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’…’ Apparantly 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


  1. justinthebear says:

    I don’t see it Tim.
    We inhabit multiple platforms with different social groups and different norms enforced by those groups.
    Isnt that like inhabiting multiple prisons, with multipke guards, who happen to be our peers.
    Surely this all stretches the prison metaphor to breaking point.
    And surely there is a differencw between visibility sought and visibility imposed. It isnt like the inmates in Bentham’s prison left wanting to be more visible. Visibility is a fact for them, whereas it is a weird desire if ours. A desire the panopticon doesnt seem to explain.


    • But the Panopticon model does explain our desire to share in public. This is why I think it is interesting.

      It would be easy to stretch the prison metaphor too far: users of Facebook are not prisoners or guards in any meaningful sense. What I am saying is that the presence of the crowd has a psychological effect on users. Just as an individual in a Panopticon crafts or regulates him or herself in light of their visibility, Facebook users (and I guess this argument applies to Facebook more than many other social media systems – I should be explicit about this) play out their social identities as they post and share. I want to develop this idea in the next post and argue that we can and should be using this self-fashioning activity creatively (‘creative self-affirmation’).

      The three posts are actually one long document. I think this first one will be easier to grok once I’ve published all three.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Thank you for your post. I think that Foucault’s notion of the Panopticon represents an excellent way of thinking about social media and ‘subjectivation’ (I personally would call it ‘subjectification’ as this seems closer somehow to the idea of being made a subject (and making oneself a subject to something), but this is just a matter of taste!).

    Justin is right in that the immediate prison metaphor does not seem appropriate. Nonetheless, there is much to be gained from thinking about the Panopticon and I think we need to think through how to build on the existing concept. The prison metaphor was ultimately just that, a metaphor for thinking about social relations, not simply a discussion about prison design and a complex of prisoner psychology. Foucault was thinking about power relations and the creation of the subject in a post-Enlightenment yet pre-mass media and certainly pre-internet age, but his ideas have a clear – at least for me – applicability to our contemporary new media age.

    For Foucault, much of what you mention in relation to the subject relates to a diffuse form of power relations and systems of regulation of time, space and people. This is part of what he referred to as the ‘disciplinary society’, where discipline is understood not as simple projections of power or obligations onto subjects, but rather as a diffuse form of power in which every individual was implicated, albeit not in an equal way (the prison warden has more authority than a prisoner). A key component of this was the dynamic creation of power-knowledge (knowledge systems of authority that can classify, catalogue, assess and evaluate according to notions of truth or authenticity). A feature element of this was the ‘normalizing gaze’. This is an understanding of officially sanctioned knowledge or ‘truths’ about what is ‘normal’, ‘correct’, ‘desirable’, ‘appropriate’ or ‘deviant’ in people’s behaviour.

    What is fascinating is the application of this notion of ‘normalisation’ to social media, and we come back to the idea of regulation and self-regulation within platforms which are essentially very individualised. While Facebook and Twitter possess particular designs which shape what users can and can’t do on their platforms, this power-knowledge dynamic has become arguably even less the preserve of those at the centre of control (i.e., the Panopticon’s central control tower).

    And there is certainly no central form of power dictating want to do and what to be (or what not to do or be), other than obvious things like inappropriate images or abuse of other users being prohibited. People develop, adapt and update these ideas themselves constantly, depending on their own personal, individual relations and interactions within others online. Here the regulation of self is even more stark than in the prison metaphor: a social media user aims to project a particular image of her- or himself based on an understanding of what is appropriate, ‘cool’ or impressive (in simple terms, what is normal). This is not to say that this is ‘inauthentic’ or that they should automatically be criticised for ‘not being yourself’; it is more that this dynamic forms a key element of online behaviour.

    This does not happen in any fixed way or as a means to a particular end, but rather as a process. This form of online personal brand management – or identity – can be very different for different people (and indeed on different platforms), but it represents a new element of the disciplinary society for people to navigate. In some instances, I think that you even see forms of self-regulation in offline life in anticipation of how one might appear online (e.g., being on hyper-alert towards photographs being taken when out with friends, knowing that there is every chance that you will be captured, posted and judged by others at any time).

    It is extraordinary to be able to access information about individuals and to monitor others (that is, subject them to your gaze and judgement) in such an unprecedented way. But I think in many respects the key point may be that this ‘judging’ is mostly only ever latent or unrealised; what primarily happens is that people judge themselves and modify their behaviour according to their understandings of what is required, without anybody else necessarily paying that much attention. This was the ultimate point Foucault was making about normalisation – the sense of being surveilled is not the same as actually being watched. It is the relationship between what is supposed to happen (surveillance, monitoring and control) and what really goes on (their reactions to these mechanisms) which is interesting.

    Anyway, sorry for the ramble – just some thoughts! Thanks again.

