Many people believe that they are free to do as they please on social networks like Facebook. In my opinion, social networking sites are an evolved, more perverse version of the penoptic systems described in Michel Foucault’s “Penopticism”. Foucault describes the development of the penoptic system historically, starting from describing disciplinary measures taken to control a plague or exclusion methods to banish lepers in the late seventeenth century, to modern forms of societal penopticism. However, the “modern” penopticism described in Foucault’s time was pre-internet, and therefore a little out of date in this communication world. While he describes the birth and evolution of penopticism in this world, I believe a readjustment of the cause of subjection, and therefore power, is needed.
Penopticism, according to Foucault, has its origins routed in plague-like disciplinary controls, and exclusionary methods used on lepers in the seventeenth century. While being seemingly separate types of control, they are actually compatable. According to Foucault, these two ideas of controlling come together in Bentham’s “Penopticon”. Bentham’s penopticon describes a building that contains “at the periphery, an annular building; at the center, a tower.” The tower has wide windows that look out at the inner side of the “peripheric building”, which has two windows. One to let in light on the outside, the other corresponds with the windows on the tower. Inmates are “confined to a cell from which he is seen from the front by a supervisor.” The tower has full visual access to the cells at all times. Therefore the individuals are “alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible”, they can be seen constantly; “visibility is a trap”. The inmate is “sure that he may always be” visible. This constant possibility of surveillance causes the inmates to become “the principle of their own subjection.”
It is not hard to find the similarities between Bentham’s “Penopticon” and Facebook with some interpretation. Facebook is a social network that allows a user to create a profile, post opinions or feelings, and interact with other user’s profiles. Users can add friends, chat with them, and post on their walls. However, everything posted in Facebook is stored permanently online. Each user is “confined to his own” profile, so when posting something it is undoubtedly that users post. Facebook has some rules about posts, and there are checks in place to prevent those things against the rules from happening. I will elaborate on that further in a bit. However it is important to know now that these rules are governed by the invisible entities behind Facebook. They cannot be seen; however, if a user does something that is against the rules, there are consequences; users can be flagged or banned for a duration. The eye of Facebook is always watching, while in reality, there is no possible way to keep check on all 1 billion of its users at all times. This idea that Facebook could be watching is enough to govern opinions and comments made on Facebook. Facebook can be seen as a sort of massive, virtual “Penopticon”.
Foucault doesn’t stop at just the architectural representation of control by self-subjection. He turns his essay from an analysis of a structure, into a deeply involved philosophy about control and discipline in society. He describes the creation of the police force in Paris. Power “had to be like a faceless gaze that transformed the whole social body into a field of perception: thousands of eyes everywhere, mobile attentions ever on alert, a long, hierarchized network.” It was a bottom-up system of control. This is key in panopticism. This kind of extensive observation apparatus that exists in a society. The knowledge of this system itself is enough to make most people in society follow the rules/laws given to them, because like in the Penopticon they may not be observed at that moment, but they are aware that they could be at any moment. The ambiguity of the observation forces the people of a society to subject themselves to discipline.
This, however, brings us again to Facebook. Facebook is a website that allows users to create a profile about themselves and post their opinions and thoughts. Why is it that on Facebook people feel free to post their own ideas? Is it because they believe that posting whatever they want on a website that records everything could not possibly come back to haunt them? I believe that the vast majority of Facebook users think that they post freely on Facebook without subjecting themselves to discipline. However, I also believe that the majority of these people are still subjecting themselves to discipline.
The growth of population required for this kind of power to be established, because a state must keep power with the most efficiency. The penoptic system is more about the knowledge of the system in the eyes of the citizens, than actually directly forcing control on them. This allows for a more economical control. So how can a collection of over 1 billion users be forced to be subjected to the rules that govern Facebook? I believe that Facebook subjects users to an evolved version of Penopticism from that which Foucault describes. The number of people observing, equals the number of users. People believe that Facebook cannot control their posts, because how could it keep track of 1 billion users all at once. What people do not realize is that their actions are being observed by everyone they are in contact with on Facebook, and anyone who can read their profile. According to the blog post “Facebook, Twitter, and Foucault: we’re all watching on another now” by John McMahon on the blog facilegestures, “instead of having specific people exercise panoptic power, both everybody and nobody operate these watchtowers. Everybody, in the sense that every ‘friend’ you have has the capability to surveil you at any time. Nobody, because no one goes out of their way to perform surveillance. As people engage in their daily Internet routines, they exercise panoptic power even as they are subject to panoptic power.” People care about how their peers view them, so they will subject themselves to discipline based on the reactions they get from posting certain ideas. While Facebook itself, and its affiliates may not be causing the subjecting directly, the peers of the user are causing it.
I believe that the penopticism that exists in Facebook is representative of the type of control that exists in society. In this era, where communication is near universal, people are subjected to surveillance by most of their peers. Because this surveillance is so vast, people do not see themselves conforming their behavior. Because Foucault didn’t live in this time period where someone can find out a lot about someone by just going on a computer, he did not predict a type of penopticism where the surveillance and control evolves from a state created system, to the gaze of all of the citizens of the state (or social network).
This concept of self-discipline in social networking profiles brought about by the new penopticism I described, brings about an interesting question about identity. Today, a lot of information about a person is made available to the general public by the internet. Someone can learn a lot about a person by just “googling” the name or going on Facebook. The availability of personal information causes one to think carefully about what they post online. Prospective employers and schools have chosen to reject people, just because of information they found on the internet. Celebrities and politicians hire publicists who make sure that their image on the internet is “acceptable”. It is so important to most of the population to look “normal” in the eyes of the world. This causes people to filter what they post on the internet, and therefore what people see as their “online” identity may be very different from their personal identity.
How does one define identity? It could be how a person sees themselves, or it could be how other people see the person. I believe that a person may identify themselves as something, but project their personality differently. This could create a disparity between someone’s personal identity and projected identity. However, with the rise of the internet, the disparity between personal identity and “online” identity can be far greater than this, because of the lack of personal contact. Because of penopticism online, most users filter their views and exaggerate themselves in order to be seen as “better” in the eyes of the world. If people project an identity online that is far different from their own personal identity, which identity is the correct one?
I believe that the nature of penopticism answers this question. As I discussed before, not only do people act differently in order to please social norms, they subject themselves to discipline. This discipline carries over to the real world; it not only changes online identity, but also changes personal “offline” identity. Therefore, the more someone projects themselves “online” through social networks or other media, the more that his/her personal identity coalesces with his/her “online” identity. I find the nature of penopticism in the age of the internet perverse, because of its ability to leech into the real lives of people and change their personalities. Does anyone have any comments on or criticisms of this idea?