In Discipline and Punish, Foucault explains and updates Benthams theory of the panopticon, into his theory of panopticism. Benthams panopticon was essentially a prison used for constant surveillance of its prisoners. The prison would have a tower in the center of it, where each prisoner in their cell could be seen from the tower by the guards. The prisoners would always be able see the tower, but would never know when they were being watched. Therefore, the panopticon would create a sense of permanent visibility, which would ensure obedience, giving the prisoners the responsibility to regulate their own behaviour (Foucault, 1979: 202). This, is what Foucault claims as “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” (1979: 201). The term “panopticism” is then formed from this idea and can be applied to different social contexts and institutions, where it is the surveillance of the public’s social norms and habits within society (Foucault, 1979: 207).
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The feeling of always being watched usually hinders bad behavior or encourages “normal” or acceptable behaviour. Therefore, disturbances and conflicts are stopped before they even start, causing the power of an institution to lie within the vulnerability of individuals in a given society (Foucault, 1979: 202). This idea of social conditioning in relation to control and power can be applied to identities formed on Facebook. From Foucault’s perspective, Facebook can be seen as more than just a place to exchange information and connect to people, it can be used for the construction of identity. I will be using this theory to show how Facebook constructs and illustrates online versions of our identities conforming to the ideologies we have formed as a society offline.
Rather than a physical institution reinforced with rules and regulations, Facebook is virtual, where it acts as a panopticon placing each user at the center of observation. This allows each user to control what is seen and not seen by their peers. The control of one’s own profile page creates a place where we can control our own image, which controls the way other users perceive us. For example, when a user is tagged in an unflattering picture or inappropriate post, they can choose to “untag” themselves, removing it from their online image, thus, removing it from their “real-life” identity.
Joining Facebook is voluntary, re-enforcing the fact that user’s want to be seen by other users, placing themselves in a virtual cell for others to watch their activity. Facebook’s main page is “the news feed,” which is a constant feed of information, allowing users to constantly see what their friends are doing on a regular basis. Facebook’s news feed lets users reflect themselves in a way in which they want to be seen, all on the basis that it is in their control. This relates to Foucault’s idea of power; “it has become a transparent building in which the exercise of power may be supervised by society as a whole” (1979: 207). Facebook shapes user’s social interactions and controls what they will and will not post online, due to the fact that they know they are being observed by other users. For example, a user might downplay or lie about their political or religious views, or choose to not comment or lie about their sexual preferences by leaving the option “interested in” on their profile blank. As well, by only giving the options for a person’s sex to either be male or female, it causes users to fit into gender norms which have become socially acceptable or normal in society. “Groups” or “pages” are another feature of Facebook. Many of us join or “like” pages on the basis that it will make us look interesting to others, instead of choosing something we actually like or enjoy. We tend to “normalize” certain topics in order to fit into the way we think is socially acceptable, and in the case of Facebook, we do it consciously, as we have time to think and consider how we want our Facebook profile to reflect our identity. This shows that the use of Facebook involves conforming to specific identities placed on us in real life, reflecting the best socially “acceptable” identity to others online.
Facebook relates to panopticsm due to the fact that the site has rules and regulations regarding what we can or cannot post onto the site, just as institutions, like schools have. Facebook acts as a disciplinary system that is monitored by all of us (Kennedy, 2009: 26). If someone gets offended by a picture or if they are being bullied by someone or multiple people, Facebook can be notified. This can occur when a user clicks on “options” for either a picture or comment and can choose to “report” it to Facebook. This helps to control the content placed on the site, and those who abuse their rights as a Facebook user will be penalized. This means that the offensive content will be removed or the offender(s) account can be removed off Facebook. This causes an offender to no longer carry the same user rights they were once allowed to have, excluding them from Facebook. This relates to real life because if someone goes against the law, they can be arrested and put into jail, causing them to be excluded from society. In a sense, every one of us belonging to Facebook governs and controls it, keeping one another in check (Kennedy, 2009: 25), just as we do in society. We comment or “like” on peoples wall posts or pictures, affirming to one another that we agree on the same things, as well as notify others when a user is stepping out of line. Thus, validating our identities and supervising our actions online, just like institutions do in our real-life.
