation about my voluntary attempt to online abstinence, would only confuse her more, so I just say ‘I can’t, I have no Internet’. A prompt ‘What do you mean, you have no internet? How old are you?’ follows. Great! Not having Internet access is associated with a certain (rather advanced) age.’ (Anja)

This quote is an example from the material that we have conducted to investigate notions of absence, disconnection and non-usage in the context of digital online communication in mediatized worlds. Using the method of forced disruption, young adults were asked to remain off-line for a week and document the experiences they made and reactions they encountered during the period of disconnection in a media diary.

Current scholarship of media life (Deuze, 2012), mediatized worlds (Hepp, 2010; Hepp and Krotz, 2014; Krotz and Hepp, 2012) and culture of connectivity (van Dijck, 2013) investigates media ubiquity in all spheres of society and everyday life. In the context of this scholarship the usage of digital media technologies is assumed as a presupposition for working and living in the media society or even seen as ‘the indispensible grammar of modern life’ [1]. Implicit to such assumptions is often a subtle idea of steady progression of possibilities and chances for connectivity and participation, considered as inherent to the advent of new communication technologies. Furthermore this research is characterized by a tendency to regard (media) participation as ‘necessarily beneficial’ [2]. In that sense non-users would nothing but profit if they finally would start to participate: A worthy, meaningful and fulfilling life — a good life — in the media society is seen as closely linked to free and self-determined, capable participation in mediated communication. Media usage thus becomes cultural capital (Tondeur, et al., 2010; Couldry, 2003). Consequently abstention from media communication is regularly seen with a ‘clinical-eye’ (Selwyn, 2003) and discussed as quasi-pathological, deviant behavior and in terms of how hindrances for participation could be diminished and access to new media could be warranted to a wide population. Media disconnection beyond digital divide and reloaded knowledge gap-discussions in disguise of a usage gap (van Deursen and van Dijk, 2013) is, however, rarely addressed in current debates on mediatization. Therefore the article attempts to openly explore experiences of connection and disconnection.

While research focuses strongly on what people do when they engage in mediated communication and how this affects their everyday conduct of life, this paper is an attempt to investigate specific forms of disconnection in conjunction with connection enabled by media. More specifically the focus is on the dis-/engagement with online media platforms. We do so without using a deficit-framework for disconnection and without conceptualizing participation as natural or normal state, whereas no media would indicate lesser participatory possibilities. We argue that in order to investigate current mediatized worlds in depth, they are to be considered as offering multilayered experiences, disconnection being one of them. Therefore abstention from mediated (online) communication needs be included as a legitimate stance towards media communication and absence (in contrast to participation) and non-usage have to be acknowledged and investigated. In times when media are mundane fellows that are considered to be disappearing from our consciousness due to their omnipresence; when media usage is habitualized and therefore invisible, looking at disconnections rather than exclusively connection enables us to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to live in an age that is ‘supersaturated with media flows’ [3]. At the same time, it helps to remind us of the effects of exclusion when normalizing specific kinds of media usage, while alienating others.

By using forced disruption of the daily stream of online engagement as a method, we discuss how online disconnection can contribute to understanding mediatization and the role of media and communication technologies in the everyday lives of young adults who are often considered as being especially prone to online media usage (Prensky, 2001). As the role of mediated communication becomes invisible to those engaged with it due to the omni- and ever-presence of media, forcing the young adults to disconnect from their online communication rituals and routines provided a suitable strategy to make the disappearing importance, function and role of media communication visible again.

The material for this study was conducted in three consecutive steps. In the first step, the participants — first and second year German university students — were asked to document their media and communication practices, regardless whether online or off-line, during one week in a diary. At this stage they were also asked to document their media devices, understood as owned and regularly accessible devices and their engagement with these devices in terms of content and time spent. In the second step, they had to abstain from using the Internet for one week completely. During this week of abstention, the participants reflected about difficulties and challenges they have noticed in their everyday lives. Furthermore they had to consider strategies of compensation and substitution they applied in their communicative practices. In the third and last step of the project the study participants drew some general conclusions about their week off-line and documented their reflections about their experiences and impressions of a life without online media in an essay.



