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OUGD501 - Essay Final - PDF & Text

Explain how Social Media could 
described as the Ultimate Panopticon
of the 21st century. 


‘There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own over seer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over and against himself’ (Foucault, p. 156)

In 1791, philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived the idea of a multifunctional building under the name of The Panopticon. The building was proposed to be ‘The perfect Institution’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 62) and one which could be used by a school, hospital, prison or any other institution. Using a prison as an example, the building, in one sense, would be a space of visibility, with lots of light and everything on display from one central tower. However, from the prisoners point of view, the building would be a space where the source of power is indefinable. From their cells, the prisoners would only be able to see the tower which stands in the centre of the institution. This, causing individuality and isolation, would stop the danger of prisoners conspiring which in turn causes psychological effects making them willing to accept these circumstances as normal. ‘No Thronging nor quarrellings, nor confederatings, nor plottings to escape; nor yet any whips or fetters to prevent it.’ (Bentham, 1787, p. 21)

In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault talks about the effects of the Panopticon in different stages. The first being docile bodies. ‘Let us take the ideal figure of the soldier as it was still seen in the early seventeenth century... He bore certain signs: the natural signs of his strength and his courage, the marks too, of his pride.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.150) By the start of eighteenth century, Foucault goes on to state how the docile body was manufactured. A docile body is not one which is weak, but one which is manipulated, shaped, trained and molded into the perfect specimen. One which obeys, responds, becomes skilful and increases its forces. Foucault talks about the second stage, ‘strict discipline’ being the art of correct training. ‘Instead of bending all its subjects into a single uniform mass, it separates, analyses, differentiates, carries its procedures of decomposition to the point of massacre and sufficient single units. Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and of instruments of its exercise.’ (Foucault, 1977, p170).

‘Benthams Panopticon is the architectural figure of this composition. We know the principle on which it was based: at the periphery, an annular building; at the centre, a tower; this tower is pierced with wide windows that open onto the inner side of the ring; the peripheric building is divided into cells, each of which extends the whole width of the building; they have two windows, one on the inside, corresponding to the windows of the tower; the other, on the outside, allows light to cross the cell from one end to the other. All that is needed then, is to place a supervisor in a central tower, and to shut up in each cell, a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or schoolboy.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.200)

The confinements and effect of the panopticon cause another stage in the effects; self regulation. There becomes a stage where a source of discipline can take a step backwards because it is replaced by the individuals’ own discipline. ‘He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it assumes responsibility for the constraints of power.; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself.; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles.; he becomes the principal of his own subjection….It is perceptual victory that avoids any physical confrontation an which is always decided in advance.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.203).

The panopticon was the perfect platform for strict discipline, docile bodies and self regulation. Foucault talks about this being the ‘utopia of a perfect governed city.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.62) which describes the characteristics of the panopticon perfectly. This idea of ‘Utopia’ is the same as which the Nazi’s chose. When looking further into panoptisism, Foucault starts to demonstrate further how the panopticon itself has these effects of a person. ‘This architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who excercises it.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.201). He talks about how Bentham understood that being constantly under the scrutiny of being observed has dramatic effects on the prisoner. ‘In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.201).

The cages are ‘like so many stages, so many small theatres’ (Foucault, 1977, p.200) because each ‘actor’ is perfectly and constantly visible at all times. They stand alone. Unlike an unlit dungeon, the prisoner is illuminated with the light from the large windows, there is nowhere to hide.

When looking into the initial concepts and effects of the Panopticon, it is quite clear how some of these effects function in today's societies. Social Media is becoming more and more popular with the new generation, it is almost seen that your the odd one out if you don't have a Facebook account, or any other equivalent social media presence. ‘The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the intimate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in it's action.’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 65). Michel Foucault mainly explores “panopticism” in the context of a prison system, but also insists that it could be applied to various environments for different purposes. Although he wrote many years before the invention of the internet, his thoughts could quite easily be applied to Social Media. In fact, Social Media suits the ideologies alarmingly well. Foucault talks about the Panopticon surveillance being permanent in it's effects, even if it's discontinuous in it's action. Social Media is much like this in the fact that you upload private information about yourself along with images and videos for the whole world to see, meaning that your constantly aware that people could be viewing this 24/7. Both institutions internalize in the individual the conscious state that he is always being watched. In the piece of text, Discipline and Punish, Foucault not only explains Jeremy Bentham’s theory but also builds on it along with the structure of the panopticon; ‘a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power’. (Foucault, 1977, p. 202). In practice it affects a simple sense or awareness of being observed, which then consciously and also subconsciously creates a system of behavior and discipline. It is through this ‘affected consciousness’ that we self regulate.

