Foucault and social media: I tweet, therefore I become

This is the second instalment in a three-part series. Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue, building on Michel Foucault’s account of the Panopticon:

There is a self-reflexive structure to sharing content on Facebook or Twitter. Just as actors on stage know that they are being watched by the audience and tailor their behaviour to find the best effect, effective use of social media implies selecting and framing content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd. We may not intend to do this but it is essential to doing it well. Unless we are sharing anonymously (and the radical end of internet culture, Anonymous, favours anonymity), all the content we share is tagged with an existential marker:

‘I sent this – it is part of my work. You shall know me by my works’.

Part two continues the Foucaultian interrogation of social media looking at Foucault’s concept of subjectivation. I argue for a playful approach to life in the virtual Panopticon. Social media shapes us, so why shouldn’t we engage this process in a creative way? Indeed, we can and do use social media as a vehicle for creative self-development.

‘Never stop sculpting your own statue’, the ancient philosopher Plotinus said. Latter-day Foucaultians are recovering this teaching in an age of social media. We are crafting our selves online in the engagement with crowds.

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Peggy Orenstein came late to Twitter. Orenstein was sceptical at first when her publisher suggested she use Twitter to promote her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She wasn’t fond of the gossip and celebrity culture and the trivial nature of much of what passed as content in the Twittersphere. Orenstein knew, however, that a ready tribe of tweeps is an essential part of the contemporary writer’s guerilla marketing toolkit. She succumbed to pressure and signed up.

Orenstein approached her Twitter experiment with the studious detachment of the field anthropologist. I imagine this is why she noticed how Twitter was changing her.

Tweeting, it turned out, was more fun than she had expected. It was addictive. In an article on her experience published in the New York Times, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’, Orenstein describes how using Twitter redefined her experience of life and self. There was nothing covert or oppressive about this transformation. Orenstein was a willing participant in her own subjectivation.


Tweeting, Orenstein discovered, was an opportunity to express herself and to articulate her inner being. Conjuring up the perfect tweet was a way of giving form and definition to life, stamping it with meaning and purpose. Intimate moments, such as the evocative moment that Orenstein captures at the start of her article, lounging in the yard with her daughter listening to E.B. White reading ‘The Trumpet of the Swan’, became creative opportunities. Life was suddenly full of possibilities. Soon Orenstein was putting a creative spin on her most boring and frustrating experiences. She recounts:

I quickly mastered the Twitterati’s unnatural self-consciousness: processing my experience instantaneously, packaging life as I lived it. I learned to be “on” all the time, whether standing behind that woman at the supermarket who sneaked three extra items into the express check-out lane (you know who you are) or despairing over human rights abuses against women in Guatemala.

In the process of crafting tweets, Orenstein shaped her subjectivity (Orenstein is aware of this, as evidenced in in the title of her article, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’). Twitter (like Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other service based in open commons ideal) is a vehicle of subjectivation. When we seize on a moment and ‘package’ it in the form of a 140 digit tweet, we do more than just create an item of content to share with our friends. We hone our view on the world, and in the process, define ourselves as persons, identities, and subjects. To craft a tweet or frame a post with a wry observation, we must step back from our experience and transform it into a story, with ourself as the lead character. We tease out whatever is funny, insightful, indicative, and unique in the flow of life and experience and capture it in a prism of words. We give focus and definition to our life through tweeting, just as a poet gives definition to his or her life through writing poems.

Subjectivation is not oppressive. Arguably, the ‘unnatural self-consciousness’ that Orenstein associates with the Twitter experience is the native state of philosophers and other serious thinkers. Being ‘on’ all the time, keenly aware of the value of things and situations unfolding around you – this is not dissimilar to the presence of mind that we cultivate through mediation. We constantly engage in processes of subjectivation in our professional lives, especially when we are cultivating a professional identity. Twitter and other social media services can be useful tools for exploring and experimenting with identities, as Orenstein discovered. It was only when Orenstein realized that the ‘Twitter effect’ ran deeper than her professional identity, subtly affecting how she understood and crafted herself as a person, that she started to become suspicious of tweeting.

Let’s take a look at this. What soured Orenstein’s Twitter experience? And what was her response?

Using Twitter turned Orenstein’s brain on. It challenged her to find the poetry in everyday moments, which had the effect of making her more attentive to the world about her. At the same time, tweeting made Orenstein more aware of herself. Soon a certain anxiety was creeping into her Twitter experience. Orenstein describes it this way: ‘Each Twitter post seemed a tacit referendum on who I am, or at least who I believe myself to be’. It was as if she had to justify or prove herself through her tweets. It wasn’t so much her talent or ability that she felt forced to justify, but her subjectivity: ‘who I am, or at least who I believe myself to be’. What had led her to feel this way? The anxiety didn’t come from crafting tweets – this part of the process was empowering and rewarding. It emerged, instead, from Orenstein’s sense that by tweeting aspects of her life, she was exposing herself to an anonymous crowd, and the crowd was judging her on the basis of what she tweeted.

