Virtual Communities

Virtual Communities

As the world becomes increasingly immersed within a digital society, it is important to understand the relationship between varying digital concepts. Following this notion, this post argues that networks, Goffman’s presentation of self, and sousveillance are integral parts in comprehending virtual communities.

The academic works of community can be traced back to the discussion of Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society), introduced by Ferdinand Tönnies. According to Tönnies, a community refers to the positive and reciprocal relationship based on the interactions of will between members of a unified societal space (2001:17-18). Virtual communities, however, are defined as social aggregations that emerge online, specifically when people “form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 1993: 5). The concept is fluid due to the dynamics of the social actors, which is thus open to reinvention. Researchers argue that virtual communities share characteristics such as bounds of interests and mind with Gemeinschaft (Rothaermel and Sugiyima, 2001; Etzioni and Etzioni, 1999).

One of the expectations of virtual communities is the establishment of egalitarian and democratic space as a result of the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft. Tönnies writes that, “in Gemeinschaft [communities] stay together in spite of everything that separates them; in Gesellschaft [communities] remain separate in spite of everything that unites them” (2001: 19). This shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, along with the subsequent clashing of communities and bonds, is compensated by the sphere of conviviality created online (Tönnies, 2001). Jones (1995) argues that the rapid expansion of computer-mediated communication and formations of virtual communities have significantly reshaped social relationships. He continues to write that users are motivated to participate in virtual communities in order to re-establish social bonds from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, ultimately creating a new sense of community. Thus, digital technology serves to connect individuals. The ability to exchange information and the motive to seek collective experiences is what successfully binds isolated individuals into a community in the digital age (Jones, 1995: 11).



Virtual communities are comprised of networks, a concept that has a long lineage in the social sciences. Georg Simmel first presented the idea of network theory and viewed people as ‘networking individuals living within networked cities’ (Simmel, 1903). A key component within networks is the personal network, an internal view based on the centralized position of the individual user. This concept was developed by Wellman, Carrington and Hall, who first defined communities as networks instead of localized neighborhoods comprised of social groups (1988: 131). Afterwards, Wellman coined the term ‘networked individualism’ alongside Castells (2001) to describe connected individuals and their relationship with the digital. This term was expanded by Rainie and Wellman, describing networked individualism as an operating system (2012: 7). They state that networks grow with new technologies, offering individuals more freedom and connectivity (2012: 9). They argue the internet constitutes the new neighborhood because it is more participatory than ever before (2012: 13). As a result, networked individuals create more complex identities because the boundaries of networks are more “permeable” (2012: 34). It is through the establishment of these kinds of networks that allows virtual communities to thrive.


Presentation of Self

An additionally important theory that influences virtual communities is Goffman’s dramaturgical presentation of self. According to Goffman’s theory, people have multiple target audiences within their social networks (Goffman, 1990). Depending on the specific audience, the self they present may differ (Papacharissi, 2012). We give our performance on the front stage. There, we participate in impression management: the attempt to present an idealized self to manage other people’s perceptions of us. Performance of the self and impression management are quite important considering virtual communities because self-presentation is always changing based on the audience and network. Cyberspace allows people to experiment with flexible identities due to the permeable boundaries of space and time.

The emphasis on performance of self within virtual communities’ transitions from McLuhan’s famous aside “the medium is the message” into “media are extensions of man” (1964: 12, 13). He considers technology a translation of one knowledge type into another stating, “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (1964: 47). This quote resonates today given the prevalence of social media networks, virtual communities, and the translation of self-online. McLuhan adds, this translation emerges as a new form of information and expression within virtual communities which may result in the “technological extension of consciousness” (1964: 47).



Finally, the concept of sousveillance is important to consider when discussing virtual communities. Sousveillance was coined by the global dictionary as “the recording of an activity from the perspective of a participant in the activity” (Mann, 2013: 6). In contrast to surveillance, it refers to the observation and recording of others by an entity not in a position of power or authority over the subject. Sousveillance is particularly present in virtual communities given the nature of the presentation of self, impression management. Applying sousveillance within virtual communities is easily facilitated by technology. Consequently, sousveillance affects behaviors in virtual communities and is ever present within the structure of digital platforms.