    • Hi Fuente,

      There is soooo much here that we could discuss. I’m in agreement with 99% of what you say. It feels great to know that someone is engaging the ideas, thinking them through, and taking them beyond what I’ve tried to express. Thank you.

      I’ll respond briefly to chunks of your text.

      ‘Justin is right in that the immediate prison metaphor does not seem appropriate. Nonetheless, there is much to be gained from thinking about the Panopticon and I think we need to think through how to build on the existing concept’.

      This is precisely how I see it. The prison metaphor is inappropriate. But for Foucault, the Panopticon is not just a a prison or architectural concept, it is a diagram of power.

      ‘[A] social media user aims to project a particular image of her – or himself based on an understanding of what is appropriate, ‘cool’ or impressive (in simple terms, what is normal). This is not to say that this is ‘inauthentic’ or that they should automatically be criticised for ‘not being yourself’; it is more that this dynamic forms a key element of online behaviour’.

      I am still unsure about the extent to which normalisation is a useful concept here, to be honest. Maybe it is appropriate: but it is a different form of normalisation to that which Foucault associates with disciplinary societies. I agree with Deleuze: people in the hi-tech consumerist world inhabit free-floating systems of control rather than disciplinary structures. The self that is crafted online is not an anxious, normalized, disciplinary subject – it is the empowered, aspiration self of the societies of control.

      I talk about this in my latest post. I hope you enjoy it as much as this one!


      • Sorry, I am not familiar with the works of Deleuze, but what works of his (or what reference exactly) are you referring to?

        I find this topic rather fascinating and I’m actually writing a paper on it. 🙂 So thanks for posting!
        Any suggestions for academic sources relating to this topic? Obviously there’s Zuckerberg, and there’s Langdon Winner’s ideas (The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology) in some respects…

        I have been thinking about this topic mainly in relation to the effect of govt surveillance in places such as China, but the idea of communal surveillance is also applicable. 🙂

      • Hi Kimmie,

        Apologies – I somehow missed your comment.

        The Deleuze text I’m referring to is ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’. Here’s a link to an online version:

        I’m afraid I can’t help you with academic references. I’m not affiliated with a university at the moment, so I don’t have access to an academic database. But I did a Google search and discovered (to my disappointment) that my thesis is not an original one There is a link at the bottom of this post to a 2008 article in TDR.


      • Hi Tim,

        Thanks. However, I have already written my piece on this subject…and I got an A+! Was pretty happy with that! 🙂

        …oh well, you’re probably still one of the first people to think about these connections regardless.


  3. So, what if you habitually share/perform, draw the spotlight, in your day-to-day thang, but you do it behind pseudonym, sorry, avatar? … and you keep your SM channels separate, with little cross over?

    • Anonymity is one way to avoid a virtual Panopticon. Hence the popularity of 4Chan and Anonymous. Another way is to accept that what one puts online is an avatar, simulacra, a performance – and use it. This is the strategy that I recommend.

  4. I have been pondering the parallels between social media and Foucault’s Panopticon for a while now, and looking online in the hope of finding essays in which the the relationship was well-articulated. I think this piece makes the connection very well and is extremely thought-provoking. Much of the content you find online tends to skim the surface of ideas without going to deeper levels as you have. Thank you for this post and series!

  5. thorsager says:

    Reblogged this on Martin leger med medier and commented:
    Alle som interesserer sig for medieteori, eller måske bare godt kunne tænke sig et filosofisk perspektiv på, hvordan de bruger medierne, bør læse dette bloginlæg inkl. de to andre dele som der refereres til.

    Jeg kan også tilføje Foucaults teorier til en anden sammenhæng. Donald Matheson bygger blandt andre på Foucaults panopticon-teori i sin analyse af forbrugermagasiner. Bogen hedder “Media Discourses” og kapitlet hedder “The Performance of Identity in Consumer Magazines”. bogen kan findes på Google Books eller via Ebrary Reader. Kan anbefales.

  6. thorsager says:


    Just wanted to say thanks for making Foucault easy to understand. I’ve tried to read up on his theories on my own with various degrees of success. If you’d like a different perspective on the panopticon metaphor, I would recommend you read Media Discourses by Donald Matheson. Look for the chapter “The Performance of Identity in Consumer Magazines”. He also elaborates more on Foucaults sexualization discourse, the idea of knowledge along with tid-bits from other philosophers.

  7. Well, I’m not sure. It seems that Foucault was describing the growth of modern systems, and social media is a postmodern phenomenon, especially with regards to establishing the (objective) truth of any particular viewpoint. Any event will have a number of witnesses, but observing (tweeting) is also to enter a mediated relationship with a number of other people (followers). This mediated relationship in particular is something that I don’t think can really be accounted for with Foucault, who was at describing a different era at any rate.

    I think the concept of performativity (which you mentioned) is perhaps a better approach to social media, although Foucault’s panopticon can still be usefully applied to subjects like CCTV surveillance.