Orenstein’s anxiety was an effect of the virtual Panopticon established by Twitter itself.

Virtual Panopticons emerge where people act and share things in public. They take an acute form online, since the details that we share online concern our passions, values, and dreams (if only obliquely), and it is important for us to feel that we are being positively judged for these things.

To appreciate how Twitter functions as a vehicle of subjectivation, we need to reflect on how Orenstien responded to her sense of anxiety. Her response is exemplary. Orenstein’s awareness of the crowd spurred her to work even harder to craft a positive identity. Pumping her reserves of creativity, she sought to give her tweeps the Peggy Orenstein they wanted to receive: funny, incisive, a little acerbic, always sharp and contemporary. In short, Orenstein played to the crowd.

This is what social media does to us. The sense of an implicit tribunal, a ‘tacit referendum on who I am, or at least who I believe myself to be’ – this spurs us to take charge of our own subjectivation. Orenstein was by not prepared to lie to her followers. But she did everything that she could to amplify her virtues and present herself ‘just so’ in order to make her life seem more news worthy. It is incredible that a simple tool like Twitter could inspire someone to poetical heights, but this is the effect that the ‘tacit referendum’ had on her. Orenstein challenged herself to draw uncommon inspiration from quotidian moments. How many different ways could she tell the story of listening to E.B. White in the sun? What spin would she put on it to best display her passion and intellect?

Orenstein aspired to perform her identity tweet by tweet. Subjectivation and identity-formation on Twitter is a performance: creatively determined by the user, yet commanded by the presence of an expectant crowd. We must guard against the danger that our tweets, posts, and shares become mere performances, a play or masks that is disconnected from our authentic self. Orenstein cites a perceptive passage from Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, which describes the ultimate threat presented by social mediatized subjectivation: when subjectivity becomes mere performance.

On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are. … But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance.

Creating oneself online has its dangers, it is true. But the challenge we face in creating ourselves in a variety of forums can also help us define our virtues and aspire to personal excellence. The virtual Panopticon idea explains why it is that people tend to be larger than life on social media. People, like Orenstein, who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplifying them to the nth degree. I call this ‘creative self-affirmation’. The humorist becomes a prankster. The e-activist becomes a social revolutionary. The middle manager becomes a business guru. The pessimist becomes a professional iconoclast. These kinds of experiments with the self wouldn’t happen without the psychological demands of the virtual Panopticon. The expectant crowd draw us out of ourself. By commanding performances from us, the crowd draws out our singularities, those unique features of our person that represent our leading potentials.

We should affirm creative self-affirmation online. If you don’t want to play to a virtual Panopticon, steer clear of social media. Some people don’t like playing out their identity in public, so they stay away. Others, like Orenstein, feel shocked when they realize how far they have been sucked into the machine, caught-up in an incessant game of playing to the crowd. Usually at this point users reign in their performance, or question their motivations for indulging in the activity. Orenstein realized that something was amiss when she grasped that what she was tweeting

was not really about my own impressions: it was about how I imagined — and wanted — others to react to them. That gave me pause. How much, I began to wonder, was I shaping my Twitter feed, and how much was Twitter shaping me?

Foucault’s philosophy can help us overcome the squeamishness we feel about self-creation online. There is an old idea that articulating oneself creatively through one’s social engagements is inauthentic. One is what one is – that’s all there is to it. Foucault, in his later works, argued against this idea. In Foucault’s view, people who assume that the self is given and fixed are making a metaphysical mistake. The self is not given: it is made and remade in a variety of ways in a variety of contexts. It is crafted in a different way for each generation. If we are interested in freedom, be it personal or collective, we had best play an active part in creating our selves, because the institutions of postmodern society shape us as we pass through them, and the more that we allow ourselves to be shaped by these institutions, the less we are able to creatively define ourselves as human beings.

Social media can be a positive tool for creating and affirming the self. We can and do use social media as a tool in the ‘art of life’, the practice of constructing the self.

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Read part three: the call of the crowd.

Comments

  1. Hi,
    I really enjoyed reading your article today, thank you. For the past three years I have been myself involved in an on-line art community http://www.redbubble.com/people/annamora, which had a very similar impact on me as you describe here. I did not expect the experience to be positive one to start with, but over time I found it to be the most potent motivation for own art making I could ever dream of – due to the sharing, positive comments and genuine possibility to get to know others through their art work progressively. I support, therefore, your argument that we should affirm creative self-affirmation online. Thank you once again for such interesting material to read. I very much like the presentation of your blog and for example the art work at the start of the article, too. (who is the author ?)
    Anna

    • Thanks Anna. I am glad you like the post. I am glad to have written it! I felt that the first post in the series didn’t stand alone – I needed to say a bit more about creative self-affirmation to really flesh out the virtual panopticon idea. After the first one, some of my friends were asking: so, you think the internet is a kind of prison? Which isn’t what I think at all.