The post has argued that networks, presentation of the self and sousveillance are all inherent parts of virtual communities. Networks bind virtual communities while presentation of self is how we engage within them. Finally, sousveillance ties these two together as it functions as a form of soft control. Thus, these three concepts cannot be expelled from an understanding of virtual communities.



Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society.

London: Oxford University Press.

Goffman, E. (1990). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Jones, S. (1995). Cybersociety: computer-mediated communication and community.          London: Sage.

Rheingold, H. (1994). The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier. New        York: Harper Perennial.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Canada: McGraw-Hill


Mann, S., Nolan, J. and Wellman, B. (2003). Sousveillance: Inventing and using wearable            computing devices for data collection in surveillance environments. Surveillance &    society, 1(3), pp.331-355.

Papacharissi, Z. (2012). Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter.

International Journal of Communication, 6, 1989–2006.


Rainie, L. and Wellman, B. (2012). Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge:

The MIT Press.

Rothaermel, F. T. and Sugiyama, S. (2001). Virtual internet communities and commercial            success: individual and community-level theory grounded in the atypical case of Journal of Management, 27(3), pp. 297-312.

Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: homesteading on the electronic frontier. New        York: Harper Perennial.

Simmel, G. (1903). “The Metropolis and Mental Life” in the Sociology of Georg Simmel. New    York: The Free Press

Tönnies, F. (2001). Tönnies: Community and Civil Society. Edited by Harris, J. and Hollis, M.     Cambridge: University Press.

Wellman, B., Carrington, P. and Hall, A. (1988). Networks as personal communities. In:  Wellman, B. and Berkowitz, S.D., ed., Social Structures: A Network Approach. Volume            15 in Contemporary Studies in Sociology. London: Cambridge University Press. pp. 130  184.


The digital divide

The sociological term ‘digital divide’ refers to unequal access to information and communication technology based on social, economic, cultural and political factors. At its core, according to Ragnedda and Muschert (2013, p.10), it is the “difference between those who have access to the web versus those who do not.” However attempts to define the digital divide spread far beyond Ragnedda and Muschert’s conception. Other scholars have contested that the divide is between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ on who has access to information on the internet (Dobson and Willinsky, 2009; Eshet and Aviram, 2006 and Lupton, 2013).

However, the digital divide is not only a question of access the internet – digital constraints remain in place even for those who have online access due to questions of skills and literacy (Lupton, 2013; Ragnedda and Muschert, 2013). This is why Norris (2001) conceives of the digital divide as “any and every disparity within the online community”:

  • Between industrialised and developed societies (global divide)
  • Between information-rich and poor within a nation (social divide)
  • Between those who do and do not utilise digital resources to participate in social life (democratic divide)

Norris’ conception confirms the digital divide as a multidimensional phenomena. Measurement of it requires consideration of variables such as education, ethnicity, gender, geography, and socio-economic positions (Wessels, 2010 and Wilson, 2006).

Theoretical Explanation

The digital divide  is a concept, which finds its roots in more traditional ideas of social exclusion and inequality: Castells (2001, p.248) explained that “the differentiation between the internet ‘haves and have-nots,’ adds a fundamental cleavage to existing sources of inequality and social exclusion in a complex interaction”. Social exclusion is a similarly contested concept which blends ideas of power, inequality and class, particularly from Weber’s work on social closure (Burchardt et al, 2002) where higher classes monopolise access to opportunities (Weber ,1978). Exclusion is one mode of this closure where power is exercised down, with a higher group cutting off opportunities to the group beneath it (Parkin, 1982). However, post-Fordist economic change and concurrent failures in social welfare programmes (Evans, 1998) led to the concept of social exclusion gaining traction. It has sustained relevance into the 21st century due to its reapplication into the debate around the digital divide.

Much like the digital divide, social exclusion is difficult to define due to its contested nature. Most accounts agree that it is multi-dimensional (encompassing a variety of diverse measures) and dynamic (subject to change over time)(Reiser, 2004; Burchardt et al., 2002; Byrne, 2005; Levitas et al., 2007; Madanipour et al., 1998). These features demonstrate social exclusion to be context dependent, which explains why academics tend to agree that it is multi-dimensional without having any consensus on what these dimensions are. Burchardt et al (2002: 31) identified four measures:

  • Consumption: ability to purchase goods and services
  • Production: participation in the economy
  • Political engagement: involvement with decision making
  • Social interaction: integration with community

These criteria are all applicable to digital life – making the digital divide fundamentally a question of exclusion, only specifically digital rather than broadly social as Burchardt et al intended.