Currently, there are over 955 million users on facebook, each containing information and photographs of themselves within a ‘profile’. This means that It is not only one of the biggest Institutes in the world, but also a massive part of the surveillant society and mentality which believes in trading surveillance for security in todays ever growing population. When we engage with Facebook on a daily basis, we are actively becoming the surveyor as we 'stalk' peoples profiles, whilst also being constantly observed in depth, by the hundreds of online 'friends'; Many of these ‘friends’ are not close to us in real life and many more we have never even met in person. It seems that privacy has become a thing of the past due to Social Media. If we consider the Panopticon's central tower as Facebook, we see that this can be accessed by anybody at any time. For instance, a Facebook Newsfeed gives us the access to be standing in the tower with complete visibility over everyone’s lives, whilst we are also simultaneously sitting in the cell, taking the position of the prisoner, as the next person takes the position of the guard. The dangerous but equally interesting aspect of this is how much information people will share, when they are completely unaware of who could be watching. Facebook, in a way, is like a stage in a theatre. It's, much like the Panopticon, in the fact that it's like a ‘Capillary functioning of power.’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 62). It allows you to broadcast your life, but a life that is handpicked by yourself. You critically choose what you want people to see and this in turn encourages us to be selective with the information we want to share on our profiles and also encourages us to fabricate situations or even act differently in order to achieve something that we want our surveyors to see.

As previously stated, Foucault refers to the panopticon as a solid structural enclosed building, but his writings also start to consider Panoptocism in the economy. These ideas can be applied even further into conceptual panopticism and through Social Media, virtual panopticism. Let's look at this from a different angle, for example larger institutions, such as the Government. By interacting with Social Media, we are leaving ‘a digital footprint that is more than likely constantly being dated and timed which also means it can easily be traced, tracked, saved and authenticated. This capability, or the threat of using this capability by those in authority, seems to be a characteristic of the Panopticon.’ (Dewey, 2007). Individualized, enclosed, and under surveillance, this seems like a return to the control of a plague stricken town at the end of the seventeenth century that Foucault began to examine. In a way, we are playing into the hands of the Institutions and creating a situation that puts them in complete control over our personal information. It is clear to see how the larger institutions have control over our everyday lives when not even focusing on Social Media. ‘Take for example the behaviour performed when you are sick. In the public sphere, it would be expected that you would cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or elbow to stop germs from spreading into the air or onto surfaces. As a behaviour to stop others from getting sick, it would seem unnecessary to also apply it to the private sphere when home alone, yet the behaviour still occurs.’ (Marshall, 2012). This can also be applied to our behaviour around Social Media and public Situations. ‘Determined by "photo-opportunities" and conversations often surrounding a humorous post last night on Facebook or something similar.’ (Marshall, 2012) Particularly in the younger generations that are brought up on Facebook, It's becoming increasingly popular for us to live our real lives spending most of our time talking about our virtual ones.

On another level, we privately act as the surveyor. We track and watch people and look deep into their lives without them knowing. But we are aware that we might be being watched, and this in turn makes us bend the truth, lie or even stage situations, building a perfect life in order to feel wanted in social society. ‘He is seen but he does not see... axial visibility... lateral invisibility. And this invisibility is a guarantee of order.’ (Foucault, p.65) When comparing this to the forces of the Panopticon, the feeling of togetherness ‘is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individuals.’ (Foucault, p.65) The prisoners are seen but without knowing who and when people might be keeping an eye on them, and this forces them to act on their best behavior constantly, which bares a striking resemblence to our online presence through social media websites. ‘Facebook stalking, therefore, is determined to be fueled by a healthy curiosity that feeds one’s desire to know about their friends and therefore perform surveillance activities. By virtue of the site’s design, we are all encouraged to be ‘stalkers’ in some way, and the act of looking is celebrated and even embraced as just another method of keeping tabs on those we consider to be our friends, both actual and virtual.’ (Marshall, 2010, p.84). The celebration of this curiosity could have more serious effects when the curiosity is placed into the hands of people who abuse the innocence. With more stories of internet grooming and pedophilia coming to light, it is something that maybe should be considered more, particularly by parents or guardians. But do we give as good as we get? Some people may argue that ‘users may assume that others are engaging in the same types of behaviors they report in themselves, namely searching for information about their offline connections’ (Lampe, Ellison & Steinfield, 2006, p. 169), and this is why we see that its okay to engage in these kind of activities. Others, like to use Social networking websites in order to keep track of friends they don't get to see that often. ‘Facebook members seem to be using Facebook as a surveillance tool for maintaining previous relationships, and as a ‘social search’ tool by which they investigate people they’ve met offline’ (Lampe, Ellison & Steinfield, 2006, p. 170). This is all well and good, but this more than definitely is dramatically affecting the way we interact with people in reality, after probing around for information about them online. It can create difficult situations because we tend to judge people through Facebook before we have actually met them in person, then when we do meet them in person, we can't see past their false internet persona, causing a possible 'real' friendship to never happen. There is a sense of safety within hiding behind an internet persona, and this tends to be stripped away when engaging in human to human contact, which again, makes us realize that an online identity is far from reality.