      I think that the open culture ideal (love it to bits!) sets up a psychological dynamic in dispersed groups. Foucault’s panopticon is useful conceptually because it enables us to think about how transparency and visibility affects our behaviour. We see it on FB, we we see it on Twitter. People post to their audience, or what they perceive to be their audience. They model their behaviour in subsequent posts according to how the audience responds.

      Perhaps this is a way of conceiving ‘the other’ in social media? The other is not your friend or connection. The real ‘other’, whose presence you feel implicitly, is your tribe.

      I am glad I’ve found a way of talking about my main man Foucault. He was one of the best philosophers of his day, but so unappreciated!

  2. Nice one Tim. Please keep going, you are onto something. I felt this second piece was much more coherent than the first – perhaps you are right and they do need to be read as a whole. Wondering if, in the third piece, you are getting into Foucault’s ideas on ‘the crowd’ assuming positions of power for themselves (rather than being invited to) and the potential role social media can have in facilitating that today. I don’t mean using social media for struggles in the way it has been discussed in relation to the Arab spring (organizing potential is one of its most obvious strengths) but as a platform for digital advocacy and adjusting collective priorities (i.e. in addressing injustices etc). I can’t help thinking of Foucault when I see social media doing this on a small scale every day in the areas I work in (global public health):

    “First a body of knowledge is recognized and acknowledged as the dominant discourse in a given area: Then second, it is the discourse itself, and not any individuals or organisations that has the power to set the agenda. Prevalent thinking selects priorities for action.”

    This is far more possible (and visible) today using Twitter/Facebook than when Foucault wrote it (prior to the advent of the internet) because discourse now has so much more life and momentum of its own. I think he saw it coming.

    • Hi Tim,

      Fascinating. You have given me a lot to think about! I hadn’t quite seen things this way, but what you suggest here makes perfect sense.

      Let me think more about it and get back to you.

      Cheers!
      Tim

  3. I think what’s missing here is what makes participating in social media different from participating in any one of the other daily performances: what we choose to wear, what we choose to buy, how we present ourselves to strangers, and so on. What makes Twitter a Panopticon in a way that the rest of daily life is not? Whenever I go on the street I’m presenting myself to a crowd partly selected and partly random, just like Twitter. So where do the extra pressures and anxieties come from? Is it just that Twitter is a focussed, limited activity that draws attention to what’s going on in our minds all the time anyway?

    • I agree, Harry, that the virtual panopticon of Facebook and Twitter is an extension and distillation of an experience that we have elsewhere: on the street, in a cafe, at the workplace… This is why Foucault thought the Panopticon, as a model or ‘diagram’ of power, is so important – it sheds light on these anonymous and invisible processes of subjectivation/subjectification. Foucault argued that panopticonism has been built into our societies, our institutions (think of the school and university and the examination system) – our whole sense of the normal state of being – in myriad ways.

      What I’m trying to do is bring to light how panopticonism has crept into the online world. So, yes, the psychological effect of participating in social media is essentially no different to what happens in other social environments. In my view. this doesn’t show that ‘virtual panopticonism’ is false. It reflects the extent to which panopticonism has already shaped features of the offline world.

  4. Reblogged this on maha's place.

  5. I wonder how much this (the creation, performance, and maintenance of an identity) fuels its opposite: anonymity, where identifiable identities are replaced by the notion of torrents of swirling thought.

  6. Reblogged this on horstbellmer.

  7. Memories of Cultural Studies 101 came flooding back at your mention of the Panopticon. Always fascinated me, thanks for this. Wonder if each of us are our own Panopticon, among but distinguishable from society, with or without social media.

    • Modern society is thoroughly Panopticonic – particularly post 9/11. Everyone watches everyone. We hardly need spy agencies ‘looking after’ us. We do it ourselves.

  8. Maybe as a case study in artifacts of the self coming back to haunt us, I just found this piece through Google+. It’s a great read and an introduction to Foucault for me. When I hit this part:

    “They take an acute form online, since the details that we share online concern our passions, values, and dreams (if only obliquely), and it is important for us to feel that we are being positively judged for these things.”
    I had trouble taking it on face value. Is it actually important, or do we make it important? Is it an artificial constraint? What damage is done when we aren’t positively judged, and what safeguards or coping mechanisms to move beyond these fears?

    • Thanks, you are right. I’m making some kind of universal claim there, which is wrong. Still, it is empirically true that the vast number of people who use social media on a regular basis (myself included) add value because we like feeling positively judged by a community. This is not a normative claim, in the sense that accepting it obliges you to act in any way. I think that social media ‘works’ by tapping into the human need for positive social recognition.

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