    • Thanks for the reflection. I appreciate the critical feedback.

      It is true that Foucault perceived the Panopticon to be emblematic of modern systems of power and disciplinary institutions. At the same time, he describes it (in vaguely Deleuzean terms) as a diagram of power, meaning a general strategy and technique that can be variously applied in different contexts. Surely it is not illegitimate, then, to explore how social media systems, by virtue of the visibility of actions undertaken within them, create a panopticonic effect, even if they have not been designed as panopticons? That is the extent of my argument as it concerns Foucault.

  8. Great article Tim. It makes no doubt social media looks like a huge normalization engine. At the same time it is an affirmation one, so there is an interesting polarity here, because indeed you have at the same time more normalization (toward what is ‘hype’, the medium and the form) and less (toward authorship and the content). And it would be worth exploring a bit at what levels the two operate. Maybe this relates to what I have been wondering lately: the relationship between normalization (as a ‘pressure’/push self imposed or not to conform, fit in, comparison, foucauldian) and convergence (as an unfolding/pull towards an aspiration or attractor of some kind, iteration, hagelian as in power of pull)… Have you given it some thought?

    The other thing that comes to mind while reading this article is the reverse panopticon. The social network as the surveillance eye for the behavior of the economic actors, the good and bad guys that can help transition to a better world if they were pushed or further pulled in certain direction. In this sense I think that the social object centered pull platform I have described below is a panopticon and I have conceived it as such -héhé! ;-)…

    • Thanks Helene. These are great insights. I love the idea of a relationship between normalization and convergence – indeed, I think this is key to what I am trying to express here… The way I set things up in these posts is somewhat inadequate, I feel. Individuals create their identities affirmatively online through sharing in public (all content being tagged with an existential marker). Yet there is another piece to the puzzle that is just as important: this concerns how we form value-based tribes in and through our self-creative sharing.

      Here is an excerpt from another post I published recently, which is part of the same writing project.

      “Think about how you form new friends online. As we share what we love and rummage about on our social networks for valuable content to share, we come across people who also love the things that we love. We ‘like’ them, ‘friend’ them, or follow them so that we can continue to share with them and receive what they share. In the process, we build social networks based in common values and interests.

      This is how we form tribes. Tribes are united by common values and interests – in a word, love.

      What is social about social media? The answer has nothing to do with ephemeral exchanges between individuals. What’s social about social media is the way that it enables us to form tribal groupings based about the things that we love. It hinges on the way that we achieve prominence and status in our tribes by virtue of the gifts that we share with them. It comes into focus when we see that by sharing with our tribes, we contribute to a common project – that of building a valuable common pool for everyone to enjoy, a commons chock full of expressions of love.”

      When I speak of ‘crowds’ in the Foucault series, I am thinking primarily of ‘tribes’. This is the thought behind the idea of ‘the call of the crowd’: what compels us to share content is not just our desire to express our values and create ourselves online; it is the desire to belong to a community bound by common values – a tribe. My sense is that, when we put stuff online, we are putting it out first and foremost for our tribes. We don’t have a clear idea of who exactly is in these tribes, but ultimately that’s not important. What is important is that the value network is out there, and we feel that we are helping create and preserve it by contributing content.

      The Next Edge and Socap communities were very much in my mind when I wrote these posts.

      I will dive into your work on the commons and see it spurs me to further insights. I am sure it will! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  9. I find this discussion extremely rich. My expertise is in designing and evaluating online learning systems for teachers of science across the United States at the National Science Teachers Association, which is materialized through an open portal that indeed attempts to converge social engagement with high quality content and psycho-emotional roles for recognition and growth as linked to their online profile. (see: We are experimenting with motivational badges, as well as ones that document self-directed learning, and have both national and private (local) leader boards. We have about 110,000 active users (with varying degrees of engagement), with tens of thousands of teachers spending hours online engaging in activities such as creating personal libraries, sharing collections, rating resources, discussing instructional strategies through integrated forums, attending live web seminars, etc. My limited understanding of these social/behaviorist/constructivist principles inform our design efforts and several studies of our work do seem to capture the value created via this system (as well as increased learning by those engaging with the content modules). That said, we do iteratively seek to improve our efforts.

    In reading these insightful posts, I’m reminded of what is in part driving our next evolution of our system, that is, how to use the intrinsic motivation of the self-directed learners–who are often looking for on-demand, just-in-time, just-enough, just-for me support and resources for their classrooms based on their own unique learning needs and preferences, and coupling them with others with similar learning goals and interests. The idea of TRIBE hit home and in designing systems that begin with the individual, but then enable them to “connected” with others on similar learning journeys. For many teachers with limited time during the school day to “engage” in discourse with colleagues, the profession is often too isolated, so online systems that empower them to find and contribute with other tribal members is critical.