‘In a strange way, then, living in a panoptic world is both more and less free than living under a tyrant. More free, because everyone is on the same level. Less free, because at least under a tyrant you are free when you are outside of his gaze. Under panopticism, you are never outside of the gaze of authority because we have all been trained to watch each other.’ (Jackman, 2011). We seem to crave this scrutiny and this could relate to the fact that we like to scrutinize others. When we start to apply this to the real world outside of the internet, we can see how this could have dangerous effects on society. ‘The medias ability to move text and images through time and space opens up the possibility of what J.B. Thompson (1995) had described as 'intimacy at a distance’. (Darley, 2000, p. 201). This idea of 'intimacy at a distance' is the desire to create these 'virtual' communities with no real human to human contact. This reflects the disappearance of real life communities, which distances ourselves from real human relations to hide behind a fake online identity. We all here about kids these days spending too much time behind their computers and not enough time outside, playing, and this is where the serious social disorder effects could take place on shaping a new internet cultured world.

A counter-argument of the similarity between Social Media and the Panopticon is choice. Some may say that Social Media is all about choice. We don't have to have an account and if we do, we only have to allow our real life friends to see our information. We can also choose to have high security privacy settings and if we want, we don't have to have any information or photographs on there at all. ‘One can similarly imagine that if the prisoners in the Panopticon had the ability to present the guards with a representation of their behaviour, they wouldn’t need to regulate their actual behaviour’ (Allen, 2013). Allen argues that on the basis of this, Social Media isn't properly panoptic because users can be selective about what we show, how we perform, and even if we want to perform at all. There is also another side the argument which is personified by Allen. In the 21st century, Social Media is a part of everyday life. It is very much the norm to be involved in the 'Facebook movement' and ‘non-participation in social media becomes a kind of performance that is suspect in itself.’ (Allen, 2013)

The objection to being part of what is deemed as being normal, pushes the non-users into exile and therefore automatically into effects of the Panopticon inadvertently.

The power relation between Facebook and the user might not seem to be a form of discipline and the reason for this is because there is a strong underlying factor of coercion between the institution itself and the user. As there are increasing powers of surveillance forced upon us by the different institutes we fall under, Facebook is cleverly assisiting the schemes of the institutions, and in a way, has become an institution in it's own right; the ultimate panopticon some may say. When comparing facebook to the main points stated about the Panopticon, by Foucault, it isn’t hard to see the similarities. ‘The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed.’ (Foucault, 1977, p.202). Facebook, along with other forms of expanding, extreme surveillance is slowly creating ‘a utopia of a perfect governed city.’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 62) One in which, we are constantly trying to please each other, and subconsciously, the bigger institutions, giving us a false sense of security, in our false online lives. We are the docile bodies that Foucault talks about. We are under the strict surveillance of Social Media, whilst the people above can easily keep tabs on us, by letting us do their job, keeping tabs on each other. More importantly, we self-regulate. There doesn’t have to be a figure of power above us because we take on both roles without being asked or forced to. Some people may argue that we are our own enemies by being sucked into the whole social media movement and this is different to being locked up in a prison like structure, but the same principles are plain to see working in a completely different, modern day context.



Michel Foucault. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. London : Penguin. 62, 63, 65, 156, 170, 201.

Jeremy Bentham (2008). Panopticon; or The Inspection-House. Milton Keynes: Dodo Press. 21.

Andrew Darley (2000). Visual Digital Culture : Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres. London: Routledge. 201.

Nicky Marshall. (2012). Facebook and Panopticism. Available: Last accessed 20th Jan 2012.

Kennedy Mary Catherine. (2010). Facebook and Panopticism: Healthy Curiosity or Stalking?. Available: Last accessed 19th Jan 2012. 85. 202.

Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe. (2006). The Benefits of Facebook "Friends:" Social Capital and College Students' Use of Online Social Network Sites. Available: Last accessed 20th Jan 2012.

Clifford Jackman. (2011). Social Media and the Panopticon. Available: Last accessed 20th Jan 2012.

Matt Dewey (2007). Foucault : Panopticism. Available : Last Accessed 22nd Feb 2013.

Tom Allen. (2013). Panopticism and Social Media. Available: Last accessed 20th Jan, 2012.

(not quoted) 


Zygmunt Bauman (2004). Identity. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Nick Stevenson (1995). Understanding Media Cultures. 2nd ed. London: SAGE Publications.




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