saving face: installing the participatory panopticon

Just the other day I was mucking about in sousveillance and participatory panopticons, and lo-and-behold my dear alma mater produces a glowing example of its own: The Panopticon: A Facebook Installation.

Martha Martinez ’08 pieced together an installation of over 4,500 photos readily available on student profiles from the Mount Holyoke College Facebook network. With thousands of wallet-sized images plastered to the walls, Martinez’s exhibition makes tangible a small sliver of the expansive collection of “private” images and content hosted on Facebook

“I think there’s an over-documentation going on in my generation,” the artist comments.

Yes, may be.

(Just to demonstrate, when inserting the above link, the channel was currently streaming lifecaster Nekomimi_Lisa eating fries with mayo at her desk.)

But Martinez’s exhibition reminded me much less of a standard 21st century privacy vs. transparency discussion, but rather of the timeless human story of feeling socially included or excluded. Her installation is not as much about privacy as it is about community, about being “part of it,” plugged in and online.

And this is a thread that runs through all communities, whether physical or digital, open or closed. While the exact conditions of any given membership in a community may be as infinite and diverse as DNA, communities are comprised of identical borders: you are in, or you’re not.

It is this socially defined border that I believe Martinez is critiquing. She is commenting on the emergence of a community of which she became a reluctant member. Like many, many people (perhaps yourself included?), Martinez joined Facebook because of “peer pressure.” Because her friends were there. And because, before she became a member, there had been so many parties that she missed because the invitations were sent exclusively through Facebook. Ergo she joined, albeit with hesitation, the Facebook community so that she, too, could be in the discourse.

Martinez’s decision is not doubt mirrored by millions of Facebook (and other platform) users. They join because their friends join. So while their friends are meeting and sharing, these individuals feel excluded. They’re on the outside. They are not part of a community; they’re on the wrong side of a digital divide. And this alienation can push people to either “cave in” and get an account, or to develop a visceral reaction to the entire platform altogether.

And Martinez takes this process one step further. She sets up a camera to take pictures of the installation’s visitors and co-opts her guests into being unwilling members of a “community.” This is the function of a participatory panopticon. For although you may voluntarily join a platform like Facebook, you can never really opt out of sousveillance. Because regardless of a personal choice to be “in or out”, online or off, there are plenty of people taking your picture anyway. So…don’t cry, you too will be included soon. The real question is, what do we do once we’re in?

Images (C) 2008. CBS 3 SPringfield .

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