Facebook as the ultimate 21st century social media panopticon

Thoughts from my class “Recent Methods and Approaches” in the Digital Arts and New Media program.

A response to Michel Foucault’s, “Panopticism” in Discipline and Punish.


Foucault’s “Panopticism” essay can be read as a recipe for creating a successful social media network such as Facebook. By following the recipe, “entrepreneurs” could create an “innovation” such as Facebook with a structure that assumes power through the enforcement of relationship-forming and expression in a particular way.

Although Facebook supporters might argue that Facebook is merely a tool that can be used or not used in any way a “user” desires, the Facebook Panopticon ‘is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.” (p205) It is inherent in the Panopticon that the structure appears in a form that is agreeable to its subjects, at least relative to other power structures that might be more explicitly subjugating. Facebook satisfies this criterion by providing an apparent utility for its subjects that exceeds the well-hidden instruments of power that the social network is at its basis.

In particular, Facebook “arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the functions it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact.” (p206) Facebook’s success scales via the network effect [1] and conjoins growth of users and revenue, as noted by Foucault: “the accumulation of men and the accumulation of capital – cannot be separated.” (p221).

Facebook has taken over the role of “discipline” and chooses to exercise it rarely but potently, such as when it’s “real name policy” [2] infringed heavily on the ability of the transgender and cross-dressing communities to establish their chosen, real identities, as opposed to the government-defined identities that Facebook recognizes.

Facebook, among other social networks, has succeeded in substituting “for a power that is manifested through the brilliance of those who exercise it, a power that insidiously objectifies those on whom it is applied; to form a body of knowledge about these individuals, rather than to deploy the ostentatious signs of sovereignty.” (p220)

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_effect

[2] https://www.facebook.com/help/112146705538576

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