Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Thoughts on Surveillance

Today in one of my classes we were talking about the concept of surveillance – both asymmetrical and lateral. For those less familiar with work in media studies, asymmetrical surveillance occurs when you are watching someone who is watching someone else. Think Punk’d or other such shows. Lateral surveillance occurs when both parties can watch each other simultaneously, such as Facebook or Twitter. My students were fascinated with the different facets of surveillance, both impressed at what it can do for them (coupons and free stuff!) and creeped out by the sheer lack of privacy in today’s mediated world (people should just ask me out rather than look me up on Facebook first).

While the world has definitely changed, I find myself in instances of lateral surveillance asking myself very serious questions such as, “if this were someone’s diary and I knew it was their space, would I open it?” This pertains a lot to Facebook and other mediums where I feel like people carve out a niche – sometimes I feel fine looking at peoples’ pages, sometimes I feel like I’m crossing a line that might move me into weird, stalker mode. But I’m not sure how to occupy a space where the boundaries are consistently transitory – you have to be comfortable with some level of self-disclosure, while at the same time cautious about the information disclosed. Especially when your “friends” network includes anywhere from people you knew marginally in high school, to close friends, to colleagues, to family members, to students. The power dynamics across that range are such that it’s hard to figure out how to “be” in a space.

I've been working to reduce the dissonance between my identities, making them more transparent in ways I never used to be comfortable with. So, for example, I was feeling a bit snarky today, and I thought, I’ll change my Facebook status to something silly like 'In an Open Relationship with Michel Foucault'. That's something weird that I would do and people who "know" me would get. But while I know some people would get the joke, others would be highly confused without the contextual cues. And is it then worth it for me to make the joke if I have to explain it to an entire network? There are some days I feel like fighting that fight and others I feel like deleting my entire page and boycotting the whole performative aspect of my identity. It's hard to be yourself when "yourself" changes based on the monitoring you need to do in particular moments in particular parameters.


  1. See, this would be where if I did put something like that in my status, you just don't explain yourself at all. Just sit there and smile at the confusion for those who didn't get it. Usually what I do.

  2. yes yes yes! this is such a complex, engaging and terrifying topic. But in many ways, it is unavoidable and an inextricable part of modern society