Surveillance and the shop window

Another social media surveillance paper, “Deconstructing Bentham’s Panopticon: The New Metaphors
of Surveillance in the Web 2.0 Environment,” by Manuela Farinosi (pdf) (via E. Morozov on Twitter).

This paper reports the findings from research into how Italian students conceive of social media and the sorts of metaphors they rely on to understand it. The “shop window” metaphor is prominent, according to the author, which fits my ideas about social media being primarily a space for a particular sort of self-display, which changes subjectivity.

Its communicative logic is primarily based on showing something to other people’s gaze. Its transparency has the capacity to create relationships and put the inside in touch with the outside of the shop. Nowadays the shop-window’s logic is spreading and is reaching out to the whole of society and people are virtually forced to live in a showcase (Codeluppi, 2007). The window’s visibility involves living in the middle between the private and public dimension. Online profiles can be read as full-blown virtual shop-windows, as a tool of self-promotion. The visibility of the shop-window entails the exposition of what is personal and therefore to learn how to build and manage personal identity is becoming one of the essential steps in order to live in web 2.0 environments.

This concept fits naturally with the metaphor of social media space as a theatrical stage. This feeling of being onstage becomes difficult to escape and eventually one is struck with the nagging feeling of having forgotten one’s lines. No one gets to exit the stage, but must go on improvising.

The author’s main point is that these are not top-down modes of control being reflected in the metaphors; social media is not experienced as “panoptic.” Instead there is “participatory surveillance,” which mitigates spying or makes it much worse depending on how you interpret it.

The horizontal control developed inside the web 2.0 environments
can be potentially empowering, unlike the panoptic visibility. It can represent one of the
key-elements for community building and online participation (Albrechtslund, 2008). Obviously, the
impacts of this continuous life sharing and the effects on offline life should not be underestimated, and it is necessary always keep in mind the possible risks associated with overexposure.

I tend to think of “horizontal control” as a way of inducing us to spy on another to generate useful marketing data while making it excusable, acceptable. Participation disguises the emptying out of privacy.

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