The Hidden Side of Social Media

Ever since the first telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1877 (Goggin, 2006, pg. 20), there has always been a push by the government or other powerful entities to surveil it. In 1926, federal agents prosecuted a bootlegger named Roy Olmstead for violating prohibition laws by illegally wiretapping him. In 1928, the Supreme Court case found Olmstead guilty by a majority decision, stating the governments right to use wiretaps to gather evidence in criminal investigations, marking this event as the first time wiretapping was allowed to prosecute a criminal (Price, 2013;McClary 2002). The American public was outraged by the decision, and it prompted Justice Louis Brandeis, who served on the case, to warn: “Crime is contagious.  If the Government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy. To declare that the Government may commit crimes in order to secure the conviction of a private criminal would bring terrible retribution.”(Price, 2013) In 2001 the USA Patriot Act was signed into law which bridged the gap between investigations and espionage allowing surveillance of phones and Internet activity by the FBI, CIA, and NRA without public oversight (Price, 2013). Since the release of mobile phones in 1983 and the activation of social media in the early millennium, this has created a new avenue for surveillance not only by government powers, but also our peers (Farmen, 2012, pg. 17-19).


 In The Public Domain: Surveillance in Everyday Life, Alice Marwick’s goal is to theorize a type of online surveillance known as social surveillance. The more typical structured type of surveillance is defined as “the focused, systematic and routine attention to personal details for purposes of influence, management, protection or direction”(Lyon, 2007). This is usually engaged by entities in the position of power. Social surveillance is defined by Marwick as an ongoing investigation between peers for information gathering, mostly through social media (2012, pg. 382). In the article Marwick points out that social surveillance differs from traditional hierarchical practices in three key categories: Power, Hierarchy, and Reciprocity. She also includes three case studies to back up her arguments: Social Roles on Facebook, Facebook Stalking, and Lifestreaming.

For power she touches on the hierarchical model of power, which is imposed by a person of power to centralize control on their subjects. As an alternative to this model Marwick brings into play the theory called “capillaries of power,” a term coined by Michel Foucault, in which he states that power is an ever-present flow between networks and individuals. As an example Marwick points out that gender norms are constructed through millions of interpersonal moments in which male and female conventions are reinforced, policed, or resisted and power is negotiated between individual not patriarchal entities (2012, pg. 383). Although it may be true that these types of stigmas aren’t controlled in corporate back rooms, I’m not so sure it’s wise to completely let corporate institutions off the hook for propagating them. Corporate media has let stereotypes linger for decades on television and radio, from Amos and Andy to representations of other minorities. The media has also popularized the notion that surveillance keeps us safe through shows like law and order and CSI (it’s usually because of some type of surveillance that the case gets solved). I believe the “capillaries of power” is correct in that individuals are ultimately responsible for determining social norms, but certain ideologies can also be nudged along by corporate organizations.

The second category Marwick touches on is Hierarchy. Where conventional surveillance is an asymmetrical practice where information is gathered through an anonymous entity, social surveillance takes place between individuals (2012, pg. 382). Although this interaction is between two individuals, social surveillance does recognize social hierarchy as not all members are of equal societal stature. “Social media creates a false sense of equivalence between users through flattening social relationships and eliminating context”(2012, pg. 386), Marwick points out in her social roles case study, that the term “friend,” relating to social media, flattens the hierarchical paradigm, but since most users usually friend those of power in their social circles, such as bosses or parents, this creates a new dynamic of social roles re-asserting themselves (2012, pg. 385).  She points out that in face-to-face interactions, most people curb their personalities based on the audience they are in such as the language used when hanging out with your friends as opposed to catching a drink with your boss. Marwick makes the point that social media blurs the boundaries between our private lives and professionals ones (2012, pg. 386). Anyone who has done research on the hiring process of employees knows this to be true (Richmond, 2013). Our LinkedIn pages should look nothing like how our Facebook or Twitter pages do in regards to content, but employers, and others of higher social order, use all three (perhaps more) to formulate an image of us based on our cyber profile. This constant surveillance by those of “power” can lead to a society that has no control over their public image. Our privacy is something we have to work to maintain instead of expected to be there (2012, pg. 391) What this means is every time you go out to a social event you must be vigilant of how social media is being used through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, some one can take a unflattering picture of you and upload it online, and without context it can be used by others to construct a false image of you. We’ve seen many times when people take privacy for granted, believing they are in a “safe zone,” and being caught through social media doing something inappropriate. Two great examples for this are Michael michael-phelps-2-425oly-020109Phelps who had a picture of him taken smoking a waterpipe at a student party at USC, and Josh Hamilton, who has a long history with drugs and alcohol addiction, was caught getting drunk at a bar (Macur, 2009;Gann, 2012). Both josh hamiltoncases were highly reported, and painted a picture of the two as bad people, which may have been unfair and inaccurate.