The absence of disconnection

Different kinds of media carry certain lifeness as Kember and Zylinska argue. Namely ‘the possibility of emergence of forms always new, or its potentiality to generate unprecedented connections and unexpected events’ [4]. Nancy Baym (2010) argues in a similar way that the forms of personal connections are changing in the digital age. If media carry this potentiality of new connections, they likewise enable disconnection and avoidance in the ways users and recipients navigate in mediatized worlds, as media and their potentials have to be domesticated through appropriation and meaning making by the users and recipients (Hepp, 2011).

Mark Deuze argues that media have become invisible as they ‘become pervasive and ubiquitous, forming the building blocks of our constant remix of the categories of everyday life’ [5]. He argues further that the main issue for media studies will be the disappearance of media through their omnipresence. In everyday life, media are always there and, indeed, everywhere, as they have become part of the very fabric of culture and society (Hjarvard, 2013). They enable and carry public and societal debate, and are of outmost importance for the construction of individual and collective identities. At the same time, they constitute the main forum for the struggle for political recognition. They provide possibilities for interconnectivity around the globe, they compress time and space and allow for experiences that would not have been possible without such mediazation (Thompson, 1995). Besides structuring the daily agenda, media have become constant mobile companions. This Deuze, along with others, argues, leads to a gradual change ‘in the human experience of space-time relationships’ [6]. Sherry Turkle (2011) goes as far as to argue that the digital, ‘artificial’ experience is preferred to the direct, interpersonal, ‘natural’ one.

Currently, discussions about these phenomena and media-related experiences revolve around the concepts of mediation and mediatization. Mediatization, then, as suggested by Stig Hjarvard, describes the increasing importance of the media in society, which is linked to an enhanced institutionalization of media and their growing independence from other social institutions (Hjarvard, 2008). Couldry, although sympathetic with the notion of mediatization, criticizes Hjarvard’s definition of mediatization as being used in a linear way that overlooks the dialectical relationship between the different actors and institutions of the mediatization processes. Mediation, he suggests,

‘of an area of culture or social life is always at least two-way: “media” work, and must work, not merely by transmitting discrete textual units for discrete moments of reception, but through a process of environmental transformation which, in turn, transforms the conditions under which any future media can be produced and understood. In other words, “mediation” is a non-linear process.’ [7]

It is not only the political field, for example, that accommodates media logic, substitutes or accommodates certain activities to media-related activities, but there are always also processes that affect the media. If one understands mediatization as a non-linear, dialectical process characterized by unequal power relations, then one should reconsider the ways in which it, and its effects on different social, cultural and political levels, is analyzed.

In contrast to Hjarvard, Friedrich Krotz suggests that mediatization should be understood as a meta-concept that operates on a macro-level comparable to processes such as individualization, commercialization and globalization. The term meta-process refers to

‘long-term and culture-crossing changes, processes of processes in a certain sense, which influence the social and cultural development of humankind in the long run. More in detail, they are conceptual constructs, by which science as well as persons in their everyday life sum up certain developments, their causes, forms of expression and consequences and therewith make the world manageable.’ [8]

However, Krotz puts the individual in focus as the active part of mediatization that is promoting and making the process of change possible in the first place. The media life — as suggested by Mark Deuze (2012) — and the mediatization perspective — as suggested by Friedrich Krotz and others — propose that it is impossible to live outside the constant media stream. Crucial to both concepts is the idea that media have become integral to very different contexts of human life and experiences. They are neither somewhere outside the social, exerting influence from there nor are they mere neutral instances of mediation. They are themselves agents of social and cultural changes (Couldry and Hepp, 2013; Hepp, et al., 2010).

The abundance of media contributes, however, to the necessity to make a choice for connection or disconnection, use or non-use, participation or abstention. In that sense the constant and nearly unlimited potential to connect goes in hand with the need to disconnect, thus putting choice and reasons at the heart of interest.

As argued above, current research often focuses on new potentials for connection rather than the ways people are disconnected (Baym, 2010; Hepp, 2011). This is surprising as in a holistic perspective on media, culture and society such as mediatization, it becomes evident that also the non-participants, non-users as well as invisible audiences of certain technologies need at least be considered as ‘collateral participants’ of media communication. Marian Adolf (2014) recently discussed Big Data as the involuntary mediatization of everyday life. They are indirectly affected by the general changes that take place due to altering communication environments in changing societies: If everyone is doing their banking online, it will also affect those who deliberately stay away from online banking or those that are structurally excluded from these services. If the default procedure to get information on products that are in stock at a major electronics distributor is to access them online, attempting to get information through other means causes awkward reactions, as it did for Anja in the initial quote.

