Persistence of Life-Streams – An Inquiry Into the Implications of Mixed Surveillance

On: September 6, 2010
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About Sjoerd Tuinema
I'm a New Media MA student at the University of Amsterdam, carry a bachelor degree on Communication and Media Management, do design-work and am known as a notoire media junkie.


Here’s the final version of my thesis which covers the nature and implications of (participatory) surveillance in the field of social media, and specifically in life-streaming services like Twitter and Facebook. (PDF can be downloaded here).


In this thesis, I will investigate the use and organization of so-called ‘life-streams’, a term that is described by blogger John Borthwick as “real time, flowing, dynamic [streams] of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe we are are a part of this flow” (Borthwick, 2009). The life-streams as core interface can be found on different social media platforms, most famously being Twitter, Facebook and the recently introduced Google Buzz.

These life-streams could be seen as the contemporary model for social networking in which relations are instantiated through a data-stream of updates on someone’s activities. The life-stream’s interface, which is called the ‘timeline’ in the case of Twitter, consists of a chronologically ordered list of messages, with users following other people’s life-streams and engaging through dialogue a social relation emerges. Significantly, many of these networks do not all incorporate the term of ‘friend’ at all, opposed to the more traditional social network sites such as MySpace, Friendster or Facebook. The fundamental difference on life-stream environments like Twitter is that users amongst each other don’t necessarily share a mutual relationship. For instance, the Twitter-account of Jesus has over eighty-thousand followers, yet he does not follow back a single user.

Moreover, motivations for participating in these networks can also differ greatly; it could be used to get insight into the public opinion as a politician or to help customers out as a business customer relations service, although it is clearly widely used for sheer fun and personal interests amongst friends. Although these practices are much in favor of pervasive surveillance practices, theorists like Anders Albrechtslund emphasize on the created vertical power-relations of ‘participatory surveillance’, which he describes as “a way of maintaining friendships by checking up on information other people share” (Albrechtslund, 2008).

Furthermore, as researcher Anne Helmond explains in Life-tracing: The Traces of a Networked Life, this kind of willingly engagement can be seen as ‘sousveillance’, a term coined by Steve Mann: “Surveillance is the act of watching performed from above by organizational structures, whereas sousveillance is the act of watching from below by individuals” (Helmond, 2009). In contrast to participatory surveillance, sousveillance seems to focus more on the empowerment by transparency amongst the multitudes rather than on a social function on micro-level.
This openness of very specific personal detail, according to editor Tim Leberecht, with these life-streams as a social (and self-imposed) reality, we now slowly move from ‘privacy’ to ‘sociality’ as the norm:

“Privacy understood as sociality […] grants us the ability to control who knows what about us and who has access to us, and thereby allows us to vary our social interactions with different people so that we can control our various social relationships at different levels of intimacy.” (Leberecht, 2010)

Also, Leberecht explains that the trust between people on the social network sites like Facebook can’t permit themselves to be exploited by profound regulations imposed companies economically, as the networks run on an enormous collective trust which is otherwise disturbed by a collective distrust in both the system, and consequently the community. However, users themselves are already stretching the boundaries of control they have over the digital applications, mainly since access is granted to third-party developers through an API (or another developer framework) which results in a wide variety of tools that alters the way content is produced and shared throughout life-streams. However, the empowerment of the developers in these frameworks often tends to lead back to the centralized power relations.

By building onto these ideas, I would examine how power is distributed within these life-streaming networks, and to what extent software-specific implementations influence create new modes of surveillance. First I will discuss the medium-specificity of the Web (Qvortrup, 2006) and specifically of life-streams. Thereafter, I will elaborate on two cases wherein privacy issues occurred due to failed expectations of privacy (Nissenbaum, 2004). Later on I will focus on various existing surveillance theories, like the panopticon (Foucault, 1977, Poster, 1990), participatory surveillance (Albrechtslund, 2008), and lateral surveillance (Andrejevic, 2005). Finally I will propose the term ‘mixed surveillance’ as the concept in which values amongst users and corporations intertwine, and the increasingly opaque modes of interaction. Therefore the central question, in this thesis will be: How did participatory surveillance become increasingly integrated into social media (such as life-streams), and what are the implications of mixed surveillance?

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