Lastly the third category Marwick talks about is reciprocity. The characteristic of reciprocity in social surveillance is that people who surveil others online are also producing content that can be surveilled. In the lifestreaming case study, Marwick says that on social media sites “there is an explicit decision to make a piece of information available to friends,” she goes on to say that people expose themselves to social surveillance for the attention and visibility is garners from their peers (2012, pg. 389). One problem with including reciprocity to this list is that it relies on the idea that both individuals are equally engaging in the act of broadcasting. If only one party is contributing and the other is not, this creates an asymmetrical platform; becoming a tool for lateral surveillance (nontransparent monitoring of citizens by one another)(Andrejevic, 2006; Humphreys, 2011). This lateral surveillance runs along the same vein as traditional surveillance, by using the same practice of nontransperancy (Andrejevic, 2006, pg. 398). Since the network is built upon the contribution of its members, dormant contributors can diminish the value of the network ultimately weakening the system (Humphreys, 2011, pg. 585).

There is no doubt that social technologies have made the lives of many people much better. It creates and maintains friendships that may otherwise not exist, and it also keeps online communities up to speed on what’s happening within their social network. The problem I have with social surveillance is what Marwick calls “context collapse,” which is how social technology has allowed those of “power,” whether in the work place or at home, to hold sway over how we express ourselves. Ever since I’ve learned how employers use our online profile to make hiring decisions, I’ve dialed back the things I post and the things I say considerably.  For those looking to get a career job and for those who have one, social surveillance has worked its way into our physical world. It is important now to keep a professional image at any social function because it can be you who has their picture plastered on Facebook in an unflattering way, as I pointed out earlier in the Michael Phelps case. The barriers between the virtual and physical world have all but evaporated. In Marwick’s article she uses a quote by author Christena Nippert-Eng, which states that technologies have muddled contexts in that people are now required to transform their mind frame to accommodate any mentality to suite an occasion, such getting a call from a boss or retracting a status update online (2012, pg. 386). In the end I think when social media loses the ability of its members to express themselves freely without possible repercussions, that is when we will see an influx of dormant users and the devaluing of the network at a whole.

Works Cited

Farman, Jason. (2012). “Historicizing Mobile Media: Locating Transformations of Embodied Space,” The Mobile Media Reader. New York: Peter Lang. P. 17-19.

Gann, C. (2012, February 3). Baseball MVP Josh Hamilton Suffers Addiction Relapse. ABC News. Retrieved February 19, 2014, from

Goggin, Gerard. (2006). Cell Phone Culture: Mobile technology in everyday life. London: Routledge. Chapter 5, p. 89-103.

Humphreys, L. (2011). Who’s Watching Whom? A Study of Interactive Technology and Surveillance. Journal of Communication61(4), 575-595.

Macur, J. (2009, February 5). Phelps Disciplined Over Marijuana Pipe Retrieved February 19, 2014, from

Marwick, Alice E. 2012. “The Public Domain: Surveillance in Everyday Life.” Surveillance & Society 9(4):378–393.

McClary, D. (2002, November 13). Olmstead, Roy (1886-1966) — King of King County Bootleggers. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

Price, D. (n.d.). A Social History of Wiretaps. » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

Richmond, A. (2013, November 21). Don’t Let Social Media Derail Your Career — Use It To Attract Potential Employers.Forbes. Retrieved February 20, 2014, from

Josh Hamilton [Web Photo]. Retrieved From

Michael Phelps-What A Dope [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Internet [Web Photo]. Retrieved from

Life In A Glass House-Radiohead [Web]. (2009). Retrieved from


One thought on “The Hidden Side of Social Media”

  1. You make some really great points about our use of social media, we post photo’s on Facebook and Instagram for the attention of others. Though we are all guilty of surveying those we are friends with on Facebook and read pages on pages of anonymous Twitter pages. All of us students really do need to be careful of what we post and what we allow of ourselves to be posted on social media. Especially with Twitters like TempleMakeouts, TempleConfessions, and PassedoutTU; these are all anonymous Twitters that students contribute to, they will enter a confession, post a photo of someone making-out at a party, or of a friend who fell asleep in a funny place. With sites like these you really have to watch what you do and who is around to possibly post these things about you. The Internet is forever.

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