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SOCIAL MEDIA AS A PANOPTICON

Hilal GÜL

Hilal GÜL

Is it possible to live without social media? After the invention of social networking like Facebook and Twitter, they have completely turned into how we live, including what we are eating, reading or listening. Sharing on the social media is a part of daily life for quite a number of people. However, generally and easily we can ignore the data collection of the inspectors through this innovation, and how the social networking effects individuals especially on a psychological level, how it creates a ‘Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users by forming new identities, and how it functions as a Panopticon that creates disciplinary power.

So, what is a Panopticon?

The year is 1789. Jeremy Bentham talks about an architectural design, which is named as Panopticon (“the all-seeing place”). Originally, bring forward as a design for a range of institutions, the Panopticon has been particularly influential in prison architecture. The Panopticon has a central watch tower (the inspector’s lodge) covered in glass and fitted with wooden blinds, which will be surrounded by a series of cells or rooms. The idea is that the guard in the inspector’s lodge should be able to see the every movement of the inhabitants of the cells, all of the time, hence the ‘all-seeing’. The main point to the effectuality of the system is uncertainty. Bentham recognizes that constant surveillance was not possible. Instead, the design supplies that the people watched cannot see their observers, and they have no way to find out, if they are being watched at any given time, but they know that it is the constant possibility. They have no area of privacy. Even if, no one is watching, they do not know it. (Bentham, 1789, p.36)

The psychological purpose of this system is that the subjects of the surveillance would believe that their only logical option is to conform to the rules. Thus, each individual would become their control mechanism (self- discipline). An all-seeing eye as an external thing would become an inner reality of self-policing. Gradually, they will become better citizens, because they will behave in socially acceptable ways.

Unfortunately for Bentham, the Panopticon that exactly to his description could not be built. However, Bentham’s idea of the Panopticon is still an essential concept, especially for Michel Foucault who has taken the Panopticon is an “ideal” of power in the modern society. He argues that it is not just a system for institutions, but something whose principles are the principles of power in society at large: “The Panopticon must be understood as a generalizable model of functioning; a way of defining power relations in terms of the everyday life of men. No doubt Bentham presents it’s as a particular institution, closed upon in itself… But the Panopticon must be understood as a dream building; it is a diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system; it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” (Foucault, 1977, p. 205)

In other words, Foucault argues that today’s society is very much like Bentham’s Panopticon, since citizens are under constant surveillance. Thus, we as citizens discipline ourselves, keeping society ordered. Nominately, Foucault believes that there is a relationship between systems of a social control that brings people in a disciplinary situation and the power and knowledge that comes from observing others. For Foucault, he or she more one observes, the more powerful one becomes. The power comes from the knowledge that the observer has collected from his observations of actions with knowledge and power reinforcing each other. He says that “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process” (Foucault, 1977)

For Foucault’s understanding, the main danger in this system was not absolutely that citizens are repressed by the social order, but that they are “carefully fabricated in it” (Foucault, 1977), and because there is an impact of power into the behavior of citizens. The power becomes more effective through the mechanisms of observation, with knowledge following suit, always in search of “new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised” (Foucault, 1977). In time citizens, as prisoners in the society, become to regulate their behavior as if they were always in a Panopticon. Nominately, they develop their distinct personality regarded as a persisting entity. (Identity formation)

Foucault died before the advent of the Internet; however, I find it fascinating to apply his idea of the “Panopticism” to the social networking. Because, the Internet and social media provide speedy and cheap access to information and to bring individuals together and help them overcome geographical and other boundaries as a form of new public sphere. (Papacharissi, 2002, p. 11)

We live in an age where modern technology has made it a simple thing to effect a powerful Panopticon such as the one that Bentham imagined and that Foucault decried, but the inspectors do not need to sit inside a central watch tower or control rooms.A modern example of the visibility, that is not just for the inspector but for a certain crowed, through ‘sharing’ which is completely voluntary action in contrast to old version of the Panopticon, is social media.

The immortal updating and profiling of the individual on the social media furthers not just our ‘visibility’ and also newly fabricated him/her self into the new public sphere. This is the process by which we discipline ourselves on the social media. In other words, the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online, includes likes, shares, and comments, leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and impress a certain crowd , and to select content accordingly.

In contrast to the old form of power and at the little level to the new version of Panopticon when used as the instrument to punish or the detector of the crime by the big inspectors, which had to force us to become visible by physical punishment and torture, we can engage freely and openly through mediums. However, the new form of power remains disguised to the degree of non-existence. While we massively quantify ourselves and make ourselves more visible and available for domination by the system, the new form of power fades into the background.

panopticon

Ultimately, in 2004, Facebook and, in 2006, Twitter launched into the Public Sphere and would drastically change the way human beings connect socially. They created the new form of Public Sphere, in which people can easily become together and lead political acts, the new form of sharing content and making visible them to a certain crowd, the new form of the punishment and the disciplinary power, which implies through the social media by the stationary Big Brothers, like the governments, the parents, the employers, or the big capitalist, and they allow for creating new forms of identity in the social media.

However, I never think about to cancel my Twitter and Facebook account despite these facts. Instead, I appreciate getting good writing, and precious knowledge, whatever these are from: tweets on Twitter or the sharing on the Facebook. Besides, it should be considered that the new form of Panopticon can also help us define our virtues and aspire to personal excellence.  It can become an area of the self affirmation which would not happen without the social media as Panopticon. And this is why we tend to be larger than life on social media.

 

Hilal GÜL

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REFERENCES

Bentham, Jeremy (1789). Panopticon or the Inspection-House. pg. 31-48 and pg. 80-95

Foucault, Michel (1977). Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. “Panopticism”, Penguin Books, pg. 195-228.

Papacharissi, Zizi (2002). The virtual sphere: the internet as a public sphere. New Media Society 2002; 4; 9. Retrieved from:  http://nms.sagepub.com/content/4/1/9.abstract

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