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Title: Social Media as Surveillance: Rethinking Visibility in a Converging World
Author: Daniel Trottier
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SOCIAL MEDIA AS SURVEILLANCE
Social Media as Surveillance
Rethinking Visibility in a Converging World
Uppsala University, Sweden
© Daniel Trottier 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise
without the prior permission of the publisher.
Daniel Trottier has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified
as the author of this work.
Ashgate Publishing Limited
Wey Court East
Surrey, GU9 7PT
Ashgate Publishing Company
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Social media as surveillance: rethinking visibility in a converging world.
1. Social media. 2. Facebook (Electronic resource) 3. Electronic surveillance.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Social media as surveillance: rethinking visibility in a converging world / Daniel Trottier.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4094-3889-2 (hbk) ISBN 978-1-4094-3890-8 (ebook) 1. Online social networks. 2. Social
media. 3. Internet--Social aspects. 4. Electronic surveillance. 5. Eletronic intelligence. 6. Privacy, Right
of. I. Title.
ISBN 9781409438892 (hbk)
ISBN 9781409438908 (ebk-PDF)
ISBN 9781409484264 (ebk-ePUB)
Printed and bound in Great Britain by the MPG Books Group, UK.
1 Introducing Social Media Surveillance
2 What Kind of Dwelling is Facebook? Scholarly Perspectives
3 Interpersonal Social Media Surveillance
4 Institutional Social Media Surveillance
5 Market Social Media Surveillance
6 Policing Social Media
7 What’s Social About Social Media? Conclusions and Recommendations
This work would never have come to fruition without support from the following individuals. I am deeply
indebted to David Lyon. Your mentorship and unwavering encouragement are the reasons why I chose to
pursue and was able to complete this research. But your guidance went beyond academic concerns, and
this is no more evident than in the success and happiness of your former and current students. This project
would be severely lacking without Martin Hand’s continued encouragement. Your office door was always
open, you trusted me to teach your courses, and you were willing to lend books that you had just obtained.
I am also grateful for Vincent Mosco’s contributions through supervision and teaching. You have fostered
a wealth of perspectives for me to approach my research, but have kept a sharp eye on the underlying
concerns and relevance. This produces a sociology that is as nuanced as it is assertive.
I am extremely thankful for Laura Murray’s interest and patience throughout this project. Likewise,
Rob Beamish has helped tremendously by holding my work to a high standard during my time as a
doctoral student. Mark Andrejevic’s contributions through published research as well as direct feedback
have also been invaluable. I would not be in this field were it not for all the stellar individuals in
Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University and abroad. I am especially grateful for Kevin Haggerty’s
guidance during the transition from graduate student to post-doctoral fellow, and Christian Fuchs’ support
in my continued journey as a postdoc. This book was also made possible thanks to the Department of
Sociology at Queen’s University, the Blakely Fund, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
This project was greatly enriched by all the friends and colleagues I met as a graduate student and
postdoctoral fellow. I am honoured to include you in my social network, and have every confidence in
your future accomplishments. Finally, this book would not be possible without my family’s confidence
and patience. Thank you.
Introducing Social Media Surveillance
Introduction: Dwelling in Social Media
Social media complicates relations between individuals, institutions, businesses and police, by acting as
a platform where all these groups converge. This book looks at the rise of surveillance practices on
social media, using Facebook as a case study. Drawing on in-depth interviews with different types of
users, it underscores new practices, strategies, concerns and risks that are a direct consequence of living
on social media. Recent scholarship has considered social change stemming from social media (Miller
2011, Turkle 2011). These works point out the way that social relations are transformed by virtue of being
mediated on platforms like Facebook. Issues of privacy, exposure and visibility clearly matter in these
studies. This book follows from these concerns by concentrating on the process by which users manage
their personal information on social media, while taking advantage of the information that others put up.
People increasingly live their lives on social media, suggesting that these services are a kind of
dwelling. Framing social media as dwellings leads to several questions: Who lives on Facebook? How
do they interact with each other? How does this co-habitation impact how they share their lives? This
chapter addresses issues of exposure and visibility on social media, including the seemingly conflicting
desires for privacy and publicity. It argues that different groups dwelling on Facebook lead to a mutual
augmentation of their surveillance practices, a claim that is substantiated in later chapters. This chapter
locates social media surveillance alongside scholarship on social media in general, as well as other types
of new media.
I had the pleasure of spending my twenty-ninth birthday in an airport. If nothing else, this experience
was a great thought exercise. Airports are transitory non-spaces. We use them as a means to connect with
others. An increased reliance on airports produces the feeling that we dwell too much in them, rather than
the locations that they connect. This becomes an opportunity to reflect on transient communities, and the
importance of maintaining social ties. Most of the important people in my life are scattered around the
world. While thinking about this distance, I began to receive notices on my phone, all of which directed
me to birthday wishes on my Facebook wall.
