I-don’t-ify: Intersections of Identity, Theory, & Power in Online Environments

The Panopticon is a marvelous machine which, whatever use one may wish to put it to, produces homogeneous effects of power.”

Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish

Facebook & Twitter are two of the most popular social media in the world. I would review their basic composition (i.e. their UI, profile structure, etc.), however, I think it’d be a little backward for me to cover something that so many users understand already. Instead, I want to discuss a developing perspective on how users gravitate toward these media and how there exists an intersection of Foucault’s understanding of offline identity with popular, relevant, or familiar examples of social media usage today.


My goal is to draw on Foucault’s (1975) idea of Panopticism. The panopticon, literally, is a structure built within prison systems meant to offer full surveillance of prisoners. It is the order in which there is a central watchtower built into a ring of cells lining the walls allowing guards to grab a 360 view of all activity within cells and assure a constant watch.

Would you believe there was a panopticon in Guardians of the Galaxy?

The interesting question (and subsequent phenomenon) of the panopticon is not the idea of surveillance, rather, it’s the idea of faulty surveillance or moments in which it is impossible for one guard to keep watch of hundreds of cells. Therefore, panopticism is an idea which asserts that the very idea of authority (seeing the panopticon) can urge self-surveillance (feeling watched/not wanting to be seen). I can gather that this idea sounds pretty bogus to some readers. Keep going…

Think about social behavior. More specifically, think about the example of deodorant and its social implications. Personal hygiene is a fairly new idea, a concept which perhaps gained more popularity through consumerism versus empirical data. (link to history of consumerism)

Without deodorant you are a smelly fool. The first part is true. The second part is socially true. Objectively there will be a smell installed without assistance. Subjectively the difference of smelling/not smelling can make or break your social appearance and standing.

So why do we use deodorant? Well, maybe we want to smell nice but a larger critique might ask what deodorant represents within the system it operates. Deodorant has meaning in establishing your social presence. If you smell nice, you’re well put together. If you smell bad… well, you don’t care as much about others or about creating a consumable appearance.

So the daily regiment of applying deodorant might offer some personal satisfaction, however, in terms of society at large… it’s kind of bullshit. It’s a form of altering the self to fit into larger messages (this treads on the idea of a false consciousness being satisfied).

(Psst: Another example of this is shaving your armpits #body_politics.)

This article isn’t about deodorant.

I was at a party recently. I remember applying my own greasy finger to my iPhone screen, the contact of flesh and glass creating a smudge which prompted me to rub my phone against my shirt. In the midst of this I overheard someone ask, “How many likes does my post have?” before viewing their content and deleting it, wondering how they might reintroduce the message they tried to communicate.

When you think about the online environment it becomes clear that the panopticon represents less of a watchtower than it does the online audience. Pair this with theoretical research from scholars Marwick and boyd (2010) in which they investigated the practice of micro-celebrities on Twitter. Whose views matter in the construction of identity?

There are a few different levels: The user is first and foremost. They engage with the system (social media) and construct their profile according to their own ideas of representation — or do they? Stanfill (2015)might say otherwise (another story for another day).

Then the profile they’ve created interacts with online audience, a composition who does not consist of one authority, rather, is made of multiple authorities and audiences which intersect and request multiple articulations of the self. Want an example?

Your Employer: Expects a professional, refined, and engaged image of the self. They would rather not have you engaged in lewd activities but also expect some sense of honesty in what you depict.

Your Friends: Request data and entertainment. They thrive off of the interesting/different messages you produce. Research indicates that most users are not interested in reading your life story as it plays out day by day.

Those are different expectations when they play out within an online environment. And can we state that they represent two systems of authority?

Authority has power.

Yeah, of course. And what power do employers have? Either you’re hired or fired. We’ve heard this before (Madrigal 2013).

Haha, remember that time we festishized employer extortion?

And friends? Friends grant exposure, validation, and measures of social capital. Social capital pertains to illustrative signs of credibility or successful social performance (Coleman 1988; Ellison, Steinfeld, & Lampe 2007).

So let’s ask the question: Who are you tweeting for?

Panopticism would argue that we’re creating similar forms of content with homogenous messages as articulations of power. In layman’s terms: We’re all posting the same kind of shit.

This does not mean to discredit the type of content being posted. Yet in an age where the complexity of someone’s character is increasingly ignored — and users are more and more inclined to make inauthentic gestures (i.e. sharing an article you haven’t read) — you might start to see how this plays out in reality.


Am I saying this is the be all-end all of online communication?

No. That’s ridiculous.

Instead, I’m raising awareness of a perspective in which figures of authority are pushing us to the same online image. And if you think I sound crazy (which I might) I want to address a point I’ll be writing on in the future: THE FACEBOOK NAME CHANGE POLICY.

Authority is pushing us in very particular ways. DO NOT LET IT LOCK YOU WITHIN A CELL OF A PARTICULAR IDENTITY.

Do not become an image.

Individualism is not dead in online environments — my advice? Think about what you post, be more considerate about what you read, and dare to challenge the conformity of messages you see being posted. There are ways in which your content can do less to inform who you are than it can the situation you’d like to be a part of.

Note: This is an introduction to the larger discussion. Do not take this as the final say.


Aubrey, J.S., & Rill, L. (2013). Investigating Relations Between Facebook Use and Social Capital Among College Undergraduates. Communication Quarterly, 61(4), 479–496.

Coleman, J. (1988). Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.Knowledge and Social Capital, 17–41.

Ellison, N., Steinfeld, C., Lampe, C. (2007) The Benefits of Facebook ‘‘Friends:’’ Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 12, 1143–1168.

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Karakayali, N., & Kilic, A. (2013). More Network Conscious Than Ever? Challenges, Strategies, and Analytic Labor of Users in the Facebook Environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 18, 175–193.

Madrigal, A. (2013). How to Actually Get a Job on Twitter. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/how-to-actually-get-a-job-on-twitter/278246/

Marwick, A., & boyd, D. (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 114–133.

Stanfill, M. (2015). The interface as discourse: The production of norms through web design. New Media & Society, 17(7), 1059–1074.

Yeah, he’s not in here but his ideas are present throughout:

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

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