Social Networking – The Panoptic Prison?


Why do we choose to write blogs; update our Facebook statuses; post tweets etc? Is it because we are trying to portray our views and ideas to our peers, or is it the views and ideas which we want others to believe are ours? This concept of putting our ideas out there to be publicly scrutinised is centuries old! Let me give you an example. Eighteenth Century Poet Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his autobiography ‘Confessions‘ with the view to ‘…display to [his] kind a portrait in every way true to [his] nature, the man [he] shall portray will be [himself]’ (Rousseau, 1953: 77). Rousseau believed that the man whom he portrayed himself to be in his autobiography was a true reflection of himself. Similarly, by sharing information about ourselves via Social Networking, we’re under the illusion that we’re sharing our personalities with the world: our likes, our dislikes, our interests, our general viewpoints. However, if we thought no one was reading and watching what we put out there, would our likes, dislikes, interests and viewpoints change? Whilst at university, I came across a concept and theory which I believe are perfectly applicable to this question. In 1787, Jeremy Bentham came up with the idea of the Panopticon. This circular structure acted as a prison, in which the detained were completely visible at all times owing to the central tower of the structure being able to see within each cell. Although the inmates did not know if they were being watched, they knew they could be seen. Theorist Michael Foucault was very interested with this idea of the ‘omnipresence of the inspector’ (Bentham, 1995). The idea of ever-presence, without ever being seen. Foucault described the Panoptic design as a way ‘…to alter behaviour’ (Foucault, 1977: 203). The ‘observed’, believing themselves to be constantly under surveillance, would change their behaviour to whatever they wished the observer to view them as. We have to ask ourselves, are we simply inmates whose views and ideas are manipulated by the Panoptic effect of Social Networking? Knowing that there is a possibility that our views will be judged when we put them out there, can we honestly say that the ‘self’ we portray is not modified to get the effect which we desire?


– Bentham, Jeremy. (1995) The Panopticon Writings. Ed. Miran Bozovic. London: Verso.

– Foucault, Michael (1977). Discipline and Punish – The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books.

– Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. (1953). Confessions. London: Penguin



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