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