Foucault Meets FacebookCSA 2011


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Foucault Meets FacebookCSA 2011

  1. 1. Foucault Meets Facebook Amy Hruby CSA 2011 Facebook is a social network whose mission is “to give people the power to share andmake the world more open and connected” (“Facebook”). It attempts to achieve this end byproviding a structure that allows individuals to create online identities in the form of profiles andto connect with their friends‟ respective profiles. Since Facebook‟s launch in 2004, profiles,status updates, wall posts, messages, online photo albums and Facebook chat have drasticallyaltered social interaction. These tools provide new communication modes that increasinglyinfluence how people craft online identities and interact with others on and offline. As JanetMurray notes when discussing earlier internet technologies such as MUDs, “one of the functionsof early artifacts is to awaken the public to these new desires, to create the demand for anintensification of the particular pleasures the medium has to offer.” (94) The “particularpleasures” of online profiles, photo albums and messaging systems existed prior to the launch ofFacebook. Through a guise of anonymity with options for recognizable response Facebook hasintensified public desire for these particular pleasures. On Facebook, users identify themselvesby sharing information with peers—linking public disclosure to identity formation—and, onceidentified and “friended,” users can move anonymously across the information shared by theirpeers. They do this to observe and compare themselves to others with ease due to thestandardization of profile format and communication options. Facebook‟s structured field ofcomparison operates as an intricate version of Michel Foucault‟s panopticon—the perfection ofpower that compels individuals to self-discipline through the threat of observation. On Facebook,the panopticon‟s ideal lack of real observation is altered, with one‟s Facebook friends filling thepanoptic tower and observation being confirmable through the very communication options 1
  2. 2. mentioned above. “Liking,” commenting and tagging are responses to the shared self of theprofile; they are the particular pleasures users desire as judgment and affirmation of theiridentity. The individual standardization, mass expectation of use and peer-judgment of Facebookprofiles illustrate that Facebook functions the way that disciplinary power functions byexhibiting methods of hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment and examination. Analysisof Facebook‟s discourse and organization exposes the disciplinary power behind its mechanics,and focusing particular attention on relationship status provides a concrete example ofFacebook‟s disciplinary structure. In Foucaultian theory, power is the ability to discipline and is seen only in its effects.Discipline is a “political anatomy of detail” (Foucault 139)—a ubiquitous structure that“explores [the individual body], breaks it down and rearranges it” (Foucault 138) to produce adocile body through the processes of hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment andexamination. Foucault defines hierarchical observation as the “apparatus in which the techniquesthat make it possible to see induce effects of power, and in which, conversely, the means ofcoercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible” (170-1). Facebook beginshierarchical observation by being a “technique that make[s] it possible to see” (170-1)—to seewhat one can share and what others share. It induces effects of power through demands for andinfluence over self-identification and sharing procedures (the standardized profile, the wall), andit makes its users (“those on whom [it] is applied”) clearly visible through public networks. Inhierarchical observation, a “field of comparison” (182) is organized, and there individuals aresituated for optimal observation of the self and others. Normalization is the conforming of action, behavior or identity to the average—thenorm—that has been established by the disciplinary power. As Foucault says, normalizing 2
  3. 3. judgment “refers individual actions to a whole that is at once a field of comparison, a space ofdifferentiation and the principle of a rule to be followed” (182). On Facebook, an individualuser‟s actions are recorded by his or her profile, then referred to whole in the newsfeed. Thenewsfeed is a place where actions are differentiated by users‟ names and compared by physicalplacement beside each other. From this setting, norms of disclosure and behavior emerge. Theofficial Privacy Guide articulates norms of disclosure, arguing that “name, profile picture,gender, networks and username are essential in creating connections and making these itemsnecessary for basic existence on Facebook—the norm. In interactions on Facebook, users oftenlook to their peers to determine accepted behavior guidelines. Researcher E. J. Westlake notesthe averaging nature of this common norm, saying “it can be socially embarrassing to have a profilethat announces „you only have 3 friends at Michigan‟… Too few friends signifies someone who hasno social network outside of Facebook…Too many friends signifies someone who is desperate,the so-called „Facebook whore.‟” (36) Examination combines the processes of observation andnormalization to produce a judgment of an individual amongst the field of comparison. Inexamination, users are ranked for their adherence to the norm; it is here that a user becomes aloser or a “Facebook whore.” Exhibiting the three mechanisms of disciplinary power, Facebook now operates as apluralistic intensification of Michel Foucault‟s notion of the panopticon—a centrally placedobservation tower that makes all individuals visible but the presence of an observer unverifiable.Amidst the panopticon, uncertainty of observation compels individuals to self-discipline theiractions and, as a result, they become their own police and render the presence of an observerunnecessary. Facebook users affirm and expand the panopticon, populating the panoptic towerwith Facebook friends who could be viewing their profiles at any time, and adding mechanisms 3
