Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 4, Right Now You Are Working for Free


In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen compares social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to the idea of the Panopticon. As I discussed in Part 3 of this series, Keen stresses how the big social media companies are making millions of dollars by collecting people’s personal information and browsing histories and selling them to advertisers and other third-party companies. While Keen frames this as an issue of privacy, I see it as something quite different: it’s an issue of unpaid labor.

Simply put, you and I and the other millions of people using social media are working for free.

With every post, share, click, connect, and “like,” we are providing income for some of richest corporations on earth. And we are doing it without expectation of remuneration.

This is not a new idea. Canadian media researcher Dallas W. Smythe first proposed the idea of the media audience as workers in 1981 in an article titled “On the Audience Commodity and its Work.”(1) Smythe asserts that the audience is at once a commodity – something to be bought and sold – and a source of labor. Both ideas are important, but before I get to that discussion, let’s start with two key premises.

  1. All media outlets exist for the sole purpose of making money.

Both traditional media (radio, newspaper, television) and digital media (Internet-based companies) share the ultimate concern of making a profit, and in today’s form of capitalism, that means large and ever-increasing profit.

But, wait! – you might say – don’t the media promote the conservative agenda of state? And I answer, yes, this is true. The actions of media company and the textual content serve to advance values that support consumer-driven capitalism and the people and institutions that profit from it. However, this is neither ideologically or politically motivated; it’s all about money – first, last, and always. If radical criticism made money, they’d be all over it – in fact, co-opting and assimilating ideas that are outside the norm can be extremely profitable (seriously, virtually all of TLC’s lineup). That the ideas become neutralized is simply a side benefit.

  1. All media rely on the active participation of the audience to make its profits.

If people don’t read magazines and newspapers, they go out of business. If nobody watches a certain TV program, it gets cancelled. And if people stop using social media sites (think Friendster ), they go bust.

Now, you may argue that our use of these media are a fair exchange. We invest our time and money, and in return we receive information, entertainment, and pleasure. Fair enough – but that means that our primary relationship with the media outlets is an economic one.

That’s the conclusion that Dallas Smythe came to when he envisioned the media audience as both commodity and labor. Let me briefly summarize.

Audience as Commodity

First, Smythe views the audience as a commodity for the same reason Keen does: individual users (viewers, listeners, readers) make up groups that share common characteristics, and these groups can be “sold” to advertisers who hope to market to a specific audience. Traditional media has been actively collecting                                           demographics on its audiences for a long time (there’s evidence of analysis of radio audiences as early as 1923 (2)). In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen illustrates well how the data gathering power of the Internet takes audience commodification to a new level. As an individual user of social media, your activities are profiled to such as an extent that you receive immediate and personalized advertisements. This is what happened in my incidental excursion into the CVS parking lot, discussed in Part 3.

Audience as Labor

The second point Smythe makes is a little harder to grasp, but as with the audience-as-commodity model, the audience-as-labor model becomes more intense with social media.

The Internet as we know it didn’t exist in 1981, so Smythe uses magazines, radio, and (primarily) television to illustrate his point. He says that much of the work performed by the audience is mental, taking place “in the heads of audience members” (p. 231). (For more info, see Enzenberger’s ideas on the “consciousness industry.”)  This mental work – reading, watching, discussing – “fuels both the economy of mass produced goods and the promotion of the interests of the government,” Smythe says (p. 233). (See premise #2 above.) The media audience is therefore a necessary economic component of what Smythe refers to as “monopoly capitalism,” which comprises the political-economic hegemony.

You may feel like watching television or listening to the radio is relaxing or entertaining, but in actuality, you are working. Smythe explains, “You audience members contribute your unpaid work time and in exchange you receive the program material and the explicit advertisements.” (p. 238)

Moreover, as audience members we pay for the opportunity to do this work, not only in the cost of our equipment, our cable bills, our subscriptions to digital streaming services, our subscriptions to digital newspapers and magazines, our cell phone service, and so on.

And, our labor on social media is much more than mental. Our status updates, tweets, photo posts, blogging, and sharing actually create the content that attracts more users and therefore creates more profit for the media companies.

Are You Having Fun? Marx Would Say No

But posting and sharing is fun, you might say, and we do it voluntarily, on our own time. No one forces us to take pictures of our dinner and share it online, so how can we call it work? Okay, here it gets a bit complicated, and I’ll discuss the idea of leisure time in a future post. For now, I’ll turn to British communication professor Christian Fuchs, who provides an excellent explanation as well as a great overview and analysis of the issue in view of Marxism theory. (3)

Fuchs asserts that the audience is exploited in its labor of generating content and serving as audience commodity for social media companies. In short, you are giving the social media companies a great deal more than you are receiving. To understand why, ask yourself who is benefitting the most from your online activity?

Let’s back up. We’ve already established that your relationship with media outlets is an economic one. In exchange for entertainment and information, you provide work as both an audience commodity and a generator of content. But is it a fair exchange? Fuchs says no for the simple fact that what you produce is not yours. It feels like yours – your Facebook page, your Instagram account, etc., right? Not from an economic point of view.