There are, however, some attempts to analyze specific forms of disconnection from different perspectives. Robert McChesney (2013) for example discusses in his latest book Digital disconnect the colonization of the cyberspace and how the dominant commercialization of the Internet caused a disconnection between democracy and democratizing potential of the internet as a technological infrastructure. The Internet is now mainly used in terms of generating surplus value rather than to promote democracy including participation, he argues, applying a critical, macro perspective of political economy.

Another attempt to address forms of disconnection rather than connection is Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s (2009) book Delete discussing the possibility of forgetting in digital environments where potentially everything can be traced and stored. He suggests a number of responses to the emerging eternity of digital memory. One of which is digital abstinence, namely ‘that once people understand the implications of abandoning forgetting, they will stop providing their personal information to others, and digital memory will cease to exist — at least in the comprehensive and threatening form I described’ [9]. He argues that disconnection, i.e., avoidance of online presence could be one attempt to handle growing digital memory of ourselves. However, he concludes that this way of responding to digital memory is not very likely to be successful as the benefits of sharing and connecting online overweight the perceived disadvantages even if the users are aware of the dangers (see also Fuchs, 2009).

Similar to Mayer-Schönberger’s argument, the connections and disconnections scrutinized here are purposeful decisions in the sense that they help to navigate in media-saturated society. Both examples however show sophisticated and specifically reasoned abstentions from online communication and emphasize a social or political agenda related to it. Yet they do not consider an online free media diet as a banal and mundane everyday practice.



Participation and absence

Participation, as Nico Carpentier argues,

‘is often assumed to be necessarily beneficial and that, if it is only enabled, it will also be appreciated by all those involved, who will do nothing but gain from it. This assumption is problematic because it decontextualizes the participatory practices, and disconnects them from a very necessary articulation with democracy, empowerment, equality and a number of other crucial concepts. This decontextualization also leads to the belief that the societal appreciation for and impact of participatory practices will not be affected by the political-ideological, communicative-cultural and communicative-structural context.’ [10]

All competing definitions and approaches to participation (and there are a lot) share, according to Carpentier and De Cleen ‘a common, almost messianic, concern toward the concept of participation: they want to protect and rescue it’ [11]. If sacred participation is to be protected, non-participation is a threat.

In 2003 Neil Selwyn in his critical review essay ‘Apart from technology’ — which a decade later reads less dated than one would wish for — summarized that most academics ‘have focused on non-use of ICT as a “problem” which should be “solved”’ [12]. Martin Bauer (1995) in his work on technophobia saw commentators to revert to a quasi-pathological model when describing people’s non-use of new technologies — presenting the ‘problem’ through the ‘clinical eye’ and in a profoundly negative manner. Selwyn, following Lievrouw, argues that indeed the

‘whole notion of the information society is based upon an ideological belief in the positive and socially integrating power of technology. As the discourse of the information society has been framed popularly in terms of individuals resorting to their ‘own devices’ both in the sense of personal agendas, strategies, interests and interpretations, as well as in the form of the technological tools that help realise them.’ [13]

Adopting this perspective, to not use accessible communication devices accordingly would mean to choose not to be part of the information society: ‘an irrational and ultimately disadvantageous position to adopt’ [14]. Selwyn concludes that it is regarded ‘normal’ to use ICT and, conversely, non-use of technology is considered an abnormality that is in most instances caused by deficits on part of the individuals concerned. The discourse on non-users of ICTs is fashioned in a deficit-model revolving around recurring patterns of defect due to ‘shortfalls in cognition, personality, knowledge, resourcing, social situation or personal ideology’ [15].

