Pictures: Left- poster depicting the philosopher, Michel Foucault. Right – picture of the owner of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook is a social networking site that has grown exceptionally popular in the last decade. Popular to the point that it is rare to find any one that does not have Facebook, and even less likely that someone has not heard of it. Michel Foucault, not as popular as Facebook but provides more important perspectives, writes on disciplinary power, which contain three key instruments: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgments, and micro-penalties and rewards. Foucault’s presentation of disciplinary power can be applied to Facebook with frightening accuracy. Facebook operates in accordance with Foucault’s discourse of disciplinary power, as an internalizing mechanism, and has available points of resistance.
Facebook is a social network that enables users to open an account, and depict a representation of one’s self to accepted friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, acquaintances and others via the internet. According to Foucault’s application of power, Facebook is a form of power: it incorporates information/comments (knowledge) made by yourself and friends that produce an understanding of your connected social world (reality), and contains available point of resistance (Larsen, 2013). It may not be surprising that Facebook has power, but how does a social network contain disciplinary power? As mentioned, there are three key instruments (hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and micro-penalties and rewards) that intertwine.
Hierarchical observation refers to “a ‘docile’ body [that] is rendered ‘visible’ to the gaze of disciplinary apparatus” (Pavlich, 2011, p. 143). In the case of Facebook, the docile body refers to the Facebook user, more specifically the Facebook account as represented by the user. Docile body refers to the teachable or normalizing nature of persons connected to Facebook (the point will be clarified in the section on normalizing judgment). Facebook is visible to one’s accepted friends list on the social network as any comments, profiles, or “likes” are posted for all to see, or at least available for friends to see, thus a Facebook user’s self-representation is visible to their social world. In addition to friends viewing your posts, Facebook has made it so that accepted corporations may see your posts and connect suitable advertisements to your account. In other words, if you made a comment on Facebook that you enjoyed a particular movie, a company may choose to place advertisements for other relevant movies and electronics that you will see when you log on to Facebook. The point is that you and your Facebook user account are susceptible to observation (gaze), and judgment from others as well as yourself; some accepted, some not.
The ‘disciplinary apparatus’ refers to informal discipline in the case of Facebook. Meaning, it is not the case that if you do not provide a good post or enough posts, you will be issued a fine, incarcerated, or spanked by Mark Zuckerberg (owner of Facebook). Rather discipline, in the case of Facebook, refers to the sense that actions and persons on Facebook can be trained and normalized by others; ‘normalizing judgment’. Think about it, if you were to post a comment on say ‘the importance of the genealogy method’ on Facebook (if your friend list is similar to mine), you will unlikely receive many comments or “likes”, in addition it is unlikely that your friends are posting on the aforementioned subject in their comment page. However, if you were to make a comment on the recent Vancouver Canucks game or the new Hunger Games movie that came out, you are likely to get back numerous comments, “likes”, new ‘friend requests’ and/or obtain a larger amount of friends. This is a simplified scenario that depicts social response, and shows how these social responses work as ‘micro-penalties and rewards’. The point is Facebook feedback works to normalize judgments (via posts made on Facebook) and the individuals included. If you get more positive feedback from certain types of comments (micro-reward) as opposed to others (micro-punishment) than you will more likely frame similar comments in the future. Thus, Facebook works in a manner that “nurtures constant self-surveillance” (Pavlich, 2011, p. 144), you learn and adapt your comments in a manner that normalizes behavior, often without even knowing it; disciplinary power that works as an internalizing mechanism. The behavior is internalized even though not every post or comment made will be read by everyone, it is likely only some comments will be viewed by some people; ‘perpetual gaze’.
Notably, in order to be normalized through Facebook it presumes that you value Facebook at least to a small extent, the higher the value and dependence, the higher the ability to normalize. As Facebook continues to grow, and millions of people make comments it seems apparent that many do value Facebook. However, Facebook can also be met with resistance, as opposed to compliance and normalization. This is important to note, since Foucault argues that in order for power to be available, as in the case of using Facebook, there must be available points of resistance (Pavlich, 2011). There are certainly many instances of potential resistance to Facebook that one may take: remove friends, delete entire or partial comments you have made or others have made on your page, and/or do not join or remove Facebook. These are opportunities to resist the power relation that Facebook has on normalizing individuals and society via social networking.
As Pavlich presents Foucault’s argument, “discipline spreads itself across a social network [Facebook] in a highly ramified, decentralized fashion and is not efficient when its operations are invisible” (2011, p. 143). So, the next time you log on to Facebook, think about how the perpetual gaze from others affects what you say and do. Even though Zuckerberg is not disciplining us personally, he certainly has produced a mechanism that does work as a mechanism to informally discipline us.
Larsen, M. (2013, Fall). Law and Society [CRIM 3305 class handout]. Surrey, B.C., Canada: Kwantlen Polytechnic University.
Pavlich, G. (2011). Law & Society Redefined. Don Mills, Ontario, Canada: Oxford University Press.