Are You Being Exploited?

Fuchs says that “digital labour” is exploited in three ways: coercion, alienation, and appropriation.

First, we are coerced to use corporate-owned social media platforms. It hasn’t always been that way, and many of us can remember the olden days of MUDs, BBSes, and listservs that were created and maintained by individuals and used by groups with no substantial profit to anyone. A few of these still exist, but by and large, the corporate takeover of the Internet is virtually complete. Just using a search engine or an online email account forces us into becoming the audience commodity.

Secondly, our labor is exploited because we are alienated from the process and the product. This is a term in Marxism that Fuchs explains in detail in this context, and since my field is not economics, I’ll direct you to his article (cited below) for his explanation. Let me just ask: Who is richer, you or Mark Zuckerberg? If the final product of your labor is profit, you see none of it.

In this regard Fuchs discusses Marx’s idea of surplus value. In a capitalistic system, labor must generate more value than it costs, or else there is no profit and no funds for reinvestment and growth. As you skim through your newsfeed, share an interesting article, or invite your friends to play Farmville, you may be enjoying yourself, but you are also creating surplus value – voluntarily – that builds tremendous profits for the social media companies.

So that leads us to Fuchs’ third point, appropriation. Your personal data is taken from you and sold, without your express knowledge of consent. Oh, sure, there are terms of service.  You can turn off GPS locators and opt out of cookies. But it’s exactly that – an opt-out structure. Unless you specifically refuse – and that’s very hard to do – your labor is appropriated and your online behavior is bundled up and sold for someone else’s profit.

So … Are You Working for Free?

Now let’s come back to a question I asked earlier: Is it a fair exchange? Is your activity as both commodity and labor a fair economic exchange for the pleasure of connecting with friends and the entertainment of watching funny cat videos? Is what you are “buying” equivalent to the megaprofits that social media companies are racking up because of your online actions? Fuchs says no – you are getting the short end of the deal. What do you say?


  1. Smythe, Dallas W., “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Revised Edition, ed. Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, 230-256, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
  2. New York Times, “Public Criticism Aids Programs.” July 1. Archives. Accessed Sept. 30, 2013.
  3. Fuchs, Christian. “Dallas Smythe and Digital Labor,” The Routledge Companion to Labor and Media, ed. Richard Maxwell, 51-62, New York: Routledge, 2015.



Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 3, ‘Big Brother’ Is Not the Government … or Is It?


The other day while driving, I missed a turn and pulled into a CVS store to turn around. The next time I looked at Facebook, I saw ads for CVS. When I looked at my Google app, I had a recommended news story about CVS. I didn’t even go into the store, yet both Facebook and Google knew I was there and targeted me as a potential customer. 

If social media is a Panopticon, as Andrew Keen asserts in his book, Digital Vertigo, then that means we are constantly visible to structures of power. But what power? And by whom? We generally think of power as the government, and when my students write about being watched on the internet, they always write about government surveillance by the NSA and other law enforcement agencies.

Keen alludes to government surveillance briefly. He quotes Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who says that Facebook has amassed “the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communication with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence” (p. 23).

But the point Keen stresses is that the biggest “inspector” is not the government but the capitalistic, consumer-based economy. Oddly, he uses none of these words. However, he zeroes in on the billions of dollars that Facebook and other social media companies are making on people’s “shared information” through targeted advertising and other marketing strategies, such as allowing third-party games, quizzes, and activities to access Facebook profiles. 

The structure of power in our lives is not the government, but the system of big retail business.

If social media comprise a Panopticon, then the power is concentrated in the hands of the consumer goods industry. These days, some may say say that is equivalent to government. Can you tell where government ends and corporations begin?

Who’s watching you, and for what purpose? And if so, what is your role in all of this? Next time, in the fourth and final part of this series, read about social media and work.

Read Part 1.  Read Part 2. 



Social Media and the Panopticon: Part 2, We Are All ‘Nosy Neighbors’

Remember Mrs. Kravitz from the TV show, Bewitched?

Part 2 in a series of posts inspired by Andrew Keen’s book, Digital Vertigo. Read Part 1.

Now, more about seeing one’s fellow participants. As Foucault writes, the Panopticon model works within society because people can see each other. It is not necessary for an inspector to be present at all times; the desired behavior is maintained because people are encouraged to monitor one another. As I wrote in an unpublished paper:

The brilliance of this surveillance strategy is that it can operate even when there isn’t any Panopticon or a similar device. The same strategy that concentrates power in an anonymous hierarchy, limits the knowledge of the people, and conveys the sense of being surveilled may take place in a conventionally-designed factory, school, hospital, or other type of institution. Subjects need not be confined or limited in movement; the constant presence of a watcher is not required. Even a building is unnecessary. Once the panoptic schema (as Foucault refers to it) is established in a society, it operates automatically and people participate in it willingly, even if unwittingly. We adopt socially appropriate behaviors because we know those in authority are watching our actions and evaluating our conformity to rules and social norms. We don’t need to be watched constantly; the unpredictable intervention of an authority figure is enough to invisibly coerce us to monitor ourselves. In some cases, we also watch one other. For example, in a suburban neighborhood where unwritten standards of behavior are desired among neighbors, we may apply subtle social pressures on our neighbors to ensure compliance with norms.

