Participatory surveillance and social media

I would like to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to indulge in theoretical discourse and mention the course reading for LIBR 559M: Online social networking as participatory surveillance, by Andreas Albrechtslund.

Albrechtslund’s article is broad and encompasses many important aspects of online participation with social media, and he spends a good amount of time conceptualizing and contextualizing social networking practice within a scholarly discourse and also a framework of surveillance. His final section is the one that I would like to discuss briefly, as it brought me back to my carefree days as a humanities undergraduate student, drinking coffee and eating ramen noodles before going to discuss Foucault and the Panopticon while looking at slides of Pictures art. But I digress.

Albrechtslund starts by briefly discussing the hierarchical structure that we normally take “surveillance” to mean, that is, someone, without power, is being watched by someone else with power. This places the watcher, theoretically and often literally, “above” the watched. He says:

The moral panics, conspiracy theories, and the difficulties in understanding why people actually would want to engage in online social networking all reflect this dystopian view on surveillance. It is the basis for the discourses of protection and education as well as for the idea that users… simply do not know enough about the lurking dangers of surveillance. In other words, it is difficult to understand the phenomenon of online social networking and related Web 2.0 services and applications when we apply this notion of surveillance.

Indeed, there has been much panic recently about the persistence and gravity of your online presence. The things you do and say on facebook will be around forever, inevitably there to keep you from your dream job and probably also give you (or your mother) night sweats. I tend to think, it might not be all that bad if you’re smart about it, but you certainly do have to be aware that you are being watched. Or, in Panoptic terms, you could be being watched, so you better not do anything untoward. Albrechtslund continues, however, to expand the notion of surveillance for the 21st century:

The visual metaphor implies a spatial hierarchy where the watcher is positioned over the watched. Yet, this does not mean surveillance is necessarily a hierarchical power relation in which the watcher controls the watched. Similar to the broadening of the concept to include all senses, data collection and technological mediation, surveillance can be seen as a “flat” relationship or even in favor of the person under surveillance, either negatively as actively resisting the gaze (Ball and Wilson, 2000; McGrath, 2004) or positively as exhibitionistic empowerment (Koskela, 2004).

Here, the broadening of the definition of surveillance allows for the social networking user to push back against the “gaze” of the watcher, and even provide a sense of power to those who chose either to lock their profiles, exercising their opt-out rights against online surveillance, or perhaps even doing outwardly rude things online thereby attempting to send a message of rejecting the standards of decorum (think of it as a sort of digital face tattoo). What I took away as most important, however, was this:

The practice of online social networking can be seen as empowering, as it is a way to voluntarily engage with other people and construct identities, and it can thus be described as participatory… to participate in online social networking is also about the act of sharing yourself – or your constructed identity – with others. (emphasis mine)

I will leave it up to my informed audience to decide exactly how you will construct your own identity online–it is indeed a struggle to craft and maintain an appropriate level of honesty and authenticity without completely baring your soul to the world at large. But the sharing of personality and identity online can be positive in many ways, and can make you available to a network of peers, friends and colleagues that you may not have other reason to connect with. Constructing and sharing a digital identity can build confidence; and done responsibly, it can extend into the outside world.


4 thoughts on “Participatory surveillance and social media

  1. Nice Daniel.

    “…to participate in online social networking is also about the act of sharing yourself – or your constructed identity – with others.”

    This is a quote that I fixed onto; at some point in our lives, it’s not sufficient to show up it’s critical to participate, collaborate and create. (The next three modules in LIBR559M)

    I was once a wallflower in my field. In a way, I accepted marginalization because it was what I knew. True meaning in my work only came later when I started to find my voice and find my own way of being.

    Quite apart what others think – these are our glory days.



  2. I enjoyed your post Daniel. I agree with Dean that you had a few really great quotes that summed up participation in web 2.0.

    Create of our own identity on social networking sites is usually a really positive thing and I enjoy being able to use social networking to connect with people, but I think that one downside to some web 2.0 technologies is that we do not always get to choose what is put up about us. My example of this is photos and tagging. My husband recently logged on to Facebook and discovered that a “friend” had put up and tagged my husband in a bunch of old camping photos that he has scanned. However, my husband thought that most of these photos were totally inappropriate (they involved a lot of beer and nakedness) and quickly untagged himself. He also asked his friend to take them down, but they are still up. Even better the album has no security and the creator chose the allow “anyone to see” option.

    Social networking is definitely about “the act of sharing yourself” but do we do about the sharing of ourselves that we have no control over?


    1. Good point, Erin. I’m not exactly sure what to do in that sticky situation! As long as the tags are gone, I guess that is about as good as it gets. It is definitely unsettling, though, to think that there are potentially embarrassing things that you have no control over floating around out there. I do think that as long as you are proactive about cultivating your online identity, (as in getting rid of those tags!) that the work you put in doing that will shine through, and any outliers will hopefully either not be noticed, or will be forgiven as out of your control.


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