The social panopticon: Have we become desensitized to surveilling others?

Sarah Karkoff, Staff Writer

In the age of social media, many changes in social norms have seemingly transpired without much critical thought. As most people become more comfortable with having an increasingly personal online presence, they also become desensitized to scrutinizing the online presences of others.

The term “chronically online”—meaning someone who is out of touch with the real world and whose existence is heavily shaped by online culture—has been thrown around with increasing frequency. Although this is seen as an insult to those that spend too much time on their phones, we can see that the base issue of being chronically online affects more than just this group of people. As people spend more time online, the way people interact with each other has also shifted, whether they are chronically online or not. 

As the internet grows, so does the government’s purview into the private lives of citizens. Through the Patriot Act and the expanded National Security Agency (NSA), it is clear that the government can monitor citizens to an uncomfortable and unprecedented level. Despite the objectionable aspects of these agencies, people have become complacent about being monitored, whether it be by the government or social media companies. 

The advent of TikTok has brought this issue into greater visibility. The controversy about TikTok user data brought to light that ByteDance—TikTok’s parent company—was accessing and collecting nonpublic data of their users. Even though this information was widely broadcasted, the app still has over a billion users.

However, government surveillance is old news. As long as governments have existed, they have monitored the citizens under their sovereignty. A newer phenomenon is the extent to which people find it appropriate to record and post videos or photos of strangers without their consent. 

Building upon the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault’s concept of the panopticon, the modern term of social panopticism was formed. The original definition was concerned with surveilling prisoners. Essentially, it is a circular prison surrounding one large watchtower. This tower is always shining lights at all the cells, thus a watchman is able to watch every prisoner. Thomas McMullan of the Guardian explains, “The people in the cells, however, aren’t able to see the watchman, and therefore have to assume that they are always under observation.” Foucault broadened this idea to represent society and government at large. 

As the internet expands its reach into our lives, it is clear that this unique idea of panopticism has morphed. Instead of all citizens being watched, we can all now enjoy the position of both the surveillor and surveilled. Much like in the original prison concept, we are never aware of when people are going to be watching us. 

Examples of this populate TikTok. I have seen videos of users recording random people on college campuses and then uploading videos of their unsuspecting subjects, hypothesizing about their personal lives. Additionally, there are an astonishing amount of TikTok videos showcasing people minding their business in public who are then shamed online for self-presentation or behavior outside of specific social norms. While being in public gives us a lesser degree and expectation of privacy, when did it become so acceptable to take videos of people without their knowledge and to broadcast strangers to thousands or potentially millions of observers? What gives a person the right to forcibly put others under the scrutiny of the internet? 

Not only do we surveil others, but this fear of being watched constantly by our peers causes constant self-censorship. On the other hand, the urge to feel relatable and genuine over social media leads many to overshare. As we swing between the fear of others’ scrutiny and the need to put our lives on the internet, we create dangerous polarities. In doing this, we tend to market our relatability in exchange for social currency. 

At the end of the day, some things do not need to be posted on social media, especially those who have not consented to be viewed.