Participatory surveillence

This paper by Anders Albrechtslund elucidates some of the ideas I was trying to get in my post about Peyton Place a few days ago. Called “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillence” it flies in the face of ordinary English usage and tries to spin the word surveillence as having potentially non-pejorative connotations, and he explores the “positive aspects of being under surveillance”. Chief among these, in his view, is subjectivity building through “empowering exhibitionism.”

Surveillance practice can be part of the building of subjectivity and of making sense in the lifeworld. An illustrative example is Hille Koskela’s (2004) discussion of the use of webcams, TV shows and mobile phones. She introduces the concept empowering exhibitionism to describe the practice of revealing your (very) personal life. By exhibiting their lives, people claim “copyright” to their own lives, as they engage in the self–construction of identity. This reverts the vertical power relation, as visibility becomes a tool of power that can be used to rebel against the shame associated with not being private about certain things. Thus, exhibitionism is liberating, because it represents a refusal to be humble.

This echoes a point I was trying to make about Peyton Place and how it models the transformation of gossip into entertainment. Rather than being ashamed about what people in your small town are whispering about you, print it for the world to read and revel in your celebrity-like notoriety. Individuality, identity, subjectivty — call it what you will, but it is not a natural state, but a process that requires social interaction and recognition of a particular sort. Althusser call it ideology and attributed to a society’s institutions. So perhaps it is enough to see social networks as a kind of ideological state apparatus, another tool with which subjectivity is constituted within ideology, weaving the consumption of technology right into the core of one’s identity.

“Participatory surveillance” is presumably a good thing because by volunteering to be watched, you appear to seize control over its effects. If someone peers through your window and sees you do something, it could be embarrassing. You might have to live in fear that someone might be looking in. But if you open the shade intentionally and make your private life a performace, whether or not someone is watching is nothing to be afraid of. Or rather, it causes a different fear, that not as many people are watching who might be. There is an irresistible urge that sets in to scale up one’s identity, since the tools exist to do so and to measure how large one becomes online — to track how many friends one has and how many page views one gets.

Albrectslund seems to imply that social networks allow us to escape merely existing in the panopticon of modern society passively, instead affording an opportunity to dictate how we will be watched and what sort of identity will result. This seems mistaken to me; the illusion of control masks the discipline, and participants don’t necessarily think through the implications of so much publicity, lulled as they are by the apparent power they feel in expressing themselves and in broadcasting it to a potentially limitless audience. But even if you elect to be poured into a mold, you can’t then take credit for the shape you are then frozen into. It would be akin to the citizens of Peyton Place reveling in their notoriety once their local shame became a matter of national delectation. But, one might protest, the identities constructed online in social networks need not be shameful, as the gossip that made the characters of Peyton Place “interesting.” Perhaps not, but the potentially huge scale of online friendship seems to lead people to turn to the lowest common denominator to appeal to others online and build their friend network. They learn what that lowest common denominator might be from Peyton Place‘s successors; the forms of gossip in the media that teach us what sort of things — invariably scandalous — make private lives more broadly interesting to people in general, who would otherwise have no connection to these lives now up for consumption as entertainment. That’s perhaps what drives people to post naked pictures and tell embarrassing stories about themselves and that sort of thing. Such is much more likely to become the substance of “friendship” when it is no longer conducted on a local, face-to-face scale.

Albrechtsund notes that “participatory surveillance is a way of maintaining friendships by checking up on information other people share. Such a friendship might seem shallow, but it is a convenient way of keeping in touch with a large circle of friends, which can be more difficult to handle offline without updated personal information – untold and unasked.” That is, it seems a means of negating deeper, local friendships in favor of a shallow and more extensive network of friends mediated online through a proprietary system that can be use to disseminate messages — ads and such — having nothing to do with the “friendships” maintained there but coming to be ingrained in their substance — the marketing space becomes the same space in which friendships exist. Whether that is all that different from our ad-saturated lives in the real world is another question.