Challenging the hegemonic norm of usage and participation in certain communicative environments has been investigated in the form of media activism in previous studies. Laura Portwood-Stacer (2013), for example, explored media refusal of Facebook as form of civic participation. However what non-usage, abstention and absence means in the context of the everyday of mediatized worlds, also and especially from the perspective of those who decide to abstain, needs to be addressed more systematically, particularly since there is a growing non-academic interest expressed for example by a number of life style publications dedicated to the topic of voluntary media abstention (Morrison and Gomez, 2014). As Selwyn has stressed ‘“non-use” could thus be seen as a positive part of a social selection process, not an obstacle to the inevitable march of technological progress’ [16].

We adopt this position and argue that the role of use and non-use of media cannot be reduced to such simply dichotomy of normal and abnormal but demands for a more nuanced approach instead that aims at the reconstruction and understanding of why people choose to use technologies or prefer not to and how this is related to their lives in mediatized societies in general. Understanding participation, use, access and the like therefore demands to consider the individuals’ perspectives and their personal media environments and repertoires. Abstention and disconnection is thus not to be framed as the abnormal other but as one facet that adds fertile insights and could foster our understanding of how people navigate in nowadays mediatized societies, living their media life in the media age.



Methods and material

In order to explore notions of absence, we conducted a pilot study in which we used forced disruption as a research strategy with a small student sample. On the one hand, we aimed to gather reflections about what place media have in the everyday lives of our participants and on the other hand to sensitize the participants for their daily media activities. By breaking the habits of regular communication routines of the participants and observing the experiences in this artificial period of disconnection we aimed to make the significance of media use and participation visible (again).

Similar to the study by Jessica Roberts and Michael Koliska (2014), the participants were forced (i.e., invited) to abstain from Internet usage completely over the course of one week. Our participants were asked to document their experiences throughout that time and provide a general, concluding reflection by the end of the week in a longer essay. As the significance of disconnection could only be interpreted when put into perspective to the overall communication practice of the study participants, they were first asked to describe their personal media repertoires (owned or accessible devices) and to document their media and communication practices in a media diary during one week. These comprised off-line and online media communication and several different kinds of purposes of media usage, mainly (1) information gathering for general knowledge and specific orientation; (2) media use for the purpose of entertainment or passing time; and, (3) mediated interpersonal communication and relationship management with friends, peers, co-workers and family. To assess the overall significance of online communication of the means of communication they applied, they were further asked to document their five top media activities for each day and the main purposes for this interaction with the given service or platform (which media where most important for you today and what did you use them for?). Accordingly the participant had to estimate the time spent on the various activities, thus also differentiating total time, active time of interaction and time lurking and waiting for something to happen.

In the second step of the study, the participants were asked to abstain from using the Internet during one week completely. During this week of abstention they were asked to reflect about difficulties and changes they noticed in their everyday lives especially in terms of media participation. A special emphasis was put on what strategies of substitution they developed to make up for the loss of connectivity. They were asked to make explicit which means of communication they usually use, which they missed most during the abstention and if they tried to substitute them. The collected material was thematically coded based on previous research while considering novel aspects in order to identify common patterns in the diaries and essays.

The third and final part of the data collection was comprised of an essay writing exercise, where the participants should to draw some general and personal conclusions about their off-line week. What did it mean for them to be disconnected from their ‘normal stream of communication’ and forced into ‘abnormality’?

We started off with 18 participants in their early twenties (aged between 20 and 24); only 12 made it through the entire two weeks. This shows that the actual ‘force’ we used to make them disconnect was at best moderate. Also not all of the 12 participants who concluded the whole project could do so without breaking the absence at one or more occasions that made online participation inevitable. In case of breaking the abstention, the participants were supposed to reflect about the reasons and motives for doing so. Keeping the media diaries for a two-week period could be freely timed during May 2013.

The sample seize is rather small, however, the three-stage process of data gathering enabled us to develop an in-depth understanding of the experiences of disconnection that our participant described. In accordance with the overarching aim of this paper, namely to openly explore disconnection in mediatized worlds, this approach seemed adequate not at least to generate new questions for further research.

