Twitter: The Inverse Panopticon?

On: October 5, 2009
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About Joery Bruijntjes
Joery Bruijntjes is a digital media enthusiast with a profound interest in the social uses of media. As a digital native he breathes digital oxygen and loves to stay at the razors edge of technology, social media and marketing. He's MA in New Media and frequently blogs about contentmarketing and other stuff. If you want to learn more about him please visit his website for an overview of his web activities.

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There’s a lot to be said about Twitter and alike, even though few have done so from a humanities perspective. Today, I would like to pose some thoughts that might inspire more new media researchers to move forward in this field.

In 1977 Foucault wrote a book called ‘Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison’ in which he describes how we’re moving from a disciplinary to a control society. One interesting part of that book is when Foucault describes the working of Panopticism, in which he sees the way disciplinary societies work.

A Panopticon is a type of prison where the guard is able to see all prisoner activity from a singular location, although he does not need to do so all the time. The main idea behind this is that the prisoners are aware of the fact that the guard is able to watch their every movement at every moment but that they are unable to tell when exactly they are being watched. According to Jeremy Bentham, who designed the Panopticon in 1785, this gives “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind.

Bluntly put, the panopticon prison model establishes control by presuming the prisoners will adjust their behavior to proper norms because of the possibility they are being watched. Even though they may not actually be watched at a specific moment and are unsure of the watchers attention for them, they can’t ‘take the chance’ so to say and will fall in line automatically. Well, in theory that is.

Foucault uses this panopticon model to describe how institutions like school, churches, the army or factory’s in modern day disciplinary societies operate. Here, the interesting question is how the ‘gaze’ of the few control the actions of many.

To me it seems that the popular microblogging service Twitter follows a similar yet slightly different model. In Twitter there is strictly speaking no single human watcher who watches all. The system itself is of course capable of surveillance, but let’s save that topic for another time. What is present in Twitter, or most microblogging platforms for that matter, is a number of ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ who subscribed to your status updates.

Followers create an omnipresent ‘gaze-like’ feeling because you’re never quite sure whether they are following your actions. They might (the term ‘follower’ implies this much) but considering the decentralized nature of conversations on Twitter and the ridiculous amount of tweets by some users it’s understandable this might not always be the case. You can’t be entirely sure, so you assume it’s possible you’re being watched.

Now the difference between Twitter and a Panopticon is that Twitter is not a prison, obviously. Twitter is a platform you voluntarily use (not counting work-enforced usage of course) to tell the world what you’re doing in 140 characters. Still, it is interesting to set aside this difference for a moment and think about how this ‘inversed panoptican’ model might help us better understand the way users use Twitter and how we can best research this phenomenon.

To me, it seems quite likely that users present an ideal self-image to the world trough Twitter. So it’s not actually a ‘real’ person we are talking to, nor a ‘digital frozen copy’ of someone. In stead we see a sophisticated avatar; someone who is playing with their own identity in a complicated way.

Let’s say this would be something worth researching in more detail. Which theorists would you recommend? Any ideas on specific research methodology’s that are suitable for research into this field?

8 Responses to “Twitter: The Inverse Panopticon?”
  • October 7, 2009 at 4:50 pm

    One of Foucault’s major points with regards to punishment in post-torture judicial systems is that the soul then “becomes the prison of the body”. Punishment becomes non-corporeal – restriction of liberties, capital, and control of the condemned’s future behavior. So is Twitter really an inverse of the panopticon?

    I would suggest that it is not an absolute inverse. It is different in that there is no direct control over the body like there is in prisons. However, the soul and the potential gaze become the enabler of soul as prison of the body, and in this respect their is very little conceptual difference – in my humble opinion.

    I wanted to add that Christopher Lasch offers some important theoretical points in “The Culture of Narcissism” (1978). He provides an interesting cultural context for panopticism.

    An aside: I’m looking to apply to the University of Amsterdam. Could I be pointed in the direction of faculty members whom are interested in a Foucauldian approach to surveillance as facilitated by ICT and just as important, the social aspects of its use that constitutes these technologies as tools of power over the body.

  • October 7, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I do not think the model is fully applicable, but as a theoretical starting point it raises some interesting questions. For me the way the ‘modulating’ effect of the gaze is more interesting than the issue of how punishment and body comes in to play. Arguably the two cannot be fully separate, but for the sake of the argument I chose to take them apart a bit.

    Also: I forwarded your question internally so expect to be contacted shortly, if not I suggest to just mail your question directly at info@uva.nl

  • October 7, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    I appreciate your interests in the modularizing effect. It’s something I’ve been interested in throughout the past couple years. Do you think this effect will homogenize people?

    Also, thanks a lot for forwarding that for me.

    Cheersh

  • October 8, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    I also adressed pretty much the same point as Mike Borg in class. There is no direct control over the body like there is in prison, there is not a single force of power forcing you to twitter you day to day activities, people twitter voluntarily. So how could this be a manifestation of the panopticon?
    One could argue that twitter supports a kind of bottom-up control, like Joery argues, instead of top-down, and that certainly makes sense. But I don’t think it is relevant to reverse the classic panopticon, maybe Deleuze’s societies of control is more relevant?

  • October 8, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    @Mike:

    Hard to say. Where there is control, there’s resistance. Aside from that there are many different power relations and hierarchies an individual deals with on a daily basis. Homogenization would in my eyes mean that there’s a ‘greater plan’ or direction to which people must all adjust, personally I think there’s no such thing.

    @Maarten:

    I’m not that sure that voluntary participation changes things that much. Once the process has been initiated the modularizing effect is the same for all participating, voluntary or not. Arguably the main difference would be that users have the ability to ‘opt out’ by not Twittering. Still, to me it seems that when they do chose to do so they find themselves in the ‘prison’ again so to say?

    The control society of Deleuze might be applicable indeed, I do however have some doubts about it since he mainly talks about ‘systems’ of control. This would eliminate the human factor in all this (which is why I found Foucault more suitable). I do think it would be interesting to use Deleuze to identify the role Twitter itself plays in establishing the power structure, since the Panoptican model doesn’t take this into account. What do you think?

  • October 20, 2009 at 1:04 am

    An amazing text that covers much of what we’ve discussed in this blog post is Greg Elmer’s “Profiling Machines: Mapping the Personal Information Economy”. It’s been massively helpful for me in the past few weeks. I recommend it.

    ISBN-10: 0262050730

  • October 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Looks like an interesting text Mike, thanks!

  • October 25, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    This blogpost inspired me for my paper topic, I actually quoted you in my proposal Joery:P HELL YEAH
    Also, the book titles are very helpful thanks!

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