    Here’s one example that illustrates my thinking. I took a wonderful trip to Breckenridge, Colorado two years ago. For one of the day’s events I signed our family up for a dog sled trip. It was an educational experience, where you spent the day with the dogs, learning about them, their value to the culture they supported, feeding them, etc., where at the end of the day you were able to ride a sled pulled by the team you interacted with earlier. This was an experience that was of a personal interest to me and my family. What I didn’t expect or anticipate was that when the van picked my family up outside of the hotel to take us to the camp, another family from Austraila was also in the van for the same experience. We suddenly were thrust together for the day, and while we didn’t know each other before this, our individual/personal interest had now unexpectedly conjoined us, and it wasn’t long until we were taking pictures of each other’s families, discussing how we raised our kids; we “bonded” over this mutual experience. That is when it “hit me”…how can we support individual learner’s needs while also simultaneously facilitating group “connections” too for learning with those of similar interest. These posts have shed light on these thoughts.

    Finally, I’d like to comment about the “public surveillance” part of social systems references in these posts. I am not knowledgably in the psychology of those referenced herein, but have studied a little about learning theories (behaviorism, constructivism, situated cognition, etc.). What I can say anecdotally is that there is definitely something about the notion of online activity being recognized by those within and just on the periphery of the tribe. There is research that supports the importance of administrators in recognizing teachers’ efforts that teachers’ perception of what their administrator thinks of their work matters. With this knowledge and with systems that award points, badges, etc. we crafted sample “recognition” messages for administrators to share with their teachers to praise/congratulate the effort/contributions of those teachers in their cohorts (e.g., sharing files, contributing discussion posts to colleagues, passing final assessments at the end of web modules, etc.). A science methods professor using our system with her pre-service educators even commented upon a student’s placement on a local leader board, where everyone knew everyone else on the board, and in multiple cases, this “awareness” of individual’s efforts sparked higher levels of activity. So from a layman’s view there definitely seems to be something about the “fishbowl” effect of social media and its effect on the actions of those within the tribe.

    Thank you again for the time to craft and posts these insights!

    • Thanks, Al, for sharing these comments. It is fascinating to learn about developments in the world of online learning. I moved out of academia just as e-learning was starting to kick in, and I haven’t kept up with what is happening (beyond browsing the occasional link shared on Twitter). It sounds like the trend towards ‘gamification’ seen in the online retailing sector is also impacting on e-learning. This can only be a good thing, I think.

      The tribal metaphor is certainly a rich and flexible one. Tribes are self-organizing, values-based entities, bound together by reciprocity and mutual enthusiasm. Dave Logan’s book Tribal Leadership offers a wealth of insights into the forms of expression that mark out different order of tribes – worth a look, if you haven’t already.

      Good luck with your ongoing work, Al. And thanks again for your thoughts and comments,

  10. Reblogged this on Issues in the History of Photography and commented:
    Take a look folks!

  11. Nice website! It was good meeting you at Mireille’s place!

  12. Reblogged this on LOB ars communication´s virtual comments und kommentierte:
    ComBridge: Recommended

  13. Fredrik Graver says:

    Reblogged this on fredsnotes and commented:
    Jeg ble ledet til denne bloggen via en av mine medstudenter i #etmooc, en online utforskelse av utdanning, teknologi og media. ( Akkurat nå handler det om “the open movement”. Samtidig har jeg nylig leste en del av det som er skrevet om Google Glass, og hvordan det kan påvirke oss når vi plutselig vet at alt vi gjør og sier kan bli tatt opp og lagret.

    Det er mange år siden jeg leste Foucault, men han virker mer relevant nå enn da jeg leste ham på 80-tallet.

  14. Reblogged this on maha's place.

  15. Clare O'Farrell says:

    Reblogged this on Foucault News.

  16. arranjames says:

    Reblogged this on attempts at living.

  17. Reblogged this on horstbellmer.

  18. specularimage says:

    Reblogged this on Specular Image.

  19. dragosilca says:

    Also, I think that this really ties in with Jean Baudrillard’s work Simulacra and Simulacrum. Because we are already so focused on “sharing” things, the reality that is created on the social media is more “real” than reality itself. And so, one has created a simulacrum.

  20. Nice analysis – I deactivated Facebook some years ago because I realized it was having exactly that Panopticonic effect on me. It made me paranoid and was genuinely very stressful. I miss out on a lot of news and information from friends and family who basically no longer use any means except Facebook to communicate, but it’s worth it not to feel like I’m watched every moment of every day, by who knows whom. I still use Twitter, but with 3 accounts to better control who can see what, because not everyone needs to know everything but I still need a space to interact with distant friends.

    • Thanks v much! I feel similarly about Facebook. It’s not so much the surveillance (we’re exposed to co-surveillance wherever we go online), but the expectations of the crowd that bothers me. I find it easy to gel with the crowd on Twitter, who are basically looking for interesting new stuff. The crowd on Facebook, though – I have no idea what they enjoy. Funny pics? Status updates? I don’t get it.

