Panopticism and Social Media


The growth of social media networks like Facebook and Twitter is often presented in contradictory ways. On the one hand, they are presented as a force for liberation. This was the case in 2009 when the US State Department asked twitter to delay server maintenance to help Iranian groups protest the presidential election, and again during the "Arab Spring" in which social media became an important tool for organising and projecting dissent.

On the other hand, and in a different context, social media networks are seen as an oppressive and sinister force. Facebook and Google+ give corporations 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 of panopticism outlined in Discipline and Punish (1995). However, there are some difficulties when applying panopticism to social media.

The concept of panopticism is based on a model prison, The Panopticon, designed by Jeremy Bentham. The basic idea was to construct the prison in such a way that the prisoners were always available for observation by the authorities, and always unsure whether or not they were actually under observation at any given moment. Foucault describes the way in which power functions in the Panopticon in the following (characteristically dense) way:

> Hence 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. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.([1995](

Thus, under constant threat of observation, prisoners would self-regulate their behaviour, thereby reducing the need for more direct coercion.

Linking social media to panopticism involves asking to what extent the existence of social media networks cause us to self-regulate our behaviour. Here both the Arab Spring and the 2011 riots in the UK serve as counter examples, precisely because their organisation took place through social media.

Fundamentally, social media is less about observation than it is a form of public performance. In Bentham's Panopticon, prisoners actions could be directly observed; on Facebook, it is only a curated representation of a user's actions that can be observed. This distinction is recognised by the socially networked, and is cited here as a major reason that social networks have become so incredibly boring:

> You never know who is looking or how it might affect your relationships and career down the road, and as a result, we have become more cautious about the version of ourselves that we present to each other and the world.

One can similarly imagine that if the prisoners in the Panopticon had the ability to present the guards with a representation of their behaviour, they wouldn't need to regulate their actual behaviour (as prisoners in films make use of some deceptive ruse to hide their escape attempt). On this basis, one could argue that social media aren't properly panoptic both because users can be selective about what they display, and because users have a degree of control over their performance - and ultimately whether or not they wish to perform at all.

However, this argument requires there to be a certain amount of space between a public performance of the self and an authentic "true" self. With such a distance, it is possible to argue that by preserving areas outside of social networks (and maintaining or increasing levels of privacy generally), social media will be less useful for exercising power. On the other hand, if we deny the distance between performance and an authentic self (or simply deny the existence of an authentic self outside of performance altogether), then this becomes problematic.

This line of thinking is not just to argue that what looks like a duck, tweets like a duck, and performs like a duck is simply a duck, but to argue that there is something inescapable about the performative dimension of social media. In this case, non-participation in social media becomes a kind of performance that is suspect in itself.

In a way, this reveals the limits of a Foucauldian analysis of social media, and in particularly the wholesale deployment of panopticism: it simply cannot account for media's performative elements. To be fair to Foucault, his concern was to write a history of the present, but his present is now in the past. In the meantime, the techniques of control have not stood still. Rather than using panopticism to describe our (new) present, a proper Foucaludian approach would be better served by developing a genealogy of networked performance.

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