The “Anxious awareness of being observed” (202): Foucault’s Theory from the Panopticon to Instagram to Finstagram

A salient feature of Foucault’s social theory is that power works forcefully through networks shaped and mediated by structures. Our identities and ourselves and our notions of those are determined entirely by our positions within these networks. In terms of the relationship between individual and collective, the individual is produced by the power relations of the collective, relations that are manifested by physical spaces. The case of the Panopticon provides a good example: in this annular prison built around a watchtower, the collective trains and corrects the prisoners through the power of suggestion. The watchtower commands a view of all individual cells, but there does not necessarily need to be any guard watching because the tower structure itself remains fixed, symbolically diffusing surveillance regardless of whether there is a guard on duty. On a conscious level the prisoners feel that they must behave properly because they are being watched, thinking that if they misbehave they will be punished; however, the tower’s true authority lies in the feelings of the prisoners. As Foucault puts it:

“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary” (201).

Their belief in the Panopticon imprisons them. In this system power takes hold over the prisoners from a horizontal orientation as opposed to a vertical orientation as demonstrated by the hierarchical models of discipline of the classroom, hospital, and military.

The design of Instagram resembles the structure of a panopticon more than just about any other social media platform, in the sense that your profile represents your life distilled and immediately observable in your gallery of pictures and your biographical information. Thus, Instagram offers two options for viewing content: the individual gallery, a space where each user’s posts are displayed, and the feed, which displays content posted by everyone who the viewer is following (in other words, a collective). Instagram’s design is sleek, composed of fine lines, clean font, and white space, and images are afforded a lot of space on the screen in order to maximize users’ surveillant power. Further, success on the app is measured by number of likes on specific posts and followers of the individual, both of which are visible to all users of the app – therefore, content must be good enough in relation to all other content to gain likes when it pops up on the feed of followers, and it must contribute appropriately to the theme of the user’s profile in order to maintain and build one’s follower base. Thus, use of the app to express identity is heavily mediated by the networks of surveillance cultivated by the app itself. In Bentham’s view, this makes power is both “visible and unverifiable” (201). In the same way that the Panopticon compels whoever it is observing, whether that be the inmate, the patient, the student, or the laborer, to conform to the norms that society has outlined, Instagram as a societal technology asks users to conform. Whether it be the pressure of maintaining a “theme” or a certain kind of “aesthetic” or only posting pictures considered to be “artsy” or “well-filtered”, or choosing to abstain from posting certain kinds of images at all, Instagram users labor over what pictures to post so that they will be viewed in the “right” way–by society. We carefully curate our digital identities not out of fear of being punished by the Instagram staff but out of fear of being punished by our Instagram followers. In terms of the Panopticon, we inhabit both the cell and the watchtower. We exist as individuals on Instagram by viewing ourselves from the perspective of the collective, and regulate our social media presence accordingly. We construct an identity, hoping to get attention and praise all in the terms of acceptability.

Amidst the pressure that many individuals face to cultivate of a certain kind of online presence, a subgroup of accounts called “Finstagrams”, or “fake Instagrams” has arisen in direct opposition. These accounts exist secondarily to the main account (their “Rinsta”, for “real Insta”), and they are typically private, so that the user must accept follow request for access to content. On profiles with funny or explicit handles, that do not necessarily include the user’s real name or picture, users can make funny faces, post random pictures, and go on rants in their captions and know that their audience is controlled. Finstagrams provide their users with freedom from constraints of society’s normalizing pressure and also from the adults and older family members in their lives who are now on social media–the ones they might not want to know about how little sleep they got the night before their midterm or the amount of cups of coffee they have had in the last twenty-four hours or about the mildly questionable things they might be doing in college. While a Rinsta may feature a picture of the user with their friends dressed up for a formal evening, a picture chosen carefully for content (everyone must look okay but not significantly better than the user, whose image gets top priority) and visual appeal, the same person’s Finsta might be the posting location for a picture of the group at the end of the night–tired, messy, and probably eating fast food. The idea behind the Finsta is that not all moments are pretty, but they might still be worth sharing. In this way, Finstagrams allow users to break the rules of the system and bypass some of its expectations–you can achieve the connectedness and self expression that social media affords, while not, as an individual, being subjected to the normalizing pressures of the collective that you are a part of. However, the use of a Finsta is still dictated by certain rules, and though possession of both a Rinsta and a Finsta appear to allow for a dual existence as outcast and obedient participant in the system of discipline that Instagram cultivates, a Foucaultian analysis would posit that as long as an Instagram user is on Instagram, they are participating in the system of power facilitated by its networks of surveillance. Thus, regardless of voluntariness, our individual selves are mediated by the power networks that bind us together and ultimately shape our identities.

Topic: Individual/Collective (Section 20)

Contributors: Sylvia De Boer, Theodore Davis, Seychelle Mikofsky

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8 thoughts on “The “Anxious awareness of being observed” (202): Foucault’s Theory from the Panopticon to Instagram to Finstagram

  1. I thought your post drew a really interesting connection to the “rules” of social media, especially the various tiers of authority. I found the idea of the finsta pages being a safe-haven, protecting users from the judgements of parents, family members, employers, etc. to be particularly compelling. I wonder what kind of impact the various forms of power have on Instagram users. I’m curious about what is the dynamic between virtual repercussions (i.e. losing followers, losing likes) and repercussions in reality (i.e. punishment from family based on unfavorable content, etc)?