      I’m sure it’s not Facebook, it’s me. But it reflects the importance of finding one’s tribes online. We need an intuitive sense of who we’re giving to to figure out what to give. If we don’t know what to give, we’re unlikely to enjoy the experience of sharing in public.

  21. It is hard to believe there was a world before social media. I like this world better.

  22. “…a deep psychological need for recognition. Whatever it is that drives it….”

    Not just recognition, approval. That’s the need that drives it and the condition that sustains it is the unlearned or simply forgotten tool of actually interacting with other human beings in real, live, face-to-face conversations. I think they call it life.

    • Yes, approval – right. It was the idea that we seek the approval of our peers that started me thinking about tribal belonging and reputation games (you might check out the social media as gift culture series if you haven’t already).

  23. History of Capitalism says:

    Foucault was not a psychologist.

    • Actually, he studied and practiced psychology after graduating on philosophy. His first book (prior to the History of Madness) was an engagement with existential psychology. But I take your point: for the main part of his career, Foucault was a militant philosopher-historian, not a psychologist.

  24. Life has changed for me in the last 4 years, i have met so many people , from so many different countries, and i am proud of all the people who i have met, and all the friends i have made, the internet has changed society.

  25. Great discussion.

    I found your comment interesting about Twitter — that you find it easy to gel w/ that crowd because they are looking for “interesting new stuff.” I use Facebook and LinkedIn and blog 3x week (and write for mass media publications), but the pressure to keep pumping out “interesting new stuff” would make me want to take a long nap.

    I don’t tweet, despite endless imprecations I do so and know that this marks me as so terribly behind the times. It’s enough already to maintain a public persona in front of thousands of readers on my blog, millions of readers through my stories (NYT, etc) and to have to be….anything…is exhausting. I don’t feel compelled to be anyone but me on Facebook…defriend me if I’m too boring!

    The issue I find as interesting as this performative one is that of trust. If we trust that what we are reading on/in social media is true (do we? why? from which sources?), why are we making that choice? Because we like the look of someone’s photo? Their choice of language? I make my living as a journalist and de facto (rightly or not) know that many readers trust what I write for publication in print because of fact-checkers or the halo effect, (and fear of loss of income!) if I lie. But when they trust me on-line (and if not, why else show up? I am not that amusing nor wish to be)…why? That intrigues me.

    • Trust is an intriguing issue. It’s key to how we source knowledge online, yet as you note, the bases upon which we trust this source over that are various and unclear. I hesitate to offer a thesis; this issue is deserving of a thesis, and a long one at that! I have developed a perspective on tribal reputation and trust in the gift culture series, but this concerns relationships between relatively small groups of people who share content directly with one another.

      In your case, I imagine that you’ve established a trusted ‘brand’ through your work. The halo effect is no doubt a powerful trust-enabler too (I’m not sure about fact checkers – I wonder how many readers are aware that publications employ people for this!).

      It is interesting that you say that on Facebook you don’t feel compelled to be anyone but you. What part or aspect of you do you express on the site? I believe that the self is prismatic or multifaceted. We reduce the challenge of using the social by finding a ‘fit’ between a site, with its distinctive crowd, each defined by a set of values and expectations, and some part of our person that we feel happy expressing in public. When we have this fit, the virtual Panopticon is no longer a problem for us: we have a persona that we can present to the crowd without feeling anxiety, embarrassment, or shame. It sounds like Facebook works for you in this respect. Unfortunately it doesn’t work for me.

      On Twitter, I feel I can be myself. What this really means us that Twitter enables me to express the philosopher/futurist/activist dimension of my person, which is a side of myself that I deeply enjoy developing and expressing. On Facebook, I feel obliged to be more of the cheery, informal, social self that I express to friends and loved ones every day. Frankly, I find this a bit boring. I’m happiest when I’m creating myself – but this is just me.

      • So interesting!

        My 640 Facebook friends are, about 85%, real friends, people I know well, from earliest childhood to present day friends made in the past few years, even last month while teaching students in Arizona. I also have — to my surprise — a few big name writers who read my updates and “like” them or even link/share them.

        Yet I don’t feel compelled to be cheery or social. I sometimes just post a photo I’ve taken or share a link to something feminist or rant-y. So I guess I feel as comfortable there just being “me” in all my various me-nesses as you do on Twitter.

  26. I am not one of the, “we” described in your first couple of paragraphs but I started reading this anyway; you had put some thought into it and the topic is not without merit. When I got to this, “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,” I almost stopped. In fact I did stop and thought about it for a few minutes. I cannot imagine a world in which the phrase, “doing it well” could be applied to liking some anonymous nobody on Facebook, so your phrase reads to me as almost indecipherable gibberish. But having invested so much thought in deciding to read your piece I carried on until I got to this, “Conscious and permanent visibility’…’ Apparantly this is what Mark Zuckerberg thinks social media is all about.” That you have thought so long and hard about this and yet come to such a naive conclusion about Zuckerberg’s motives suggests to me that you are probably way too invested in being one of the, “we” you described in your first two paragraphs.

