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How Social Platforms Work as a Panopticon

Peter Coffin
Peter Coffin
I’ve stated in many places, older videos, and most recently in Cancel Culture: Mob Justice or a Society of Subscriptions? (book available here, documentary forthcoming), that social platforms function as a panopticon.
If you’re unfamiliar, I’ll explain the panopticon by quoting Cancel Culture:
If you built a prison as a big circle, you wouldn’t need guards walking around, monitoring every corner, hallway, nook and cranny - because there are no crannies. You might have one or two guards in a tower in the middle looking around, but you certainly wouldn’t need a large number patrolling. These guards can look out and around and see everything. And so can the prisoners, who, in a way, act as guards as well - either intentionally or not. You see, anything they might do to call attention to a situation serves a similar function as a guard. 
The literal structure I’m talking about, The Panopticon, was designed as a prison by Jeremy Bentham in the 1800s. However, it isn’t necessarily as a physical structure that it became a topic of discussion. In fact, it’s been widely used as a metaphor for the structure of a totalitarian state, in which people are never 100% sure if they’re being watched. We see this everywhere from critical theory like Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish to fiction like George Orwell’s 1984.

So how are social platforms a panopticon?
My intent is to, as concisely as I can, simply lay out all the information necessary to understand that what feels like a simple interaction - not unlike any other in our lives - is actually an extremely complex exchange.
So, when one posts or sends someone something on the internet, it goes through several stages of mediation.
It actually starts before someone posts, when people decide if a social service is even worth using. The real question here is “what kind of person has this platform been tailored to appeal to?” That filters a certain kind of person out before anyone is even using the service. As one makes an account, one hands over identifying information for them to compare to information they have or have access to and adjusts how a site will handle a person - what they see, who sees them, etc.
What they say on the platform is sorted again and again by language, tone, keywords, and who knows what else. Does this post seem like it would be good for X group to see? Or maybe Y group? Not necessarily if these groups would like it, but if it would benefit the platform for those groups to see it.
This essentially means “will these groups engage with it?” There’s a certain clustering of groups of people that plays on normal social dynamics in a competitive society and encourages more. The easiest form of engagement to prompt seems to be conflict, so it generally seems to try to foment and reinforce groups that will have conflict with each other. Posts that create conflict will get X group mad and will validate Y group.
A Monopoly Money Prison
Layered in with this, there is an abstract currency. Replies, retweets, likes, shares, and the various visible (and invisible) metrics are symbolic “money” backed by social connection. When one accumulates more of these metrics, the machine regards one as more worthwhile to “do business with” - as both an entity that generates value from doing work as well as an entertainment commodity. We can think of an individual as a “producer” in a similar way we might consider a TV producer - and the image of themselves they create to share with people as a “show.” A service like Twitter is essentially a machine that does the work of the publishing side of an entertainment company; it is designed to do the same curation, promotion, and maintenance that such a bureaucracy does.
It, however, does this with people who, to varying extents, do not understand the nature of the machine and interface with it as a neutral platform. Some can “see The Matrix,” so to speak, but even though most don’t, they understand that they can do certain things and it responds in certain ways, though. This is all by design, and thus we find the place where the designers are able to leverage our behavior. This is where incentives make their more obvious appearance. The currency we talked about is, of course, the most visible connection to these incentives and the ultimate “pay” we receive for completing them. But as people detect certain behaviors are more likely to be rewarded, they engage in those behaviors - building a following, identifying what validates them, giving that to one’s following, finding people who invalidate one’s following and making them look bad, etc.
These behaviors essentially funnel people into the group X and group Y we mentioned earlier.
The easiest way for individuals to capitalize on this dynamic to do this is to put a novel aesthetic on the prevailing social ideology. So maybe you “dress” (or rather signal) like a “radical leftist” and defend Ukrainian Nazis - sorry, Azov Battalion members - because right now, the US state is waging a proxy war on Russia through them. Maybe you “dress” like a trucker and talk about how great Trump is. It’s not hard to tap into some argument the ruling class is having with itself that regular people don’t actually have any input on and sort people into “sides.”
People are fractioned off and incentivized to keep an eye on each other - and to “snitch” as much as possible.
Successful action based in these incentives reward a person with metrics and advances your position on the platform. But it’s only on the platform. You have to keep doing it there. It takes a ridiculous amount of effort to transfer a following from one social “platform” to another - I have seen tons of people with millions of subscribers on YouTube and like 12k on Twitter.
You’re stuck here!
Mob Justice or a Society of Subscriptions?
Cancel Culture: Mob Justice or a Society of Subscriptions?
Cancel Culture: Mob Justice or a Society of Subscriptions?
This is a basic breaking down of one small aspect of what is covered in our new documentary film, Cancel Culture: Mob Justice or a Society of Subscriptions, an attempt to analyze this issue from a materialist perspective. CCMJOASOS debunks previous ideological conceptualization of the subject, revealing “cancel culture’s” true purpose in a class society, as well as how it achieves this purpose.
The film premieres on June 5th at 8pm, and we’re really excited about it. If you want to watch it right now, please consider becoming a patron of Very Important Documentaries. Otherwise, enjoy the film when it is available for free starting the 5th.
Thanks for your time and I hope this was a useful post.
-Peter Coffin
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Peter Coffin
Peter Coffin @petercoffin

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