Facebook’s Disciplinary Power


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.

Works Cited

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.



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3 responses to “Facebook’s Disciplinary Power

  1. Facebook makes for a fascinating example of power relations in a networked society. I’m sure that Foucault would have found this form of public social networking platform to be an irresistible topic for study. Following his genealogical method, he would invite us to consider the ‘history of the present’, asking: how has it come to be that people voluntarily create and share complex digital selves? He would certainly be interested in the implications of the distinction that you draw between the user and the digital representation of the user (the account). It is worth considering the multiple meanings of the word ‘account’ – It can refer to an access-controlled environment that allows users to manage information and use resources. It can also refer to an explanation or narrative (as in, ‘to give an account of oneself’). Both of these meanings are applicable to Facebook.

    The distinction that you draw between the intended audience of a Facebook account (friends) and the parties able to surrepetitiously examine data related to Facebook accounts is important.

    In relation to the internalization of the ‘perpetual gaze’ through Facebook, I think that it is interesting to think of the history of this platform and its impact on culture. Initially, Facebook was a place to post and share existing information. It was a way of representing the self through the management of a curated ‘data double’. As the platform grew in popularity, though, the distinction between the ‘real self’ and the ‘data double’ of the Facebook account began to blur. Rather than using Facebook as a way of reporting on aspects of one’s life, people began living and acting with an awareness of Facebook in mind. The *purpose* of social activity shifted, as many activities took on the character of performances intended for an audience. Life became intelligible (for some) as a series of status updates.

    I agree with your assessment of Facebook as a mechanism of disciplinary power. I wonder, though, if it is also understandable as a space of governmental power. It seems to involve the ‘conduct of conduct’ and the government of populations on a vast scale. What do you think?

    • The question you pose no doubt connects to Foucault’s notion of ‘governmentality’ and ‘biopolitics’. Biopolitics, as presented by Pavlich, refers to “a power that seeks to manage the life (conceived through biological and statistical [actuarial] knowledge) of human masses” (2011, p. 146). I believe Pavlich’s conceptualization connects to the latter half of the question (surrounding government of populations on a vast scale) as Facebook is an available tool to acquire knowledge about “life of human masses” as presented on Facebook. In other words, Facebook could work as available statistics for a government, just as it is currently used as a statistic for available businesses. Facebook users represent information about themselves that is beneficial to “managing the life of human masses”. However relying on Facebook for gathering knowledge can be problematic as well, since there are many accounts that present how they wish to be presented, not necessarily how they are. So, the overall information provides a substantial body of knowledge available for governmental power, but does not necessarily represent the population accurately.

      As per indirect regulation or ‘conduct of conduct’, I do agree that Facebook produces a form of regulation through peers and interactions with others. As mentioned in the original post, ”Facebook works in a manner that “nurtures constant surveillance”. So the short answer seems yes, Facebook does act in a manner that regulates behaviour, representation of self, and posts made. However, Pavlich writes, “not by direct control, but by nurturing new ways to govern through the ‘conduct of conduct’ in which subjects increasingly regulate their own being in contexts deployed by governmental formations (2011, p. 146, emphasis added). If the indirect regulations must be ”deployed by governmental formations” then I do not intuitively agree that governmental power is at work on Facebook. I do not see nor understand how through government formations our Facebook norms, values, and behaviours can be solely formed through an outside organization. It seems unpredictable to a degree the route (through regulation) that the Facebook community will go; it is a sporadic and evolving network that seems to go in many directions at once. A pluralist of ideas, thoughts, and values that help self-regulate individuals, but as a whole seem to go in many directions.

      So, it seems that Facebook does have elements or potential of being a space of governmental power, but I do not believe it is (currently) wholly understood as a space of governmental power as it does not seem to hold all the elements necessary.