All participants were first-year or second-year students in the social sciences. Only four of the initial 18 participants were male, yet they were three of the 12 who finished the week of abstention. One of those male participants was the only one among all participants who did not have a Facebook account beforehand. Half of the participants were at least occasionally reading blogs, while none of them was considering himself or herself as active blogger. Two however had active Twitter accounts. All of the initial 18 owned mobile phones, mostly smartphones, and only a minor part had no mobile Internet access. The laptops and computer notebooks figured to play a central role as communication hubs for all of the three fields of purposes, from work and education to leisure. While TV use was repeatedly among the top media interactions of the day for those who owned a television set, typical TV activities were often substituted with the computer and online streaming services. Also newspapers and magazines were mostly used digital only or in a combination with printed media outlets (combined subscriptions or digital usage with occasional paper usage). In general the documentation of the media use in the first stage of the study shows persistent patterns of which media are used during a day and what purposes they are employed for: The main reason for media usage was personal communication and relationship management, followed by media use for entertainment and only then general information search. The most favored devices were laptops and smartphones (partly complemented by landline phones). One very clear indication from the communication practices documented in the media diaries is that regardless of purpose, digital online communication in all its many varieties constitutes indeed the major and central part of our study participants’ communication experience.

Given the centrality of online communication for their everyday life, the second stage of the study — remaining off-line for an entire week — figured to be a true challenge for the participants and indeed forced them to disconnect from what they consider (and what actually is) their normality. Even though this may appear as a rather brief period of time, Roberts and Koliska (2014) showed that already 24 hours of abstention were regarded as a stressful intervention in the routines and media habits of the participants in their study. Our participants’ documentation of their week off-line provided a glimpse at what is not abnormality but instead the media and communication normality of (full or partial) online abstainers. The disruption of normality was also among the main reasons given by those who did not finish the study and by those who refused to participate in an effort to replicate the study in autumn 2013.



An eye on the invisible: The centrality of specific platforms and services

We stressed that it is a core assumption of concepts such as the Media Life hypothesis or the mediatization approach that media have become such a fundamental and ubiquitous, integral part of human life and experience that they vanish in banality and become invisible to our reflection. Forced disruptions of habitualized media practices can contribute to an understanding of the role the Internet-based media participation plays in the everyday life, in our case, of young adults in general. The method of forced disconnection provided clues for understanding what the non-/participation in online communication meant for the participants and how it affected them.

The centrality of specific services is often discussed, but less often investigated as experienced by the users. Hence, as a first lesson learned, our participants noticed what kinds of services have a specific centrality in their everyday lives. Which is probably not overly surprising, but their reflections about it are: They extensively discuss that they have not been aware of much of their regular media use and online activity, even though they are central to highly important parts of their lives. As one of the participants stated: ‘Otherwise it is good to be aware of the time we spend online, how often we use it as distraction, how much we rely on the Internet and how naturally it has become for us look up things online’ (Julia).

In general news consumption, information searches or even active engagements in an online-discursive sphere were rarely among the most common and most missed practices. Although they felt partly too little informed during the off-line week, a newspaper would not do it. These included far too much information: the universality of newspapers was no sufficient substitute for the highly customized news-stream they are used to.

‘What I really have been missing — I mentioned it at the beginning — was the Spiegel online app and its push service. It is very important for me to know what is happening in the world and then suddenly being ‘cut off’ that was difficult for me. I’ve noticed myself lurking around others while they are reading the news on the tram and I’ve been looking around elsewhere for news and headlines. Once or twice I’ve bought a newspaper, which was, however, never really ‘worth it’, because there were so many topics in the issue that I am not interested in at all. For exactly that reason, there are apps and news services now that only offer the topics, which you are really interested in. There is, however, the risk that you are missing important issues for example the stock market crash or how foreign affairs develop.’ (Maria)

Maria was not the only participant to test physical newspapers as a substitution for the online news consumption. Maria’s reflection however is the clearest documentation of how news consumption has changed in the digital age. Besides noticing that they couldn’t live up to the otherwise individualized news consumption, the participants became aware of the fact that the individualized news media prevent from serendipity — the accidentally coming across news items that normally would be excluded from the repertoire — also referred to as the Filter Bubble (Pariser, 2011). Again the forced disruption made visible how expectations and practices concerning news consumption have changed and how regardless of fully reflected shortcomings of the filter bubbled encounters with information, the embeddedness of news in the daily online stream of communication is the preferred reception mode.

The participants frequently documented that they themselves were surprised or even irritated by the frequency of them going online without a real aim or necessary purpose. Stefanie writes ‘I was really not aware how often I go online to check for something, to google whatsoever or visit arbitrary pages to get entertained’.