Social exclusion has faced criticism as its contested definitions have made it challenging to study empirically, as nuances or lack of clarity in definition impact on measurability (Levitas et al, 2007). The same issue is true of the digital divide, especially as it can be considered as a global, social or democratic divide. Additionally, to conceive of who is excluded and how, it requires a value judgement on what the ‘average citizen’ is able to enjoy which the excluded are unable to access (Levitas et al., 2007). Again, this adds complexity to considerations of the digital divide as an average level of digital literacy and access must be decided.

As well as social exclusion, the digital divide has been linked to inequality theory, creating new theory of digital discrimination or virtual inequality (Mossberger et al., 2003). Ragnedda and Muschert (2013, p.12) state that “the digital divide was a way in which the social inequalities are (re)produced in the digital age using the new technologies of communication”. Marxist readings of this inequality say digital spheres reproduce existing social inequality through repression of the lower class by the dominant class using capital accumulation and cultural hegemony. They add that the dominant class continue to exercise control in the digital sphere, particularly to promote their own classes way of life.

Fuchs (2008, p.215) analysed the digital divide through a Bourdieusian lens, considering it to include “unequal patterns of material access to, usage capabilities of, and benefits from computer-based information and communication technologies that are caused by certain stratification processes that produce classes of winners and losers of the information society, and of participation in institutions governing ICTs and society”. Van Djik (2005) added that using the “resources and appropriation theory of diffusion, acceptance and adoption of new technologies,” claims that the digital divide is formed by “unequal distribution of resources leading to unequal access to digital technology that brings about unequal participation in society. Therefore, “the digital divide is inevitably tied with the concept of social inequalities (ibid.).”

Therefore, the digital divide is a multi-dimensional phenomena which draws on existing theory – grounding itself in theory of inequality and social exclusion.


Burchardt, T; Le Grand, J and Piachaud, D. (2002) ‘Introduction’ and ‘Degrees of Exclusion: Developing a Dynamic, Multidimensional Measure’ from: Understanding Social Exclusion. Ed. Burchardt, T; Le Grand, J and Piachaud, D. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press

Byrne, D. (2005) Social Exclusion. 2nd ed. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.

Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dobson, T.M. & Willinsky J. (2009). Digital literacy. In D.R. Olson and N. Torrance (Eds) The      Cambridge handbook of literacy (286-312) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Evans, M. (1998) Beyond the Rhetoric: The Institutional Basis of Social Exclusion and Poverty. Institute of Development Studies Bulletin. Vol 29, Issue 1. Pp 42-49. Available at:

Eshet, Y. & Aviram, R. (2006). Towards a theory of digital literacy: Three scenarios for the next steps, European Journal of Open Distance E-Learning, I. [Accessed 17 October 2019]

Fuchs, C. (2008). Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age. New York: Routledge.

Levitas, R; Pantazis, C; Fahmy, E; Gordon, D; Lloyd, E and Patsios, D. (2007) The Multi-Dimensional Analysis of Social Exclusion. Bristol, UK: University of Bristol. Available at:

Lupton, D. (2013). Introducing Digital Sociology. Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Sydney.

Madanipour, A; Cars, G and Allen, J. (1998) Social Exclusion in European Cities: Processes, Experiences and Responses. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Mossberger, K., Tolbert, C. J. & Stansbury, M. (2003). Virtual inequality: Beyond the digital divide. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Norris, P. (2001). Digital divide: Civic engagement, information poverty, & the Internet worldwide. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Parkin, F. (1982) Max Weber. London, UK: Tavistock.

Ragnedda, M. & Muschert, G. W. (2013). The digital divide: The Internet and social inequality in international perspective. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Van Dijk, J. (2005). The deepening divide: Inequality in the information society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Weber, M. (1922) 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Ed. Roth, G and Wittich, C. Berkeley, CA: University of California.

