Book Review: The Crowdsourced Panopticon: Conformity and Control on Social Media by Jeremy Weissman
In The Crowdsourced Panopticon: Social Media Compliance and Controla, Jeremy Weissman explores the role of peer-to-peer surveillance via social media and how it increasingly shapes our behavior. It’s a welcome addition to academic work on surveillance and privacy, writes Matt bluemink, with a clear and accessible writing style and a multitude of empirical examples.
The Crowdsourced Panopticon: Compliance and Control on Social Networks. Jérémy Weissman. Rowman and Littlefield. 2020.
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In the Crowdsourced Panopticon: Social Media Compliance and Control, philosopher Jeremy Weissman tackled one of the most pressing issues affecting contemporary societies: the role of social media surveillance. As our world becomes more and more digital and more and more of our interactions take place via the internet, social media has become a staple in the lives of billions of people. These technologies exhibit a kind of social power that has never been seen before in history, and Weissman argues that this power has an ever-increasing influence on our behavior.
In recent years, the widespread success of academic studies on social media monitoring, such as that by Shoshana Zuboff The era of surveillance capitalism, has brought the importance of these issues into the public domain like never before. However, Weissman’s book does not focus on the “top-down” surveillance capabilities of tech giants like Facebook and Google. Instead, he argues that: “The ubiquitous new information and communication technologies, especially recording-enabled smartphones and social media programs, are giving birth to a profound new power for people. ordinary people to watch and follow each other on a global scale ”(83). It sheds light on how this peer-to-peer (P2P) surveillance has the power to infiltrate all aspects of our lives, transforming us from autonomous individuals into an anonymous “public” in which all individuality has been. overwhelmed by fear. humiliation.
It sounds like a grim picture, but throughout the book Weissman expertly combines empirical studies and philosophical analysis to paint a picture of a world in which our lives are continually broadcast and judged by what Marshall McLuhan called “The global village”. In the first chapters, Weissman draws on the work of Plato, John Stuart Mill, and Eric Fromm to highlight the power of conformism and its negative effects on human action. While much of the surveillance literature focuses on the power of governments or corporations, Weissman takes a different approach. He reminds us of Mill’s argument that the greatest restrictions on personal freedom do not always come from authoritarian institutions, but from ordinary people – from the public itself.
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This insistence on an anonymous and deindividualized audience is at the heart of what one might call the liberal-existentialist analysis of Weissman’s conformism, which leads him from Mill and Fromm to the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Here he brilliantly uses the Kierkegaard Two ages (1846) to analyze the existential problems that arise through our engagement with social media. In the digital world, anonymity is a double-edged sword. It frees us from the consequences of our actions, but also forces us to conform to the faceless tyranny of “public opinion”.
Kierkegaard argued that the actualized individual must have the power to look within and find their true calling – an idea one is willing to live and die for. But in order to do this, he insisted that we must “silence the noise of the outside world and the gossip of public opinion” (45). Only then will we be able to establish “an ethical position despite the whole world” (47). However, Weissman shows that in the age of the Internet, it becomes more and more difficult. The hyper-connectivity that is brought about by social media forces us to always be “on”, always connected, always looking outwards rather than cultivating the interiority necessary for self-actualization.
Weissman argues that this existential crisis is a fundamentally collective problem. We can only realize ourselves by forming communities with the others. But the bonds that are necessary to form communities cannot be created if we have lost our individuality in a crowd. On that note, one could argue, as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg does, that social media inherently brings people together, but Weissman points to a number of studies that highlight the growing detachment people feel from it. – feedback from their social media “friends”. In essence, the more we expose our lives to others online, the more we are forced to conform to this perceived idea of ’normalcy’ instilled in us by the anonymous ‘public’:
in a passionless society driven by detached public opinion behind a screen, instead of a community of separately strong individuals emerging in their enthusiastic and even risky common determination for a shared passion, what arises is, as Kierkegaard portends grimly, “a monstrous abstraction, something encompassing that is nothing, a mirage – and this phantom is the public“(53).
This existentialist analysis of social media is perhaps the strongest and most valuable contribution in Weissman’s book. The use of Kierkegaard, a philosopher who has experienced the tyranny of public opinion firsthand and a figure who is not automatically associated with studies of privacy, certainly makes The crowdsourced Panopticon stand out from the crowd.
However, in the later chapters, Weissman moves into more familiar territory. The liberal-existentialist analysis of public opinion in the first part of the book sets the stage for the shift from conformity to control. Here, Weissman develops his concept of P2P surveillance through a Foucauldian analysis of power (hence the panopticon in the title). Once again, using a sufficient number of empirical studies to support his claims, he argues that the nature of social media compliance has led to new methods of control that are not simply exploited from a top-down perspective. Instead, each of us was placed in the jailer’s position in the center of the panopticon. We all constantly and anonymously monitor the behavior of those around us only through P2P surveillance which is an integral part of social media.
While the chapters on Michel Foucault are well documented and empirically substantiated, there may be too many pages devoted to traversing busy terrain. Weissman’s emphasis on P2P surveillance is a welcome addition to the literature, but privacy and surveillance specialists such as David Murakami Wood, David Lyon, and Jeffery H. Reiman (among many others) have used Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power in general, and the panopticon in particular, for many years. Additionally, given that this section of the book was titled “Control”, it might have been useful to address Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on Control Societies”, especially given his critique of Foucault and theoretical parallels with many concepts developed by Weissman in this section of the book.
Finally, it would have strengthened the book’s argument if the “resistance strategies” had been extended beyond the last chapter. The critical surveillance literature grows year after year, but researchers would do well to devote more energy to developing resilience methods suited to our current technological climate. Nonetheless, these are fairly minor qualms in what is, on the whole, an excellent book. The crowdsourced Panopticon is a welcome addition to academic work on surveillance and privacy, but the clear and accessible writing style and wealth of empirical examples make it equally accessible to non-experts. Weissman has certainly done his part to increase awareness of how social media affects our behavior and laid the groundwork for how we might behave in the future.
Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Matt Bluemink is a London philosopher and writer. His research focuses on the philosophical implications of technology and education. He is also the founder and editor of the online magazine bluelabyrinths.com. Twitter: @bluelabyrinths.