Every action we take on Facebook is controlled and monitored by the sites design, where users come together as an equal group to form an online institution (Kennedy, 2009: 22). The routine of viewing one another’s profiles, without each user being notified that their profile is being looked at, becomes a norm for the site (Kennedy, 2009: 23). This idea relates to Foucault’s views that “the panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever being seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (1979: 201-202). Each user is able to have a seat in their own unique tower, looking at another user’s profile, without that user knowing. An important aspect to this is that users can “stalk” or “creep” other people’s profiles. This is the action of searching or looking at another user’s profile that you may or may not be friends with on Facebook. This curiosity of socially searching people’s profiles is a common socially acceptable act on Facebook (Kennedy, 2009: 36). This could mean looking at an acquaintances profile, or a completely random user who catches our interest. I believe this is usually done to those who we find physically attractive or to those whom their lives seem interesting to us. For example, when a person is bored they usually go on Facebook to see if anything new is happening on the news feed, they then go through their friend’s profiles and then eventually they stray off onto an acquaintances profile and then another person’s profile, where the act of looking and observing other profiles is done over and over again out of curiosity and interest. This reciprocal surveillance or looking into each other’s lives isn’t just common online, but as well publicly in society (Kennedy, 2009: 37). Everyone watches one another in real life or listens in to another group’s conversation. The benefit of Facebook is that it allows us to do it privately, so that we can continue to hold the power over those we “creep” on, keeping our identity unknown (Kennedy, 2009: 24) .
This act of looking on other users profiles, without them knowing, can be done by future and current employers. This can cause issues for users due to the fact that if they are “tagged” in a photo that displays questionable behavior, such as being overly intoxicated or posting status’ that speaks negatively of a boss, this can reflect on the user, as these actions are done by the person who they are in real life, causing them to either get fired, or lose the opportunity of getting hired. This feature of Facebook makes us become aware of our own behaviour, as we self monitor, not only what we do in our “real” life, but what gets posted on our online life (Kennedy, 2009: 24). Due to this, restrictions can be set on a users profile in order for specific users to see not see their profile “wall” or photos, regulating how their identity is shown to others. In the society that we live in, everything that we do has the possibility of being on Facebook, where our actions are no longer private, but become subjects to an online panopticon.
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Our profile picture and pictures we upload onto our page ourselves is an important part to our profile. Due to the fact that Facebook is a representation of our real life selves, the photos we choose to upload illustrates to others what we find important, including what our values in life are. Many of us have developed this need to choose the “perfect” profile picture, which is the usually the most socially acceptable picture to represent as ourselves to the rest of Facebook. For example, is someone who thinks drinking and partying makes them look fun and sociable they would choose a profile picture of themselves drinking with a group, causing other users viewing their profile to think that drinking is probably a large part of their lives. Even though the person may not actually party as much as it is represented through the pictures they post, these pictures reflect the users identity and life to others. Approval for this user’s pictures would be shown through likes and or comments on the pictures. If there are none, or the comments are negative, most likely the pictures would be changed or removed, showing that we all monitor our profiles making sure that it is agreeable to the rest of Facebook.
Once a user makes on account on Facebook, it doesn’t disappear when the user signs off, making our profiles constantly accessible and open to our friends, friends of friends and possibly strangers. This allows for constant surveillance on one another, just as the panopticon and the panopticism of society, through institutions, allows (Kennedy, 2009: 38). We self regulate ourselves to meet the expectations of others, in order to fit into the groups we associate with (Kennedy, 2009: 23). This regulation on Facebook causes our online and real-life identities to become fused with one another. This happens with our social behaviour. For example, when a group of friends go out to dinner or a bar, these times have now become used for photo opportunities, where their gathering can be documented and placed on Facebook for other users to see. Comments and “likes” will usually follow, affirming to the users in the photos that their real-life actions reflect on their identity positively. This then causes us to not only think about our Facebook identities while on Facebook, but in the real world as well, as our online identity is always on for others to see, reinforcing the fact that users place themselves at the centre of others observation.
Due to the fact that these profiles are only representations of our real life selves, these profiles have become images and signs used for other users to identify us with (Kennedy, 2009: 26). Some users choose to represent themselves on Facebook much different from their true-life selves. This can be seen when people make “fake” profiles. This is where someone purposely chooses to make a profile with another person’s name and uses another person’s photos to represent as themselves. This shows that Facebook allows users to create a different life online through the construction of identity (Kennedy, 2009: 27). These fake profiles, can be created by an individual(s), many not feel like they truly fit into the social norms of society, so they end up making these profiles in order to be socially accepted into an online society. Facebook allows users to represent themselves differently from who they are in real-life, so that they can feel accepted by other users, allowing them to fit into the expectations of society online, which they may not be able to do in real life.
Foucault’s idea of panopticism offers a great understanding to the way that Facebook constructs and controls user’s actions. The panopticon’s purpose is to strengthen surveillance in order to regulate behaviour (Kennedy, 2009: 21). In a society so heavily submersed in online culture, this act of looking at other users profiles on Facebook has become the creation of a virtual panopticon. Users are constantly viewing and being viewed through the site’s design keeping their actions always under inspection; where rules and regulations of the site are set and enforced, making Foucault’s theory of panopticism represent itself in digital form.
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