Wessels, B. (2010) ‘Exclusion, Inclusion and the Internet’ from: Understanding the Internet: A Socio-Cultural Perspective. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Wilson, Ernest J. (2006). The information revolution and developing countries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Attention Economics


‘Attention economy’ covers a wide range of debates that stem from economics, media studies, and critiques from the social sciences. In 1971, as Herbert A. Simon described, this term came into being within the broader framework of the political economy to illustrate the pertinence of attention in a new world where there is an increasingly great repository of information.


Two important variables for understanding the concept of attention economy are information and attention itself. In utilitarian terms, information is only valuable insofar as it consumes attention. Due to the sheer volume of information available today, through the evolving mechanisms of mass media and networked publics, attention has essentially become a limited resource (boyd, 2010) and this development has consequently brought about a ‘scarcity of attention’ (Goldhaber, 2006). This scarcity, or ‘poverty’ of attention, is directly tied to the rise of the marketization of attention (Simon, 1971).

Marx identified a contradiction when he posited that capital aims to cut labour time in order to maximise surplus while concurrently seeing labour as the only ‘measure and source of wealth’ (Marx, 1973). Investment of attention has formerly been interpreted as a form of labour that generates surplus for the entities that monetize it (Fuchs, 2010). However, attention is exhausted by the numerous spaces for consumption that recent advances in technology have created – a process which may be understood as a form of exploitation that transcends the bounds of conventional labour (Terranova, 2004).



From Foucault’s perspective, industrial society was characterised by employing disciplinary techniques as a medium of power – ensuring that the productive capacities of the general population were channelled to the benefit of the capitalist system [‘normation’] (Foucault, 1973). However, later societal developments suggested a new apparatus of security (Foucault, 2009).

Foucault identified three features of this incoming apparatus. First of all, the individual is replaced by the entire public as the object of power. Secondly, the goal of exercising power is now ‘normalisation’ of autonomous behaviours as a way of optimizing them towards profitability. To achieve this goal, the means deployed is that of ‘governmentality’ instead of the Panopticon (Foucault, 2009), where the discernment of cumulative patterns enables normalisation to occur. These macro-trends are attributed a sense of ‘naturalness’ which allows them to be established as objective imprints of the population. Following this, attention becomes a direct factor in the evaluation of such imprints and may help ‘render them calculable’ (Bueno, 2016). According to Reigeluth (2014), this process can be located in the move towards ‘algorithmic governmentality’ and the increasing influence of the big data paradigm in the 21st century (Reigeluth, 2014). The pervasion of this medium of power is further cemented by networked publics and their qualities of persistence, replicability, scalability and searchability (Boyd, 2010).


Parallel to this development is the rise of the neoliberal self which has brought about individualism and instrumental rationality. This has also projected itself onto cyberspace and the mass media – ‘attention income’ (Franck, 2019) has become a form of capital, and its value is beginning to exceed that of mere financial income. Actors monetize this form of income in multiple ways (Goodwin et al., 2016). Online platforms and mass media profit from renting out their space to advertisers, who subsequently benefit from targeted marketing.

For individuals, attention income is social capital which helps in defining a branded self – a requirement that has arisen after the curtailment of the welfare state (Hearn, 2008). Branding of the self refers to the strategic management of self-presentations, including the provision of “details of personal daily life” for public consumption (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Platforms like Facebook serve as markets for these brands to be traded amongst people in the form of user-generated content, leading to an unequal distribution of social capital.

It is therefore pertinent to consider that these platforms are based on a ‘prosumption’ model, which means that users produce user-generated content along with consuming the content of others (Ritzer and Jurgenson, 2010). While platforms position their businesses as neutral facilitators (van Dijck, 2014), the ability to navigate them becomes a valuable skill in this context. As millions of users start prosuming, saturation engenders competition for attention. This has been considered an indication of the emergence of a new form of socioeconomic Darwinism that is characteristic of neoliberalism (Terranova, 2012; Faucher, 2014). One illustration of this is the ‘rank decay’ coded into algorithms, which requires regular engagement with audiences in order to retain social capital earned previously. Attention captured can hence be analogized to wages, earned in the currency of feedback cues such as likes on Instagram. (Faucher, 2014)


Attention economics has gained a lot of traction in the fields of business studies, marketing and economics. Harvard Business School Professor Thales Teixeira (2014) has stated that the quality of consumer attention has had an inverse relationship to the amount of information, which has led to consumers being less interested in the content of advertisements as well as the products they encounter. He then proceeds to recommend that to attain better conversion rates, advertising strategies should be tailored by businesses in order to account for consumers’ limited attention spans.