    • I am surprised you made it so far. Keen to hear what it is you think is naive about the allusion to Zuck’s idea of ‘frictionless sharing’ – he is pretty up front about it. Or perhaps I misunderstand what you are saying.

      • You misunderstood what I said, but that is probably not your fault; almost everyone misunderstands everything I say, which is why blogging is probably not a very good idea for me. Anyway, what I thought naive was your assumption that Mark Zuckerberg thinks social media is about, “Conscious and permanent visibility.” There is a simple rule to be followed in a capitalist society, it is the corollary to, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” The rule is, “When a product is made available to you for free, you are the product.” Since Facebook is free but makes Zuck’ squillions of little shiny trinkets, which he covets, the idea is to make you give him as much product as possible, and to keep giving it to him as often and as bountifully as possible. This is why their privacy rules change every time the wind blows. In the Panopticon that is Facebook you have no privacy, you are a prisoner with no little lockers in which to keep your secrets, they must be kept open on the shelves and visible to the guards at all times so that they can suck every cent of revenue out of you that they possibly can. Whereas you were referring to the little bookshelf in your Facebook cell being visible to all the other prisoners, who really don’t give a flying mouse for your photos of last week’s barbeque because they are far too busy showing their own stuff off to the guards. When you click, “Like” in Facebopticon that isn’t you signalling to some other prisoner, carving your online persona, that is just one more item of data in Zuckerberg’s information mine, one more thing the guards know about you and can use for their advantage. It’s Pavlov and his little pooches for the internet age. In Silence of the Lambs, when Hannibal Lecter asked Clarice Starling, “What needs does he serve by killing?” she is supposed to answer that he covets, he wants that thing which the victim has but which he wants for himself. This is not a bad lesson in life.

      • My impression is that we see things in a similar light, more so than this post would suggest. The topic here is the psychological dynamics of sharing in public, which accounts for the limited focus. Elsewhere, I take an explicitly critical view on Facebook’s revenue model. You may find these slides amusing – they lack a textual narrative, but the line of argument should be clear (i hope):

  27. If a thought was not registered via social media, did it really happen? hmm.

  28. Incredibly fortunate to have stumbled upon your blog by happen-stance.’

  29. Brilliant, I couldn’t have said it better myself

  30. Fascinating. Thank you!

  31. Reblogged this on DrSapna and commented:
    The Kardashians are an example of living in the Panopitcon. Years ago, when I did my Reality Tv paper as part of my Masters in film, tv and media studies, it was the beginning of reality tv. Ozzy and Sharon living their live on the MTV cameras. Now we all regulate our behaviour under the virtual gaze of known and unknown spectators. Even as I write this I regulate my words if not my thoughts. For posterity, cached in the virtual world, to be dug up by an internet anthropologist. This analysis is of course of the Western world by the Western world. When I browse through online posts and expressions of my fellow Indians it makes me want to dissect the behaviours of a people that only until a few years ago lived in a Luddite desert and have been suddenly thrown into a connected world without any priming whatsoever. I am a digital migrant myself but, may I say of myself, very well integrated. And it was through following a path of self awareness and regulation because I know the Panopticon exists. There are many Indians I know who wouldn’t have a clue hence a study of life online in a post globalised, free market, mofussil and metroplois India would be a fascinating read.

  32. Wow! I’m referencing Foucault all the time especially Madness and Civilisation in my work in mental health, but this reminds me of a time decades ago when I trained as a mental health nurse in a large psychiatric hospital. Aside from the villas, there was a main hospital where the wards and day rooms etc fanned out from a central station, which was like a little cockpit made of dark oak and the roof was like a greenhouse but with stained glass. It was like the hub of a spaceship and I always felt a bit odd sitting in it, especially on night duty. It was, I see now, a panopticon!

  33. Reblogged this on Mixed Media and commented:
    Trenchant analysis of social media use and effects.

  34. and what do numbers do to the panopticon? Aren’t the effects of our responses diminished when most potential input is boiled down to an accumulation of ‘likes’ — in this sense aren’t we becoming more influenced by the back flow of the numbers onto ourselves and less concerned with the more real feedbacks for which we probably spread ourselves across these platforms for in the first?

    • Hmm. Interesting question. I take your point: a like involves minimal effort and commitment on the part of the liker. If we aim to accumulate likes, we’re enjoying a very low-grade form of social interaction. Yet a like is still a social signal, right? Given this, I’m not sure that its right to say that accumulating likes is *simply* engaging with numbers… All in all, I think the lesson is that likes (unfortunately) count for little, and we should aim for comments and conversations.

