Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance

Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance

Albrechtslund discusses the notion that online social networking is a kind of participatory surveillance. In doing so, he redefines the concept of surveillance and develops his analysis for how it is both participatory and mutually beneficial.

Albrechtslund identifies cyberspace as a spacial metaphor for the internet. There are similar related analogies such as global village, information highway, world wide web, etc. The spatial discourse relating to computers is an attempt to organise and classify the internet. However the internet is not hierarchical and is not constrained by the same laws as physical space. Therefore the internet cannot be described in terms of classic organisation. 

Furthering the non-linear view of the internet, Albrechtslund notes the interrelated space between the cyberspace and physical space. In such, it’s demonstrated that social network is not only an online practice.

Digital society has a number of key issues to be considered. One key issue is that of persistency. All information, including relationships, is stored online indefinitely. This is a consideration relating to social practices being no longer temporary, their organisation and audiences. As well as persistency, social networks are a mediated public space characterised by their searchability, replicability and invisible audiences. Searchability refers to information being made available through keywords and phrases, allowing for collection and sorting of information. Replication is the ability to detach communication (including pictures and video) from its original source. It can be perfectly reproduced, altered and put into other contexts (remixed). Lastly there’s the notion of invisible audiences. This concept is the idea that although we may have an intended audience (friends and family) there is a larger potential audience – everyone with access to the internet. 

Redefining Surveillance. Albrechtslund takes the traditional notion of surveillance and changes its purpose. Surveillance is commonly used in a hierarchical sense – the watcher and the watched – or as data collection. However social networking has created an environment where people are willingly publishing this information online. It’s free for all to see and collect. This, Albrechtslund claims, is empowering. It’s a form of social and playful surveillance. Simply put, it’s exhibitionism. 

This explains the moral panics, conspiracy theories and dystopian views of digital culture – the people who don’t understand why anyone would engage in online social networking and willingly share personal information. 

Thus, surveillance can be seen, in a social networking sense, as a mutual horizontal practice. Instead of top-down, hierarchal surveillance, people are able to watch themselves and their friends, family and acquaintances. This empowers participants, builds subjectivity and promotes sharing. Albrechtslund calls this mutuality – participatory surveillance.

  1. user empowerment
  2. social networking as space sharing
  3. mutuality

As already noted, participatory surveillance is a kind of empowering exhibitionism. It’s the self construction of identity and a tool used to rebel against shame associated with not being ‘private’. Exhibitionism is a liberating force against the refusal to be humble. 

I like this idea. We socialise with strangers and construct identities (both real and anonymous). We move from passive to active by participating in culture creation and sharing. This sharing should not be underestimated, since it is the core of how social networks function.


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