Strangely, the mass effect of a public world online is not freedom and self-expression, but a subtle, atmospheric repression and self-censorship, when we each internalize the limits and limitations allowed by the groups in which we share ourselves.

I received an email from a college senior, Jeroen de Bruïne, from the University of Amsterdam, writing a thesis for a degree in digital media. He asked

As a starting point I decided to grab your notion of “publicy”. I thought about some other concepts from other media researchers, and I thought it might be interesting to connect your “publicy” to Foucault’s concept of “panopticism”. As you stated, there’s a shift going on from privacy/secrecy towards publicy. I was wondering how you would describe the (possible) role of panopticism in this process. I was thinking that the original, negative meaning of Foucault (you could be watched at any given time) could also turn into a positive meaning. For example, I think some vloggers try to come up with “better” (or: more stupid) ideas for their videos to be more original than their concurrents (other vloggers). I was wondering if you agree and I’m curious for your view on that statement. To put the question more simple: do you think positive panopticism also plays a role in the transition from privacy to publicy?

Publicy is the term I’ve been advocating for years as a replacement for ‘publicity’, in the sense that social criticism and media researcher use it (note: it’s not really what PR firms do).

In 2010 a column by the NY Times’ Will Schott, he summarized Erick Schonfeld’s thoughts on the subject:

When the public, not the private, is the default.
(Publi[c] + [Priva]cy)

Writing for TechCrunch, Erick Schonfeld described how the advent of social networking and Web 2.0 tools have brought about a shift in social norms:

‘It used to be that we lived in private and chose to make parts of our lives public. Now that is being turned on its head. We live in public, like the movie says (except via micro-signals not 24–7 video self-surveillance), and choose what parts of our lives to keep private. Public is the new default.

Stowe Boyd, along with others before him, calls this new state of exposure “publicy” (as opposed to privacy or secrecy).’

For those who want more on the topic, this — Secrecy, Privacy, Publicy — from 2009 might help.

And so, I offered up these comments for my collegiate friend:

One aspect of publicy that is relevant to your work is this:

Publicy is an adaptation to an internet-centered world, where individuals opt — choose — to reveal information about themselves in order to be known, and to make connections with other individuals, and to establish themselves as members of social networks.

It’s necessary to emit some signals of self in the web, because we aren’t sharing physical space online. We can’t be observed walking through a public square, or dining in a restaurant, or attending a play. We can’t be observed online in a way that is analogous to walking through the marketplace.

But then, once we choose to live openly on the web, once we opt for publicy over privacy, we can be observed, tracked, and embedded in the social networks that we aspired to find and join.

Foucault’s panopticism is about power, more than anything else. By exposing our hopes and fears, or proclivities and alliances, we are accessible, and vulnerable. Consider trolling, and bullying, not to mention the surveillance and suppression of dissent by state actors.

The final observation — one that’s very Foucaultish — is that we collectively also assume the role of the watcher. The social network we spin our tweets, posts, Instagrams, and Spotify selections into is watching, and responding to us. Our network shapes us, influences our choices, guides and beguiles us. We push, and the network pushes back. We look, and the network looks back. And this democratization of influence is a soft form of power, and a cost-effective, crowdsourced panopticon where the warden’s role is assumed by a shifting network of volunteers, united in the implicit conservatism of social networks, and seeking to make all individuals conform to the emergent social opprobrium that arises through publicy.

Strangely, the mass effect of a public world online is not freedom and self-expression, but a subtle, atmospheric repression and self-censorship, when we each internalize the limits and limitations allowed by the groups in which we share ourselves.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store