      • I suppose my perspective is numbers are the easiest way to transmit information, and often the least descriptive — they certainly are intended to be interactive, but are they in practice? If so, why do conversations require so much more work in an environment suited to finding whatever conversation you might wish?

  35. Reblogged this on Dont Ask Me I’m No Expert and commented:
    Very fascinating article in three parts.

  36. Have you read “Introduction to the Foucault Reader”? It was a comparison of Foucault and Chomsky’s ideas and how he (Foucault) emphasized the ideas of power, body, and knowledge. It was hard to understand, but insightful at the same time.

  37. Hi Nick. It’s a WordPress Premium theme. Tim

  38. Melek-Taus says:

    Reblogged this on Manticore Press.

  39. Appreciating the time and effort you put into your site and in deptrh
    information you provide. It’s great to come across
    a blog every once in a while that isn’t the samje out
    of date rehashed information. Excellent read! I’ve saved your
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  40. Reblogged this on Vita da cani and commented:
    “‘Conscious and permanent visibility’…’ Apparantly 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.”

  41. Probably a bit late to the party but it caught my eye and consequently my thoughts…

    While investigating the word ‘Panopticon’, I find a wealth of knowledge, rich thoughts and potential conclusions in this discussion. All seem equally relevant and true depending on your thought-train and relative cognitive perspective. In fact more than enough to complete a whole PhD and a lifetime of research!

    However in times past I have questioned why one or other daughters use social media outlets such as Facebook (whereas personally I prefer not to carry my life experiences, moment by moment, on my e-sleeve). Invariably the answers usually come back as: We are just having fun with our friends (operative word), letting them know what we doing and how what we did panned out (a.k.a basic playground peer communication). Never once have either I or they perceived a ‘Panopticon Effect’ consciously or subconsciously, strange as it may seem. And I am in the business of analysis, data and information patterns, stats and enjoyable things like these; and they are into being equal and not servile in the eyes of their friends and acquaintances. And neither do they perceive or even want to be watched. As far as they are concerned, it is their group and buzz off anybody else – which is a damn nightmare to prevent intrusion on Facebook.

    However ‘to be known’, ‘to be acceptable to the pack’, ‘deemed not an outcast or peculiar’ and ‘being part of the social norm and flows of society’, I fully understand the need. Whether it is achieved through day-to-day physical relationships, communication and contacts or performed virtually across the net. Much of the stuff I see and read – accidental or otherwise – appears just fun and hijinks. The more serious avenues such as Linkedin do have their smattering of alter-egos but the majority provide useful information and the potential to be reaped for a job. Twitter circles are just twitter networks from the good, bad and the ugly; but when its good its brilliant.

    For those with ultra-alter-egos and should be on stage the above discussions could easily apply, but for those who are using social media across the net globally for serious reasons, I would suggest that none of the above applies and you need to look elsewhere; and the last thing we need is a ‘1984 Panopticon’ approach to serious, valid and hopefully morale uses of digital social media. Bearing in mind that the last internet and social media map I saw had at least 70% plus of it wound up in porn, gambling and hackers with minor legislative restrictions other than its your viewing or interaction choice.

    So I would say that the original precept put forward by dear Samuel was severely flawed with regards to social media, including doing what they do, through social media channels. If you have ever visited or worked in a prison, you would know the whole survival process is different from the outside world in terms of deeds, actions, talking, language and code. The last thing you would be doing would be broadcasting your exploits with your closest inmates or the next prison break – you go introvert, you shut down and you walk carefully if you want to survive. Doesn’t sound like social media to me in any shape or form, but I do acknowledge the direction of thought and reasoning behind the original article and also the following discussions. Truth and pearls of wisdom must exist somewhere in the network of these conversations.

    But If you want to consider an open prison model then there are a whole raft of conversational opportunities which actually invert the panopticon model – now there’s a concept more in keeping and closer to the actions seen, done and experienced through social media. That sense of freedom, identity renewed and even developed, valued as a person, increased self-confidence and awareness, being part of society again and therefore a contributor, free of surveillance but choosing to play withing the rules. That sounds more like the social media I know.

    Thanks for the above discussions. Very interesting and informative indeed.

    • Thanks for the insights, Nicky. Fascinating and much appreciated.

      I too have come to see the limits of the Panopticon model for understanding social media. The model was never intended as a total framework for understanding the psychological effects of online sharing, but merely as a way of singling out the way that we craft self-identities online. Still, I’ve come to appreciate that the model reflects a pathological form of self-identification (the paranoid subject of judgement) that doesn’t do justice to the flourishing, self-expressive, and gregarious states of mind that characterise online sharing within supportive communities. To capture the tone and flavour of the latter activity, I subsequently turned to models taken from indigenous gift culture.