  4. 4. of confirmation that record observation. While Foucault‟s panopticon is premised on anindividual not knowing when he or she is being observed, Facebook comments, “likes” andtagged photos confirm observation and validate the information shared. This creates a newdemand to intensify the particular pleasures that provide this affirmation of self. In examination,a user‟s profile is viewed by a multiplicity of anonymous “friends” who can judge the identity ofthe user and break anonymity to “like,” comment or tag posts and validate the user‟s sharing.The effect of Facebook‟s disciplinary structure (and the illustration of Facebook‟s power) is theuser‟s attempt to shape an identity into a profile that invites validation. For a user to have his orher life affirmed, he or she must present an easily observable profile that adheres to the norms ofdisclosure and behavior amongst a particular peer group. Success in these fields elicits aresponse from peers that recognizes the information shared and affirms it; on Facebook users areonly granted positive response options—there is no “dislike” button. In the example of the relationship status, analysis shows that while Facebook clearlyidentifies specific relationship status options, this is complicated territory due to the fluid natureof online identity and relationships. Amongst the confusion, users appear to crave norms anddisciplinary power to guide their actions in shaping identities and relationships worth affirming.Observationally, relationship status is prominent on the profile page, displaying twice—in theprofile header and the left column. Relationship status begins defining and normalizing theindividual through its preset options (listed here in the order given on Facebook): Single, In arelationship, Engaged, Married, It‟s complicated, In an open relationship, Widowed, Separated,Divorced, In a civil union and In a domestic partnership. The order of listing these relationshipoptions is part of the process of ranking with preference being shown for those relationshipstatuses listed first (notably heterosexual and monogamous). This normalization of relationship 4
  5. 5. options combines with Facebook‟s panoptic observation (that provides this information to all ofone‟s peers), and examination occurs as judgment of the relationship status and the relationshipitself comes from within and outside the relationship—affirming the relationship‟s truth orsatisfactory nature with the proper responses (“liking” or commenting) or denying its validity insilence. Harvard University student Courtney Fiske notes this process in a Harvard Crimsoneditorial: The ubiquitous Facebook „relationship status‟ now defines the seriousness of romance with a drop-down menu. We can be straightforwardly „single‟ or „in a relationship,‟ or more ambiguously define our love life as „it‟s complicated.‟ Once ascertained, either alone or in tandem with a significant other, Facebook faithfully announces this romantic classification to hundreds of „friends‟… With its unapologetic eschewal of nuance, Facebook pressures us to define our relationships and display the results for all to see. (Fiske)She also notes the now-important role that Facebook plays in affirming and validatingrelationships, saying “although usually uttered in jest, the statement „it‟s not real until it‟s onFacebook‟ increasingly offers an accurate description of reality.” A recent Time Magazine articleconfirms this statement, featuring an interview with Trevor Babcock—a Facebook user who is“not willing to date anyone exclusively unless she feels comfortable going Facebook-public”(Suddath). These common examinations create norms of Facebook behavior that, while oftennoted as complicated, are strictly analyzed and adhered to by users. The disclosure anddeclaration of relationships via relationship status is expected. Lack of doing so leaves arelationship invalidated by peers and void of existence in the Facebook sphere. Aware of thesenorms, users shape their profiles to meet expectations of relationship identification and 5
  6. 6. disclosure—as a girl dating Trevor might prematurely confirm his relationship request only tomaintain the off-line status of the relationship. In Foucaultian theory, norms shape users into docile bodies—rather like empty vessels—for the investment of meaning—a defining purpose. On Facebook, meaning is invested in arelationship through the assertion of a relationship status. The aforementioned girl only becomesTrevor‟s girlfriend through the Facebook declaration that they are “in a relationship”—astatement that may only occur because of the norm Trevor established with influence fromFacebook and his peers. Different norms amongst different Facebook peer groups result inconfusion over the standard behavior regarding relationship status. This situation leads users toseek the guidance necessary to aid in fine-tuning their Facebook identities for optimalaffirmation and validation of their relationships. No one wants to declare a relationship only tohave an awkward conversation in which the partner, or one‟s social network, denies theconnection. Facebook is a mechanism of affirmation that has built a social media empire on particularpleasures that allow users to self-identify, anonymously observe and communicate online. Bydefining him or herself in terms of education, philosophy, activities and relationship status andby illustrating these factors with profile photos, wall posts and statuses, a user can be “liked,”commented on and tagged—receiving validation for the most minute expressions of self.Desiring validation, users carefully groom their profiles to adhere to norms in hope ofmaximizing response. It is a “political anatomy of detail”—Facebook breaks down andrearranges the individual for optimal observation and the individual breaks down and rearrangeshim or her self for optimal validation. 6