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.

Hypervisibility and the Auto-Icon, according to Keen

Digital Vertigo by Andrew Keen

I’ve recently finished the book #digitalvertigo by @ajkeen, or, in conventional rendering, Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorientating Us by Andrew Keen.* He begins the book with the idea of hypervisibility, and draws a soft comparison between the publicness of participating in social media to Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon.

I remember learning about Bentham as an undergrad, but I don’t recall which class it was. I remember cringing with disgust when the professor described Bentham’s body as being taxidermied and then wheeled out to attend board meetings at University College in London. The description (or my recollection of it) isn’t quite accurate, as it is only his skeleton, padded and dressed up in his actual clothes, that remains on display at UCL.

(I’ll let you Google photos of the Auto-Icon and ascribe your own adjective to it. You can also find photos of his head, which was preserved but rendered grotesque by faulty methods of mummification. The head is not placed on his skeleton but locked away in a vault. You can read the story, and view a 3-D virtual tour at this link.)

But back to Keen’s point. He makes the comparison between the Auto-Icon (and apparently its dizzying effect on him) and what he calls the hypervisibility of being on social media. He writes:

“I realized that the Auto-Icon, this ‘man who is his own image,’ represents the future and Bentham’s corpse is actually you, me and everyone else who have imprisoned themselves I today’s digital inspection house.” (p. 13).

Does the comparison work? Yes, in the sense that people who post on social media willingly put themselves in the public eye, to an extent. The average person isn’t quite as “hypervisible” to other people as Keen (for most of us, our presence is limited and we are less noticed). Yet, Keen isn’t just referring to fame; he also discusses how social networks and related organizations (such as ad trackers) collect personal information about each person that posts. Even if your digital footprint is small, you are still hypervisible, Keen asserts.

To be fair to Keen, the book is more complex than I’ve described above and covers many valid and intriguing points. But I want to focus on just a couple of them over the next several days in subsequent posts.

1) The “digital inspection house.” Keen compares social media to Bentham’s idea of the Inspection House, or the Panopticon. I’m not sure the comparison fits.

2) Private vs. public. As I was reading, I kept looking for mention of Hannah Arendt. She was mentioned once, briefly, for her ideas on totalitarianism. Yet, her ideas on the private, the public, and the social are screaming to be heard here.

*If you become a regular reader (and I hope you do), you’ll notice that the books I read tend to be several years old. Or older. Several reasons for that; let’s just say, I’m not trendy. Digital Vertigo was published by St. Martin’s Press, New York, in 2012.