      If you search the blog, you’ll find there is a series of posts on social media and gift culture, in which I try to redress the shortcomings of the Panopticon posts. Here is a link to a post that attempts a mediation between the two models:

      I believe that users of social media constantly struggle with this ‘yin and yang’ dynamic; indeed, it is a dynamic that comes into play wherever people share in transparent environments. In the past couple of years, these reflections have steered me towards the study of collaborative innovation (see Isn’t it wonderful how the direction of life can be shaped by a few blog posts!

      • Hi and thanks for the unexpected and kind words; and another trip ‘further down the rabbit hole’. In my case there is nothing better than being lost in thought and imagination.

        Collaborative innovation – what a rich potential. AI transcended by HIN (Human Intelligence) networks – dynamic social (not scientific) networks working together to solve problems, create new ideas, assess outcomes; and incredibly self-evolving throughout the many diverse socially interactive groups in cyberspace. Definitely the Queen of Hearts of all social media projects and research.

        However (hopefully as a point of interest), as an addendum to the Panopticon Effect, and after reflecting on the above discussions, I remembered picking up a Journal for Machine and Human Interaction while at Uni many eons ago. One particular research article came to the conclusion (evidenced by the results of this controlled experiment) that people would willingly talk to a machine about very detailed and personal things when asked. In some cases completely opening up their lives regarding vices, moral and amoral passions, crime and activities in relationships, frank opinions and personal desires.

        In virtually all the cases (and under very strict controlled conditions), not real or actor Doctors or closest friends, were trusted enough by the individuals to be given that insight into the depth, scope and areas of intimacies of their lives achieved through machine interaction. Simply a computer screen displaying simple questions in a private room was enough to be able to penetrate even the darkest areas of a personality. It was one of those moments where I did a double cogitative take, realizing something but not sure what?

        Hence we have the advent of social media many years on and people are faced with a display screen and a virtual playground of questions in various guises needing answers; and those people often taking too the social media stage, willing to reveal all minute by minute. Whatever happened to the code of discretion? Obviously more like e-guidelines, Jack! Which brings us to the question of choice, Neo!

        But as you say, the direction of life, and of course synchronicity, does offer up opportunities similar to the supposed control features of a panopticon model, where the function of control for example could be substituted for suggestive direction. In that people being made aware that a problem needs addressing, will collaborate within their social media circles to find an answer. All you have to do is watch and see the results occurring, provided that you can create a subtle social media panopticon effect in cyberspace for a particular reason and purpose without anyone realizing it. That would be a phenomenal achievement, in effect co-evolving and redefining the purposes of commercial social media. Strangely, that I could do with in my current work at the moment with the Public Sector and involved local communities.

        Anyway very grateful for the additional links which I will pursue with joy and gusto. I would say that I am now going back into my tower to watch and observe, but that would negate my self-identity and personality which thrive on choices and expressions of freedom. Far better to stay down the rabbit hole for a little while and follow the links. No reply required… Take care.

  42. joshmaloof97 says:

    Hey mate,
    Sorry to dig up an old post but I think this is more relevant today than ever before. Social media and the internet are programming how we think, act and function. We are losing all identity and individuality to the online world, and your analogy of the Panopticon so beautifully clarifies the destructive power of the internet.

    The web is such a powerful tool, we have every single resource on every single topic at the touch of a button. The internet has the power to be the greatest communicator of science, knowledge and critical thinking, but unfortunately, this hasn’t happened. People have to be aware of the dangers of social media from a Foucaultian perspective and I think you’ve summarised it perfectly.

    Great read.

  43. I enjoyed reading this blog on the effects of social media. It’s amazing to think about a world without social media as we have become so accustomed to it. I really liked one of your last statements about how some people use social media for reasons beyond self- affirmation. They are using it to truly engage their communities yet also sharing their thoughts and opinions. Thank you for expressing your thoughts on the topic!

  44. Lik dis if ur cri erityme

  45. Reblogged this on மிதிவண்டி and commented:
    For those of you who are very much invested in social media, craving to get more likes and adjust your social life to fit to your social media presence, please read this.


  1. […] Analyses of panopticism, power and subjectification sometimes focus too much on the mechanisms that reduce deviance and provide the means for self-sensoring and prosociality or self-actualisation. […]

  2. […] and governments unprecedented access to the details of our lives and our relations with others. One way of looking at this aspect of social media is to make use of Foucault, and in particular his concept […]

  3. […] Philosophy For Change‘s awesome post discussing Foucault’s Panopticon in today’s world to help you understand how […]

  4. […] A great post on Foucault’s panopticon, subjectivation and social media via Tom Rayner. […]

  5. […] –          Are social networks a form of panopticon? Is the ability to present yourself as you desire oppressive or liberating? How are corporations intervening with the performance of the self? (e.g. facebook closing down “fake” accounts but leaving up accounts of dead people) See this blog series on Foucault and social media […]

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