Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd


You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’.

A Foucaultian perspective on social media targets the mechanism that makes it tick: sharing. Sharing is basic to social media. Sharing content is not just a neutral exchange of information, however. Mostly, when we share content on social media services, we do it transparently, visibly, that is in the presence of a crowd. The act of sharing is a performance, to an extent – it a performative act, an act that does something in the world, as J.L. Austin would say. This is important. The performative aspect of sharing shapes the logic and experience of the act itself.

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’.

Foucault understood how being made constantly visible impacts on us psychologically. Foucault was fascinated by Jeremy Bentham’s model of the ideal prison, the Panopticon, which has been incorporated in the architecture of prisons, schools, hospitals, workplaces, and urban spaces since Bentham designed it in the eighteenth century. In Benthem’s design, the Panopticon is comprised of a ring of cells surrounding a central guard tower. The prisoners in the cells are perpetually exposed to the gaze of the guards in the tower, yet since they cannot themselves see into the tower, they are never certain whether or not they are being watched.

Bentham’s Panopticon, Foucault argues, functions to make prisoners take responsibility for regulating their behaviour. Assuming that they care about the implications of bad behaviour, prisoners will act in the manner prescribed by the institution at all times on the chance that they are being watched. In time, as the sense of being watched gets under their skin, prisoners come to regulate their behaviour as if they were in a Panopticon all times, even after they have been released from the institution.

This, Foucault claims, is ‘the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power’ (Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 201).

‘Conscious and permanent visibility’…’ This is what Mark Zuckerberg thinks social media is all about. By making our actions and shares visible to a crowd, social media exposes us to a kind of virtual Panopticon. This is not just because our activities are monitored and recorded by the social media service for the purposes of producing market analysis or generating targeted advertising. For the most part, we can and do ignore this kind of data harvesting. The surveillance that directly affects us and impacts on our behaviour comes from the people with whom we share.

There are no guards and no prisoners in Facebook’s virtual Panopticon. We are both guards and prisoners, watching and implicitly judging one another as we share content.

In sharing online, we are playing to a crowd. On some level, we acknowledge this. The crowd consumes the content that we share and, if we are favoured, it passes it on. The crowd honours the identity that we create by sharing this content.

Sharing online is not solely a matter of self-affirmation and self-creation. For many people, the sharing impulse stems from a sincere desire to empower and inform their tribes and communities. We may be genuinely committed to getting the word out, or passing the word along, or just playing a part in keeping the conversation going by commenting on or liking what others have shared. The point is that whatever action we take, we make a personal statement in doing so: ‘I affirm this; I share it; I like it’. We speak to a crowd of our personal preferences, and we like nothing more than for the crowd to affirm those preferences in return.

No doubt this satisfies a deep psychological need for recognition. Whatever it is that drives it, it draws us back to share and share again.

Read part two in the series: I tweet, therefore I become

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