From the surface Facebook might look like just another toy for teens to waste their time on, but Facebook is much more than that. Not only is the audience comprised of much more than purely teens, the amount of users –70 million– and the time spent on it – the 6th most trafficked website in the world- make it a platform that is a seriously big player in the world of online destinations. Tom Hodgkinson, journalist for the Guardian, writes in his article about Facebook With friends like these… about the size and the goals of Facebook:
With Facebook, state and commerce seem to have found a solution to the problem of decentralisation that they had been dealing with on the web. Where they already had solved some of their problems by building in surveillance possibilities in the hardware, with Facebook they can directly see what users are doing by following every click they make on this closed platform. I’ll try to present you with some background of Facebook as both a surveillance and marketing tool and we will try to relate the ideas of Foucault, biopolitics, segmentation and the Panopticon to the way Facebook allows its users to interact on the platform and itself the surveillance all this.
With Facebook as a closed platform, commerce no longer needed to need tools anymore to track users on different internet sites, for as long as the user stayed on Facebook, they could be followed on every page they visited. From research done by Harvey Jones and José Hiram Soltren for their article Facebook: Threats to Privacy, we can understand that on average nearly 90% of the students of their researched universities (including MIT and Harvard) had a Facebook account (Jones/Hirman Solten 2005 ) and although Facebook has a privacy option to disallow ‘strangers’ from viewing specific information (Jones/Hirman Solten 2005 ) this setting does not interfere with what Facebook itself can see; their privacy statement also leaves no doubts:
When you use Facebook, you may set up your personal profile, form relationships, send messages, perform searches and queries, form groups, set up events, add applications, and transmit information through various channels. We collect this information so that we can provide you the service and offer personalized features. (Facebook 2007)
It is pretty clear that those surveillance powers of getting all the user data are used by marketers to up its fullest potential, and according to Tom Hodgkinson the government in the form of the CIA also managed to get onboard; he writes:
Facebook’s most recent round of funding was led by a company called Greylock Venture Capital, who put in the sum of $27.5m. One of Greylock’s senior partners is called Howard Cox, another former chairman of the NVCA, who is also on the board of In-Q-Tel. What’s In-Q-Tel? Well, believe it or not (and check out their website), this is the venture-capital wing of the CIA. (Hodgkingson 2008)
And although the CIA were only indirectly related to Facebook in this article it would be of no surprise if the CIA were indeed capable of having the same information as Facebook’s commercial partners.
Foucault and Facebook
If we take another example that Foucault uses in his book Discipline and Punish, namely measures that have to be taken when a plague hits town, we can see another kind of social control happening on Facebook, the user-to-user control. An interesting feature on Facebook is its News Feed, which is on the opening page for everyone who has logged in and shows everything that your friends have done on Facebook: whether they have added new friends, uploaded photos, or even if their relations are still working out; and thereby reminds us both of the ideas of the Panopticon as to the segmentation after a plague, as Foucault writes: ‘Everyone locked up in his cage, everyone at his window, answering to his name and showing himself when asked – it is the great review of the living and the dead’ A quite somber image for the profile pages users create for themselves, but it could be used as a way to think about how social networks (especially those with a reach of more than 90% in certain groups) force their members to behave in a certain way. If we see each profile page as the representation of a human being, and we know that the News Feed allows everyone in the group to know about all the changes a person makes, then we can see the order Foucault mentioned:
This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded. (Foucault 1977 )
Two things are different though; first, the users join voluntarily (although is it a free choice to not join, when you know you will miss out on an activity 90% of your friends are joining?) and second the unknown guard is replaced by all your known friends that could be watching, although there is no way to find out which ones exactly, because Facebook does not give insight into who is watching your profile. It is here that we choose to be part of a self-created Panopticon, we are the inmates of a self-inflicted social prison; Foucault states: ‘that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.’ (Foucault 1990 ) The current Internet users do not need power of state, or seduction by marketing anymore to keep them in control; rather they happily agree with self-surveillance to create an online society of social normalisation.