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 As I wrote in an unpublished paper: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

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