These messages persisted for the rest of the day. I began to wonder: what if these were guests at a
birthday party? I would need to rent a large hall, for one thing. Also, there would be potential for social
discomfort. Work colleagues would be mixing with high-school friends, exes, and family members.
Worlds would collide. What kinds of problems would arise? More specifically, what kinds of exposure
would come from this? These concerns are not rooted in speculative fiction. Social convergence is a
reality: it is a condition with which social media users cope.
Scholars commonly talk about social media as a kind of digital space. But based on its uptake, we can
take this description further in saying that it is a kind of dwelling. We live through social media, and we
live on social media. Moreover, this dwelling is characterized by social convergence, and this social
convergence has distinct effects on our visibility. Social convergence refers to the increased social
proximity of different life spheres. This provokes discomfort because we maintain different
representations of ourselves, and these may clash or directly contradict one another. This discomfort
suggests that we live compartmentalized lives, and that we perform differently in each context. Whereas
most online spaces maintain these borders, social media, and Facebook in particular, are eager to
demolish them. Social media like Facebook have the effect of making different fragments of our lives
visible to all other fragments. If I solicit career advice on my Facebook wall, this may provoke a debate
between an unusual assembly of social ties. Moreover, details from these various spheres are likely to
leak elsewhere. Users are not prepared for this kind of exposure.
Early discussions of digital media claimed that it would revolutionize domestic life (Turkle 1984,
Poster 1990). Indeed, proclamations about the profound impact of technologies are not uncommon. Today,
social media appear to be a kind of dwelling in their own right. In abstract terms, this means they occupy
more time in our lives, that we use them extensively without really noticing them. This is a consequence
of the ubiquity of digital media: they are perpetually operational, and they assume an ever-greater
presence in our lives. For users who live on these services, their continued creep is an inevitable
development. We revel in the benefits of these technologies and cope with the drawbacks. Sites like
Facebook become an extension of our interpersonal lives. But what they allow us to do in terms of social
relations set them apart from the rest of the Internet. Earlier sites and services allowed us to bridge
temporal and spatial gaps as well as overcome barriers. However this happens on a staggering scale with
social media, for both local and global ties. This is partly due to their popularity: hundreds of millions of
users – including hundreds of known peers – ensure that we never leave.
Dwellings matter for sociologists. They are a terrain for social life. They are the households and
institutions where individuals are socialized. They are also the terrains where cultural meanings are
constructed and negotiated. Their progressive migration online raises concerns over surveillance and
exposure. Even casual Facebook users develop a presence that matters. Their profile is increasingly the
default means by which they are known by others. Furthermore, issues of ownership and control are a
source of concern for users. They invest time and energy in social media spaces, even if unsure as to
whether they own or merely rent them. Sites like Facebook are used for social coordination. They are
also spaces where users author their biography and their identity. Though these sites are usually free to
join, prolonged investment in them produces a kind of social dependence. In facing this dependence we
ought to consider the terms of our lease. These terms include unwanted visibility that is amplified by
social convergence. Users are exposed in ways that cause immediate shock and embarrassment, but this
visibility is multi-faceted, with long-term consequences that users do not anticipate.
Looking at how people use Facebook provides insight into the extent that we rely on these services.
There is a user culture here, but it is pervasive in everyday life. Users connect with other users and share
personal information with them. They rely on these sites as an everyday communication platform. But
these services are changing quickly, and users are growing more comfortable with them, without knowing
much about their long-term consequences. Users are moving more and more of their lives onto social
media, without knowing who else is dwelling there. We can consider components that are central to
Facebook. A Facebook presence is made of numerous parts that users employ.
First, the social media profile acts as a repository of personal information, a body of information that
stands in for the actual body (boyd and Heer 2006). The profile marks the individual user’s presence. But
this presence depends on social connections. Upon creating a personal presence, users are invited to
‘friend’ people they know. This typically involves submitting a request to another user – be it friend,
family member, acquaintance or stranger – who then accepts or denies the request. Users often accumulate
hundreds to thousands of friends, and personal networks are thus created. Interestingly, these friendships
become a kind of personal information that is displayed on the user’s profile. To ‘friend’ another user
means more than acknowledging that you know – or want to know – them. Friending also involves sharing
personal information with that person. This includes biographical details, photographs, interests and
virtually anything else the user is willing to share. Sites like Facebook have developed extensive privacy
settings so that users can customize how much information they share with others.