In line with that some of the participants noticed that certain online activities they had previously considered to be inevitable were not that important after all, e.g., checking the weather report online, train and public transport schedules or opening hours.

In that sense, the data from the diaries revealed and made visible again, how dependent on the Internet specific working routines, collaborations and information provision have become. Absence was experienced as a clear breach of the normality that the participants were used to and — more importantly also a step out of the routines that they were expected to comply with. Checking online and being available for online working groups and coordination was expected by their co-workers, fellow students and the faculty likewise and each group who would often react undiscerning, when confronted with the non-use of the internet. The exercise of forced disconnection has provided valuable clues for understanding how central and normal the use of online communication devices has become for several fields of work and private life and how this affects personal routines beyond the conscious reflection alas the consideration of alternative strategies. From this re-opening of the eyes for specific communication we can also discern situations and fields in which non-users of online communication are likely to be indirectly affected by the consequences of media life.

‘The thing that was really inconvenient was the lack of e-mail communication, which I had to conduct anyway in some cases. As a freelancer for [a local newspaper] I am depending on this mean of communication as I receive and send my work that way regulated by deadlines. I reduced my e-mail checking to once a day, since I could not quite leave it altogether. That was actually a big relief for me. Of course you have a large amount of e-mails to deal with, but you work through them at once, since you otherwise will only have the chance to do so the next day. At the moment I try to keep this habit.’ (Sigrid)



Lonely without the cloud — The experience of disruption as exclusion

The experience of disconnection was severe and intense to some of the participants as they felt disconnected from a very integral part of their lives. The week off-line became a major disruption in terms of personal and professional relationships. Accordingly not all of the participants were able to make it through the whole week off-line without cheating and surrendering occasionally, which becomes very clear from some diary entries:

‘I broke the absence today but I really had to check the delivery status of my Zalando package to make sure somebody is at home when the postman arrives. Otherwise I would have had to wait for my shoes until Friday!!!! (entry from a Wednesday, Thursday was a holiday).’ (Hanna)

Contrary to the situations in which participants learned that some of the activities they thought they could not do without were in fact expandable, others felt rather minor online activities being so necessary that they broke the absence temporarily. Big parts of the online communication are characterized by a sense of urgency and immediacy, as not being able to check, respond to or react upon something immediately was experienced as troubling, let alone the anxiety to ‘miss something important’ that’s happening. Hanna confesses: ‘Surrender: Facebook, Whatsapp, Everything!’ Including the drawing of a crying face. While Hanna suffered and temporarily returned to all her communication activities, others explained how they only could make it through the week because they knew that it was for one week only and that they would be free to return back online soon. Back online it was a common practice to try to catch up with what was missed, e.g., through browsing the archive of past Facebook entries.

‘Back online I understood what I’ve missed, and I really had the feeling of missing something. You are just really kind of “turned off” and limited in what you can do. That’s also the reason why I could have never endured the experiment any longer. This may seem feasible for some. But well, that’s how I am.’ (Hanna)

Even though for a considerable share of the participants the week off-line was experienced as ‘harder than expected’ (Marie) or a ‘disaster’ (Alina), a reappearing reflection considered the increased silence and having more time, as they were set free from the pressures of permanent connection. The increase of silence however was only by some participants experienced as a liberating moment, while the majority quite contrary saw it as pressing isolation and solitude.

While some experienced the off-line period as some sort of relief, participants also tried to develop compensatory modes and strategies of communication. Hence, we noticed which forms of participation and what purposes, they considered most important or felt they could (not) easily do without.