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    1. I think that the forms of power over Instagram users depends on the personality/position of the user on Instagram. Given that many popular Instagrams serve to promote brands, lifestyles, etc., Instagram has higher power over those users. But in certain scenarios, people dedicate their Instagrams to posting pictures of just one thing, such as garbage on the ground, as a way of critiquing Instagram follower/following ratio and number of likes obsessed users. The dynamic between virtual repercussions and repercussions in reality seem to have instances where the relationship between the two is directly proportional. Should an instagram post be particularly morbid there seems to be a repercussion on both ends. However sometimes posts that are deemed funny by younger users are also deemed inappropriate by older users so the dynamic seems inversely proportional in that scenario.
      -Jason Lin

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  2. I think that the comparison between Instagram and the panopticon is really interesting, but it does not take into account the all of the power dynamics of the panopticon. In the case of Instagram, individuals of the same status judge each other through a system of likes. Aspects of a post that are like-worthy are determined by the collective, not by those with power. I suppose that one could argue that there are certain people on Instagram who determine what is like-worthy because they have a lot of followers and therefore they are powerful. Yet, to fully mirror the panopticon, I think that Instagram itself would have to exert value judgments on posts. People would need to be forever aware of Instagram’s opinion of posts, not their followers’ views. However, I think that Instagram itself does in fact play the role of the powerful class that controls the panopticon in a slightly different way. Instagram has the power to monitor content posted on the app; people who post on Instagram cannot see that they are being monitored, but know that their photos can be observed by Instagram at any time. Instagram dictates its terms of use and reserves the right to delete a user’s account for not abiding by the terms. So, I think the panopticon-like power dynamic is not the relationship between an individual and the collective composed by followers, but between the collective of users and Instagram itself.

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  3. I think the end of the post opens up a really interesting tangent of discussion about the domination inherent in the finsta culture. Even though the “finstagram” idea arose out of a backlash to the panopticon-like structure and form of Instagram as a social media tool, it’s overtly clear that the finsta is also subject to certain rules and structures. It seems that inherent to the structure of Instagram is the same domination, no matter how its manifest, or how the backlash seems to exist. And furthermore, it can be supposed that an even more radical solution, to delete the Instagram account, might also come under similar scrutiny. The motives behind such a move and then the social ostracization that comes with not participating in the dominant social media platforms of the day. Overall I really liked this connection to Foucault, because it certainly does point to the totality of the surveillance that the Panopticon provides, updated to 21st-century technological capability. I do think that a difference between the Panopticon and Instagram is how the surveillance is manifest. On Instagram, you’re well aware of how your post is doing based on the reactions it receives, and in fact, the goal on Instagram is to receive as much “surveillance” in the form of people checking your post or following your feed whereas the hope with the Panopticon for the criminal is to be surveiled as little as possible. The motivations seem to me to be slightly different, although the domination is total and manifest in both cases.

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  4. I found your comments on the insta v finsta really interesting. I have both and I understand the psychological difference. On instagram, I post pictures that would seem ‘normal.’ We have learned from Foucault that normalcy is arbitrary, subjective, and result in the overall stifling of individuality. Finsta is supposed to be a place where mild delinquency is expected. I agree that it does allow you to have two different social presences. It is allowing the expression of my authentic life as well as reinforcing the notion that I must conform. I think it is also interesting that there are constructs among finsta culture. Some people’s accounts are famous for unruly debauchery and emulated by their thousands of followers. What does that say? Hedonism is praised, but is this a true ‘other’ reality free from the power structure? Could it be that this is just a sub-culture and the platform for a contained and docile ‘release’ from the power structure be exactly what the structure needs to buffer itself? I guess this is similar to Harvey’s discussion on subculture. Anyway, I really enjoyed your post.

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  5. I think that your discussion about how the role of social media in creating individuals, or at least that’s how we view it, is really interesting. I do think that there is a sort of panoptic effect with social media because we’re afraid of who might see what we put out on websites like instagram and the impressions that we’ll give off as a result to anybody who reads what we might have to post. I think it is a lot like the observation of a panopticon in that we tailor ourselves to fit it – but it is also interesting that while we seem to fear what other people will think of us when we post, we also desperately want it to be seen and liked by other people. It’s definitely a bit different from the Panopticon or the prisoner in that regard, but I do think that observation functions in a similar self-censoring sort of way in both scenarios. Super interesting post!

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  6. As someone who has both an real instagram and a finsta I really resonated with this post. There is a lot of pressure to present the right content at the right time and consistently. There also is a stress to flaunt your life, aka show how great and normalized you are, by photographing your brunch with your boyfriend and then later a night with all of your ladies. However, I think finsta has its own pressure behind it. I think on my finsta I still evaluate if my content is funny enough and definitely still count likes. I think while that is not the surface intention of finsta it’s defiantly the latent meaning. Finsta is just another subsection of the panopticon.

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  7. I thought that while your analysis of specifically Instagram definitely displayed the sense of a sort of Panopticon today, especially the explicit finsta/rinsta comparison, the modern Panopticon could be extended beyond just that one platform and to all of social media (and arguably beyond, but I don’t want to get political here). Putting a part of yourself out in the world that will always exist somewhere is a possibility that has only existed for last 20 years or so. Now the Library of Congress is archiving every tweet, and everything we do has the potential to be observed, even a post 50 years after someone makes it. In my own experience, usually this hyper-awareness is limited to concern about just likes, but, taken as a whole, it very much is its own Panopticon.

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