Among social networking sites, it's only Last.fm, only scrobbling -- which, once activated, operates entirely on its own, as an unconscious background function -- that channels the essence of Foucault's social panopticism.
Mighty social networking platforms like Facebook and Myspace have made the listing of interests and tastes standard practice, but the act of crafting a public profile implicitly encourages posturing and subtle deceptions -- these services invite their users to cultivate a respectable self-image for projection and dissemination, and few, if it can be helped, care to sell themselves short.
Unlike some of the more frequently vilified social networking platforms, Last.fm smartly sidesteps accusations of vacuity by asserting its own narrow usefulness: scrobbling purports both to aid users in finding other users with similar listening habits (these users are presented as "neighbors", and they are organized according to how much overlap there is between your most-listened-to artists and theirs), and, more importantly, to recommend music based on perceived preferences. Ideally, Last.fm operates like a discerning, vocal friend, introducing you to new people and new music it reckons you'll like.
But then, about a year into my uninvolved scrobbling, a fault in the service suddenly struck me: My charts didn't factor in duration. Scrobbling gave equal weight to a ten-second hip-hop skit as it did to a 60-minute ambient piece. I conceded that most songs were indeed around three minutes long, and thus scrobbling by track count alone was probably still the most accurate method for tracking listening habits, but I couldn't help but be irked by the look of my charts. It seemed a misrepresentation. At the time, I'd been listening to William Basinski's The Disintegration Loops more than just about anything else, but as the tracks on that record spanned upwards of an hour, my Last.fm profile registered just a few listens. This, I thought, was hardly the transparent examination of my taste in music I had once determined it to be.
So I cheated. I chose the briefest Basinski track and played it on repeat overnight, in order to stack my chart and (in my mind) more accurately represent what I'd been listening to. In a single fell swoop, I had just obliterated the inactive transparency of scrobbling. I had adjusted my natural habits in accordance with how I wanted the results to look -- I'd regressed to just the sort of conceited posturing and image cultivation the avoidance of which had compelled me to join this service to begin with, undermining the supposed "reality" of the charts by shaping the chart for the chart itself. I had, in effect, ruined Last.fm. And I suspect I'm not the only one.
For Foucault, not only were institutions of power applying the panoptic model outside of prison (as in the installation of CCTV cameras in public spaces, where, as in Bentham's prison, the pervading threat of being watched does the job of physically watching), but contemporary society was itself coming to resemble a sort of panopticon. Now it was merely the threat of being "surveyed" by other people that caused the average citizen to internalize surveillance and act in accordance with not just legally acceptable conduct, but proper social conduct as well. Our image of normality is maintained by acting in a way that will be perceived as normal by other normal people.
And so it's only Last.fm, only scrobbling -- which, once activated, operates entirely on its own, as an unconscious background function -- that channels the essence of Foucault's social panopticism. Last.fm users are faced with the threat of anonymous observation and surveillance, and thus the surveillance is internalized. The awareness that anybody can check in on their habits at any given time without their knowledge or consent causes users to consider their habits with that very awareness in mind. Thus the way we listen -- what we choose to put on and how often or for how long -- is affected by the very fact of scrobbling's recording. What we choose to hear is watched, and we choose differently because of it.
Not everybody is so conscious of their charts and profile, mind. I'm sure many forget that Last.fm is even scrobbling, and I'm sure others still just don't care about maintaining a certain image. But the panopticon's effects manifest themselves in ways which are not always obvious -- after all, you always actively or consciously behave differently in public than you would if you were alone -- though the internalized surveillance still has a significant, if subtle, effect.
Of course, the system isn't perfect. Last.fm allows users to delete items from their charts, effectually allowing people to have more control over their surveillance than a true panopticon would. Similarly, Last.fm's scope and pull is incomplete -- many users listen via iPods and iTunes, but some spend equal time with turntables and traditional radios, formats the service just can't scrobble. But once your account is set up and your profile activated, you've willingly entered a system that's about as close to a legitimate panopticon as social networking has become.
The distinction is that this isn't a panopticon of normality and legality, but one oriented exclusively around taste. Last.fm is an exercise in the effect of surveillance on habit when that habit comes to stand in for interest and taste. 30 million people worldwide are in subtle ways changing the way they listen to music, their selections (in the most extreme cases) informed by an unconscious desire to project a cultivated image of cool rather than any kind of true or pure desire. Will we ever listen to what we want, when we want, again?