‘I really need the Internet for my daily life. Be it information or entertainment. It was so much harder to stay in touch with people (I include stalking them on facebook in this).’ (Maria)

Participation in online communication was utmost important for coordination and organization of everyday practices, to keep in touch with personal networks, friends and families as well as for entertainment purposes. During the period of abstention the organization of everyday and personal relations was experienced as the most crucial area of sacrifice. Activities that were planned and organized online by others were literally missed, birthdays and other important dates were forgotten and went by unnoticed. What made this experience so severe was that while the participants were aware that they missed information, they themselves were (allegedly, as perceived from the abstainers perspective) not so much missed by their online contacts. The participants felt that as soon as they were expelled from the daily stream of communication they were excluded from their main environment of social interaction. Pushing this impression further, some experienced that their absence was apparently not really noticed by their contacts. Others however saw their absence noticed having to justify their ignorance of not replying to messages for example. Yet it was only a minor part of their networks and contacts that actively tried contact to them during the disconnection period, and very few were willing to use alternative means of communication for this end. Even if our participants sent text messages instead of using the Facebook messenger, Whatsapp or made more phone calls, their friends and contacts would not adopt these alternative routes in return.

‘One negative aspect for me, as I was a week off-line, was that some of my friends had distanced or have simply disappeared. I missed some invitations and events, because I was not on Facebook. Even in private and personal communication I noticed that I was somehow ‘behind’, because I simply had missed personal events with my friends during this one week. It wasn’t like they were discussed and reflected online so much, but rather that I could not be at the actual meeting as I basically knew nothing of it.’(Anja)

Other participants shared the impression of being distanced from their friends during the off-line week, and interestingly this was again an argument provided by students who were reluctant to participate in the study in the first place: they feared that while they abstain from the online stream, hardly anyone would care to take the extra effort of including them using other means of communication.

The data from the disruption diaries show that being off-line caused an increase of costs, financial as well as in time expenses — this corresponds exactly with the reasons mentioned by those who refused to participate in the experiment to explain their abstention from the absence: They feared that using alternative means of communication would raise costs and would require more effort to stay in touch both for them and their contacts. Something they certainly feared was that their networks would not be willing to accept these changes. A fear well substantiated by the experiences documented in the diaries:

‘It would have been easier for me to abstain from the online mode if the respective “opposite site” would not have insisted on these means of communication (predominantly e-mail) and if not some of the alternatives would have been more expensive in terms of money or time to be invested.’ (Patricia)

The unwillingness of others to switch from online to off-line means of communication was not only experienced in personal relationships, but also in interactions with strangers, such as service staff. The initial example of Anja, who tried to get information about the available stock of laptops in a major store shows that many activities nowadays are by default considered to happen online before face-to-face interaction actually takes place. This and other examples, such as booking a flight, make it obvious that the ‘collateral participation’ or forced participation, the indirect effects of living in a mediatized society, were indeed perceived by the students. Many everyday practices, professional or private, were meant to take place or to be organized online and the direct surroundings (shop assistants, colleagues, and friends) of our participants were irritated as they were not available online and some institutions had no (not anymore?) routine to cope with this situation other than online. This resulted again in experiences of exclusion.

While some of the participants embraced the relief and silence brought by the off-line period or surrendered to the isolation felt, some participants tried to develop at least partially compensatory modes and strategies of communication. The disconnection and disruption was, as discussed above, mostly felt in the management of interpersonal relations. It was a common strategy of the participants to compensate the loss of connectivity by trying to enable their partners, flat mates, family or friends as proxies — this is to let them do Google searches, check Facebook timelines or e-mail messages, in some cases even post on their behalf. To resort to the aid of personal proxies is a well-established strategy by off-liners to partly gain rewards from the Internet anyway (Crump and McIlroy, 2003).

‘In conclusion I can say that if I am not on my own, but have my friends and family around, it is much easier not to be online for a while (especially Facebook). But it is definitely true that I am less informed about societal issues than I normally am. At the same time it became clear to me that I don’t have to know everything that I am exposed to everyday on Facebook every day to be able to live a communicative life and keep up with social contact.’ (Sandra)



“Where are you?” — Place and online media (dis-)connection

The forced disruption experiment showed the continuous importance of place when it comes to media usage. Several participants reflected about their changing media diet and communicational patterns depending on where they are. Mareike, for example, wrote

‘What struck me was that I was missing the Internet the most, when I was at home: you know just quickly checking in on Facebook or your e-mails, just to keep updated ... .’ (Mareike)

Patricia considers not only the place, but also the time component, when it comes to her media usage, which changes completely if she compares week days and weekends.

