Friday, April 30, 2010

Facebook: The Social Psychology of Capture and Surveillance

By Andrew Lenoir, David Paesani, Jelena Jelusic

To adequately dissect the global Facebook phenomena, it is important to note, not only what power it has over its users, but also the need it fills to justify their continued patronage. Through discussion of Foucault’s Panopticon model and Agre’s Capture model of control, the structure and function of Facebook will be engaged, exposing it for what it is and what it means for all those that use it.

Facebook falls into the realm of visual and linguistic metaphors, as discussed by Foucault and Agre respectively. In the Panopticon, the guards establish their power over the prisoners by creating the illusion that someone is always watching from the shuttered tower at the prison’s center. Similarly, when one joins Facebook, and any photograph of them is uploaded, the user is immediately tagged in the picture. Photographs can be taken willingly, or uploaded from another user’s camera or camera phone without the subject’s knowledge or permission. These little details of the user’s day to day life appear as picture updates on the user’s friend’s newsfeeds. The same issue occurs when one friend writes on another’s wall, allowing anyone on their newsfeed to see a snippet of conversation. Updates to one’s profile, whether about changing music taste, or the ending and beginning of relationships similarly become public knowledge amongst a user’s friend base. However there is also the similarity with Agre’s capture model in that the “guard” subject is not one set person or group of people. If a user is friends with his family members, they may know what he got up to on Saturday night when he was supposed to be studying. If it is a user’s future employer, some recorded behavior or opinion, in either photograph, status update or wallpost, may be later count against their employment.

When Foucault explains the system of surveillance, he offers the model of the town governed according to the principles of surveillance: “...the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies...” (198) The system of surveillance relies on the existence of a single authority that collects and possesses all the information (there is only one central tower of the Panopticon). However, in case of Facebook, the surveillance principle is not its only means of functioning because there is no clear single authority that has exclusive right over the information distributed. Instead there is the autonomous, and generally unbiased newsfeed home page, which automatically updates all news from the user’s friends and centralizes the information. The capture model, on the other hand, offers a decentralized and heterogenous model for circulation of information. These two are not mutually exclusive. Though the newsfeed offers a central site for information, users decide what objects of news are worth looking into and what friends they want to check on. On Facebook, every user observes a certain number of other users, but never everyone and he never becomes the only observer. In this way, every user functions as a local center for the storage and exchange of information. Every user’s news feed is the tower of the Panopticon, and every user is a decentralized, autonomous guard choosing where to look.

Surveillance means observing in space and often functions by “invading” the space of the observed. Agre offers structural metaphors, where activity is captured as it falls into preexistent categories within an institutional setting. Unlike the panopticon model’s reliance on a physical space, Facebook is abstract- already a characteristic that distinguishes it from the surveillance model. The freedom of Facebook boils down into preexistent categories of action (poking someone, joining groups, writing on someone's wall, chatting etc) and they always remain within the institutional setting of the website. The activity of a user on Facebook is captured within these categories rather than surveyed like in the metaphor of the Panopticon.

While this surrender of privacy is inherently troubling, the fact that millions of people have willingly surrendered it to gain access to Facebook shows the model is working. Facebook, by its very nature forces the user to examine and recreate himself by the very act of joining. Questions that would ordinarily require some level of intimacy: religious views; political views; relationship status; are all answered in the initial set up of one’s profile. The user picks his own photograph to represent himself, he chooses what bands and books he thinks will look good on his list of favorites. Facebook allows one to construct oneself as he’d like to be, and then interact with others through that façade. Facebook allows for the construction of a new “me” made up of what “I” am not. It is the same sort of freedom provided by program’s like “SecondLife”, however all the users are directly tied to the real world and their real friends. The users of Facebook have signed a social contract, linking this idealized “profile avatar” of themselves within Facebook back to their real identities. The phrase, “That picture cannot wind up on Facebook, ” has become highly-prevalent in common discourse, both out of fear of other’s seeing (and potential real world consequences, i.e.- Parents see pictures of you drinking) but also of damaging one’s profiles good name. Much in the way the Panopticon causes its prisoners to internalize their guard’s gaze, turning themselves into model inmates, the potential of one’s actions being witnessed on facebook, complicated by the fact that there is no set guard, but rather “everyone” watching, forces the user to internalize a similar gaze, modifying their behavior.

Where as the Surveillance model of control has a connection back to the state, the capture model connects to a higher ideal, in this case the human need for interaction and relationship. By providing games to play, such as MafiaWars and Farmville, Facebook provides new means for users to interact and expands its own role in interpersonal connection. Facebook has become completely ingrained into how this generation socializes: it is a hyperreal that reaffirms personal popularity and the belief that one has “friends”, despite the fact its impossible to actively consider more than 150 people at a time. Each user has agreed to a social contract surrendering their control. By giving every user access to anything posted by their potential friends (or even friends of friends), Facebook has also provided an ever watching, all recording bank of information for their users’ access.


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