Is this happening in social media? Yes and no. All of us who have participated have experienced a kind of social “policing” by fellow posters, delivered through verbal attacks, ridicule, sarcasm, and other means. Within any group – online or offline – social norms are established and reinforced through means such as this. The key difference is, in social media the “social police” are often unknown to us – strangers, even if we call them “friends” or “followers.” We attempt to mitigate that by controlling the parameters of our online social circles, yet it still occurs. In this way, panopticism is alive and well.

In another way, however, those very same tools can be used to create social bubbles – the echo chamber, so to speak. Opinions vary about the extent to which these echo chambers may empower voices that run contrary to the dominant culture. However, it is certain that even within

Social Media and the Panopticon: Who is Watching You? Part 1: Are You an “Inmate”?


In Digital Vertigo, Andrew Keen compares the social media experience to being in Jeremy Bentham’s Inspection House. (1) The term usually used is the Panopticon. You can view Bentham’s actual plans at this link.

In short, Bentham intended the Panopticon to be used to monitor large groups of people in institutions such as prisons, schools, hospitals, and factories. Bentham writes: “It is obvious that, in all these instances, the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose X of the establishment have been attained.” (2)

The architecture of the Panopticon, therefore, creates an efficient method for all people within the institution to be constantly monitored by an inspector. (Recall, Bentham’s plan was formulated and implemented to some extent in the days before video surveillance.) Bentham’s idea was that the “cells” (or rooms) should be arranged in a circle with a tower in the center, where the inspector could at any time monitor the movements and actions of each of the inmates (or patients, students, what have you).

As Michel Foucault later writes, the individual cells (or rooms) in the Panopticon become places of performance. He states, “They are like so many cages, so many theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible. The panoptic mechanism arranges spatial unities that make it possible to see constantly and to recognize immediately.” (3)

It is likely this idea that Keen picks up on when he compares social media to the Panopticon, and in fact, he quotes part of this passage (p. 20). He has a point. In a way, social media provides a platform where the individual person, alone with his or her phone or computer, performs acts that are “on display” for others. Indeed, the idea of social media participation as a performance has interested some researchers. (3)

Yet, Keen seems to overlook some important differences between the Panopticon and social media. As Foucault asserts, the Panopticon establishes and maintains a power differential between the individual and the ones “in charge.” He writes, “Each individual, in his place, is securely confined to ca cell from which he is seen from the front by the supervisor; but the side walls prevent him from coming into contact with his companions. He is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication.”

This is not the situation in social media. Online,  participants can see the behavior of “his companions” (more on this in the next post); moreover, they are participants by choice. In the inspection-houses Bentham writes about, people are unwilling residents – prisoners, inmates, hospital patients – or else they are there through a tough–choice reciprocal agreement, in which they are giving up some of their privacy in order to receive something valuable in return. Students may allow themselves to be monitored for an education; factory workers for a salary. Even then, there is a level of choice involved. In social networking sites, however, participation is entirely by choice. Nobody is required to use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media platform. And while we may argue there is an expectation of reciprocity or reward (“likes,” social connection, even glory), the activity is still voluntary.

This is not the situation in social media. Not only can participants can see the behavior of “his companions” (more on this later) but they are participants by choice. In the inspection-houses Bentham writes about, people are unwilling residents – prisoners, hospital patients – or else they are there through a reciprocal agreement, in which they are giving up some of their privacy in order to receive something in return. Students may allow themselves to be monitored for an education; factory workers for a salary. Even then, there is a level of choice involved. In social networking sites, however, participation is entirely by choice. And while we may argue there is an expectation of reward (“likes,” social connection, even glory), the activity is still voluntary.

Additionally, while participants in social media are indeed objects of information, as Keen explains well, they are also subjects of communication. Unlike the residents of the Panopticon, people posting on social media do have voices and can challenge the “inspector” in varying degrees of success. In this regard, social media is more like a public forum where varying opinions are presented and discussed. (5) In fact, it is the subjective and public nature of the communication online that makes it a valuable commodity.

Next up: More on seeing one’s companions, the power structure of being seen, and the work of the social media participant



  1. Keen, Andrew. Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. Print.
  2. Bentham, Jeremy. Panopticon: Or the Inspection-House. Reproduced online at
  3. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print.
  4. Some examples include:Zhao, Xuan, et al. “The many faces of Facebook: Experiencing social media as performance, exhibition, and personal archive.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, 2013.

    Papacharissi, Zizi. “Without you, I’m nothing: Performances of the self on Twitter.” International journal of communication 6 (2012): 18.

    Walther, Joseph B. “Group and interpersonal effects in international computer‐mediated collaboration.” Human Communication Research 23.3 (1997): 342-369.

  5. Television is a better comparison. SeeNewcomb, Horace and Paul M. Hirsch. 1983. “TV as a Cultural Forum.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 8, no. 3: 45-55.