Social psychology is another discipline where the rise of attention economics, as a consequence of the circulation of vast amounts of information, has been studied. Past research has talked about how this phenomenon is leading to a ‘degradation of attention’ due to a relocation of neural activity from the hippocampus [associated with the ability to comprehend complex tasks] to the prefrontal context [associated with the ability to multitask, but for short intervals] (Terranova, 2012, p. 4).



Banet-Weiser, S. (2012) Authentic: The politics of ambivalence in a brand culture. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J. (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

boyd, d. (2010) ‘Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications’, in Papacharissi, Z. (ed.) Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites. Routledge.

Bueno, C.C. (2016) ‘An Immanent Critique of the Attention Economy’, OXÍMORA Revista Internacional de Ética y Política, (9), pp. 105-125.

Faucher, K.X. (2014) ‘Veblen 2.0: neoliberal games of social capital and the attention economy as conspicuous consumption’, tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 12(1), pp. 40-56.

Foucault, M. (1995) Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Foucault, M. (2009) Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the Collège de France 1977-1978. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Franck, G. (2019) ‘The economy of attention’, Journal of Sociology, 55(1), pp. 8-19.

Fuchs, C. (2010) ‘Labor in Informational Capitalism and on the Internet’, The Information Society, 26(3), pp. 179-196.

Goldhaber, M. (2006) ‘The value of openness in an attention economy’. First Monday 11. Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2019).

Goodwin, I., Griffin, C., Lyons, A., McCreanor, T. and Moewaka Barnes, H. (2016) ‘Precarious popularity: Facebook drinking photos, the attention economy, and the regime of the branded self’, Social Media + Society, 2(1), p.2056305116628889.

Hearn, A. (2008) ‘Meat, mask, burden: Probing the contours of the branded “self.”’ Journal of Consumer Culture, 8, pp. 197–217.

Marx, K. (1973) Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin.

Reigeluth, T.B. (2014) ‘Why data is not enough: Digital traces as control of self and self-control.’, Surveillance & Society, 12(2), pp. 243-254.

Ritzer, G. and Jurgenson, N. (2010) ‘Production, consumption, prosumption: The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital “prosumer”’, Journal of Consumer Culture 10(1), pp 13-36.

Simon, H. A. (1971) ‘Designing organizations for an information-rich world’, in Greenberg, M. (ed.) Computers, Communication, and the Public Interest. Maryland: Johns Hopkins University press.

Teixeira, T. (2014) ‘The Rising Cost of Consumer Attention: Why You Should Care, and What You Can Do About It.’ Harvard Business School working paper. Jan 17, 2014

Terranova, T. (2004) Network culture: politics for the information age. London: Pluto Press.

Terranova, T. (2012) ‘Attention, economy and the brain.’ Culture Machine, 13.

van Dijck, J. (2014) ‘Datafication, dataism and dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology.’, Surveillance & Society, 12(2), pp. 197-208.

The Digital Self

When it comes to the presentation of self, the framework called dramaturgical analysis coined by Erving Goffman is worth a mention. Goffman employed the theatre as an analogy to illustrate the different facets of the self, which can be considered as an aggregation of roles that we playout for the different audiences in certain situations. In Goffman’s analogy we are ‘actors’ who ‘perform’ the self on the ‘front stage’ of social interaction, hoping to guide how our ‘audience’ (the other people in an interaction) see us through ‘impression management’ (Goffman, 1990). Goffman (1990) argues that a person consciously and unconsciously performs the self while at the same time evaluating the meaning of their performance. He refers to Park (1950) who understands the person firstly as a mask. Park states: “It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role (. . .) It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves”(Park, 1950, p.249).

Zhao (2005) discusses digital self-construction and emphasises the role of online interactions. She argues that the digital self is formed without the influence of non-verbal feedback and traditional environmental factors. The existence of a “digital self” does not mean that the self is divided into physical and digital parts, but the emphasis is on the “E-Audience”. This “E-Audience” witnesses us on the ‘Front stage’ of the internet, like in the form of social media profiles, when we post and interact (Zhao, 2005).

