Watching You Watch Me!! (…on Facebook)

On: September 22, 2008
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About Kai Henriquez



Michel Foucault described an obvious change in society where individuals are increasingly formed into an object of knowledge, and governments regulate populations through the use of “Bio-politics” and “Bio-power”. Foucault describes the notion of these terms as “a set of materials, elements and techniques that serve as weapons, relays, communication routes and supports for the power and knowledge relations that invest human bodies and subjugate them by turning them into objects of knowledge”(Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1977).  He sees the increasing documentation of individuals as a form of this power, which serves the purpose of chronicling past and present tendencies and essentializing them to the individual, in the service of predicting future tendencies (Humphreys, The consumer as Foucauldian object of knowledge, 2006). By noting this change in society he uses Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon model, which is a prison design that allows an ‘omnipresent’ observer to observe all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they are being watched or not, as a metaphor for society. In short, individuals are increasingly being documented and thus turned into objects of knowledge, with a panoptic society in which these objects of knowledge are potentially under constant observation, as a consequence.

These theories give great significance to the analysis and understanding of the role of modern information technologies in society. Electronic technologies are seen to be intensifying the capacity and ubiquity of surveillance, creating new forms of social control (Ajana, Surveillance and Biopolitics, 2005). Through these technologies our physical bodies are being shadowed by an increasingly comprehensive ‘data body’, which can be seen as a compilation of all your personal digital information. In this sense, Web 2.0 applications, like social networking sites, seem to drive the creation and stimulate the growth of these data bodies, because individuals are publishing increasing amounts of personal data and information on the internet. With the growth of the amount of accessible personal data and information on a growing amount of individuals, the possibility for observing people without them knowing they are being observed, is made easier then ever before.

In such a model of power, the state, who wants to collect data about their citizens in order to increase the potential to identify threats to society, is no longer the sole agent of control. But individuals and communities themselves engage in their own (self)monitoring practices through certain regulatory mechanisms which Foucault described as ‘technologies of the self’; “a process of responsibilisation through which individuals are made in charge of their own behavior, competence, improvement, scrutiny and well-being” (Ajana, Surveillance and Biopolitics, 2005). So, Even though new, Web 2.0 like, technologies increase the possibility for the mass surveillance and monitoring of individuals by governments, the individuals themselves create and maintain the information which is used for their monitoring, and engage in surveillance and monitoring practices themselves. And so, as contrary to the idea of a panoptic society where few observe many, a synopticon is established in which the many watch the few. You watching me and me watching you watch me.

Analysis: FACEBOOK

The analysis of Web 2.0 social networking sites confirms these theories. Let’s take a closer look at the social networking website Facebook. Facebook enables users to create a personal profile and a comprehensive network of friends. It offers many other functionalities like chatting, leaving comments, using self-made sub-applications, tagging pictures and it provides users with a live feed on the online behavior of the people within your network. The main functionalities I’ll be focussing on are the last two mentioned here.

When pictures are uploaded to an album within the profile, the faces of the people on the picture can be tagged to the identity/profile of that particular individual. When tagged, the picture is automatically placed in or linked to a collection folder on that persons profile, where all the pictures in which that person is tagged are stored. This way my friends can upload a picture of me to their profile, tag my identity to this picture and the picture automatically becomes visible in the collection folder on my profile. The live feed facebook provides, will generate a message and feed it to every single user within my friend network. Everyone will be instantly notifified about the event that I’ve been tagged in a picture. The feed also supplies people with the abundant information on what the one friend comments about the other and who becomes friends with who.

Privacy? What privacy? Everyone within the networkof the other, whether friend, colleague or computer bot can track each others facebook behavior, through the live feed facebook provides its users, synopticism to the fullest. Next to that, my face is exploited to the world and inextricably linked to my databody. With the potential uses of facial recognition technologies in the back of my mind, I can imagine the possibilities of automated mass identification in the real world through CCTV circuits, and thus the “constant” observation and monitoring of individuals. Panopticism to it’s fullest.

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