‘All in all the week was very interesting when it comes to my communication habits. They are for example totally different depending on the place and my schedule for the week. During week days at the university and in my own apartment I use communication devices a lot, much more than when I am at my parent’s place for example. I think the reason is that I have more people around me when I am at home compared to week days when I am on my own.’ (Patricia)

Another aspect is connectivity over distance that is of major importance for Maria. She left Spain to study in Germany and ever since Facebook has become a major site for engaging with her friends, but also family. The network effect saves her a lot of time, since she can keep up with everybody at the same time, on the same platform and in the same way. Everything else is just less effective and more time consuming.

‘In summary, I have to say that online communication does play a huge role in my life. One major reason is the fact that many of my friends are living in Spain and in other countries. It is just the easiest way to keep us all updated on Facebook etc. But I also noticed that I don’t have to be online all the time to be informed about what’s happening.’ (Maria)

Sandra shared the experience that the extended weekend in conjuncture with our forced disruption experiment made it much easier for her to withstand from going online. Since she had her family and friends in close proximity, it was not necessary for her to keep with the information flow online.

‘On Wednesday the frustrating situation changed completely since I already went home on Wednesday and stayed until Saturday. There I had my family and more importantly my friends around me. The latter I met daily. Now I didn’t have to think about not being able to go online and the rest of the off-line week was much easier to handle, which was mainly due to my free Wednesday and the holiday on Thursday. Except for the times I really had to go online (see diary), I didn’t have any difficulties not being online all the time. The laptop remained mostly shut down, the television turned off and my mobile phone in my bag.’ (Sandra)



Conclusion: Media disconnection in mediatized worlds

This article aimed to show how connection and disconnection could be studied fruitfully together. The main aim was, hence, to argue for a combined analysis of connection and disconnection when it comes to the investigation of mediatized societies. Current research however overemphasizes connection rather than disconnection. If disconnection is considered, it is often researched in isolation from connection and in a negative deficit-frame that needs to be addressed by experts for resolving the problem, as for example in discussions of digital divide and knowledge gap. The article also aimed to show that connection and disconnection are dynamic processes that are constantly under re-negotiation. Disconnection and connection change over time depending strongly on life circumstances and social contexts of media usage as Uwe Hasebrink and Hannah Domeyer (2010, 2012) have shown in terms of media repertoires.

The forced disconnection experiment provided clues for understanding what the non-/participation in online communication meant for our study participants and how it affected them. Especially the experiences of collateral participation, the indirect effects of living in a mediatized society brought clear indication that a dichotomous perspective on use and non-/use lacks complexity. Modes, rituals, habits and implications of use and likewise the absence of them, helps us to understand their significance. By making visible the role and normalization of specific media use in the everyday, we get valuable clues where to look for the peculiarities of non-users everyday. Use and non-use should then accordingly not be framed as normality or abnormality, but as integral yet different parts of media life.

Future research addressing media usage in its entirety should hence consider new forms of disconnection alongside connection. Furthermore, more research specifically addressing disconnection in media communication, standardized, interactive or virtual, is needed to develop a deeper understanding of how people navigate in mediatized societies in nowadays. Based on our explorative investigation of absence, we suggest the investigation of structural non-usage (digital divide), media refusal (activism/communication hermits), strategic non-usage (handling information affluent societies) and media repertoires of abstention (reasons of deciding for and against specific media). End of article


About the authors

Anne Kaun is a visiting post-doc researcher at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania and senior lecturer at Södertörn University. Her current research is concerned with the relationship between crisis and social critique, investigating historical forms of media participation that emerged in the context of the current and previous economic crises. Anne is board member of ECREA and vice-chair of ECREA’s Young Scholars Network.
direct comments to: anne [dot] kaun [at] sh [dot] se

Christian Schwarzenegger Schwarzenegger is a research assistant at Augsburg University. His main research interests are mediatization and media change research, transnational communication, and the relationships of communication and spatiality. Most of his research applies historical perspectives. Christian is a vice-chair of ECREA’s Young Scholars Network.
E-mail: christian [dot] schwarzenegger [at] phil [dot] uni-augsburg [dot] de



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14. Ibid.

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Editorial history

Received 14 August 2014; revised 12 September 2014; accepted 24 October 2014.

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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

“No media, less life?” Online disconnection in mediatized worlds
by Anne Kaun and Christian Schwarzenegger.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 11 - 3 November 2014