April 28, 2009
By Michael D. Maffie, Guest Author
Social networking websites offer a large degree of “control” by which individuals shape their digital image: users can select a precise moment in time to act as their symbolic representation; what personal information to offer; who can view this information; and even restrict information to specific users. Larger social forces, however, inform all of these decisions. Perhaps it is best to step back and ask the following question: how does an individual determine the correct course of action for any of these options?
In The History of Sexuality vol. I, Michel Foucault outlines the panoptic society and how disciplines are enforced via the act of seeing (or not seeing)[i]. The panopticon was grounded in the Bentham’s prison where the inmates were subject to being watched at all times by a tower in the middle of a courtyard[ii]. The inmates could never tell if the guard was watching them and therefore had to assume they were constantly under surveillance. This mode of enforcing social norms exists outside the prison as well, and there is no better example than online social networking . These websites gather information and disseminate it among networks of individuals. Much like the panoptic prison, users of the online social networking are never aware if they are under surveillance because at any given moment, someone could be examining their online profile.
The theory of disciplinary power outlined above begins by examining society as a series of social norms, or habits, that people perform in order to be accepted by society at large[iii]. History provides many examples of how rituals can influence what people hold to be true; two examples are the role of women within society to the normative view of sexuality[iv]. Overarching themes of identity, for example, what it means to be a student at an Ivy League school, construct boundary markers for normative interactions. The existence of one (or many) grand narrative(s) within social networking is also undeniable, and in many ways, shapes individuals both within these online networking sites and outside of them as well.
In the context of one social networking site, Facebook, users are given the option of how much information they willingly choose to reveal to other users. Although this may seem like an empowering measure – where users can actively redefine their existence by utilizing privacy options – it implicitly creates the norm that certain information is reserved for a specific group . These privacy options are usually seen as harmless gestures however their underlying causes are driven by larger social implications.
The underlying normative assumptions of these actions – from removing images of oneself to excluding information – is driven by the larger social implications of what it means to be an individual. Regardless of what identity these users gravitate toward, the image, or fantasy, they project through social networking is usually the image they aspire to embody based upon their own understanding of reality. Slavoj Zizek, in his film A Perverts guide to Cinema, proclaims, “…there are fictions that already structure our reality. If you take away from our reality these fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself”[v].
The fictions that structure modern day social networking sites–norms of beauty, intelligence, or even responsibility–are beginning to influence individuals’ behavior outside of social networks. It is not uncommon for the subject to regulate their behavior because they realize, at any moment, their actions could be recorded and disseminated to other individuals via these social networks. Moreover, the act of removing these undesirable moments in time demonstrates how the social ideal of an individual permeates the everyday actions of active users.
What is this gap between the fiction of reality and reality as it happens? This separation illustrates the desire of an individual based upon their ideal social identity and their social identity as it actually exists. Perhaps the fantasy projection of the self is not as dangerous as Bentham’s panopticon, but there is reason for concern. These fantasies may actually structure individuals’ reality in a way that restricts individuals’ actions in a radical way. In an attempt to create a social network, these networks could actually limit the possibilities of how individuals see themselves because they are constrained by their own digital fantasy.
[i] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Vol 1, 1978
[iv] Paul Rabinow, The Foucault Reader: An introduction to Foucault’s Thought, 1991
[v] Sophie Fiennes, Director, The Perverts Guide to Cinema, 2006