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.


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?

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