Indeed, Bullingham & Vasconcelos (2013) find that we recreate our “offline” selves online, but that we ‘edit’ them. One form of this ‘editing’ is an embellishment by which users can dissimulate images or exaggerate events based on the existing situation, rather than construct a new identity (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013). Another form is selectively choosing specific aspects of multiple offline selves and showcasing it to other audiences online. For example, on Instagram, we often only post the photos which make ourselves and our lifestyles look the best. It is a form of omission, and exaggeration when filters are used. With regards to Goffman’s dramaturgical analogy, this ‘editing’ of our online presentations could be seen as part of impression management for our “E-audience”. The strategies used to manage impressions, hence our interactions, are essential as they determine whether or not a relationship is established (Derlega, et al., 1987).

Additionally, personae adoption and external influences affect users to decide whether they fit a community or anonymizing identity (Boellstorff, 2008).  In contrast to personae adoption, another manifestation of presenting selves is recreating the offline selves online. Bullingham & Vasconcelos (2013) argue that we recreate our offline self online. For example, users may design their avatars as similar to their faces or use nicknames as their pseudonyms (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013). Moreover, both phenomena can exist at the same time, presenting one’s ‘real self’ while creating new self on other platforms (Bullingham & Vasconcelos, 2013).

In this uncertain environment, users may come across dilemmas on how to accord authenticity and positive self (Greene, et al., 2006). As Suvi Uski argued, a successful self-presentation online requires elaboration to reduce conflict between the presentation of online self and offline self to reach uniformity as a single and consistent narrative (Uski, 2015).


Boellstorff, T., 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bullingham, L. & Vasconcelos, A. C., 2013. ‘The presentation of self in the online world’: Goffman and the study of online identities, Journal of Information Science, 39(1), pp. 101-112.

Derlega, V., Winstead, B., Wong, P. & Greenspan, M., 1987. Self-disclosure and relationship development: An attributional analysis. Interpersonal processes: New directions in communication research, 14(1987), pp. 172-187.

Goffman, I. (1990) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday LIfe. Penguin Books.

Goffman, E., 1982. ‘The Interaction Order: American Sociological Association’, American Sociological Review, 48(1983), pp. 1-17.

Greene, K., Derlega, V. & Mathews , A., 2006. Self-disclosure in personal relationships. Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships, Issue 2006, pp. 409-427.

Park, R. E. (1950) Race and Culture (Glencoe.|lll.: The Free Press), p. 249.

Uski, S., 2015. Self-presentation in social network services. Helsinki: Publications of the Department of Social Research.

Waggoner, Z., 2009. My avatar, my self: identity in video role-playing games. McFarland: Jefferson.

Zhao, Shanyang. (2005) “The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others”, Symbolic Interaction, 28(3), pp. 387-405.




Surveillance is not a novel concept; it has been discussed and debated by many scholars since the 18th century (Galič et al., 2017). But as society and the digital have developed in tandem, how scholars have theorized about surveillance has also evolved in various directions. Here, surveillance will be categorized in three different forms: top-down, bottom-up, and horizontal.

Top-Down Surveillance

One basis for conceptualizing surveillance uses Foucault’s (1995) discussion on prisons and power, and particularly the panopticon (Bentham, cited in Foucault, 1995) as a system of discipline via surveillance. The panopticon “[induces] in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 1995; p. 201) through constant, unverifiable surveillance. However, Deleuze (1992) argues that society has shifted from discipline to control, in which institutions have become corporations. Compared with long-term and government-issued goals that discipline society aims to reach, corporations focus on short-term results which can be achieved by continuous monitoring and assessment of markets, workforces, and strategies (Galič et al., 2017). Moreover, according to Haggerty and Ericson (2000), Foucault’s description focuses more on transformations of total institutions, and fails to directly engage current development in surveillance.

Societal oversight, with the rise of technologies allowing surveillance, has been expanded to the daily by authorities justifying visibility through “concerns over issues such as crime, terrorism, and economic competitiveness” (Marx, 2003, p. 370). Specifically, dataveillance, defined by Clarke (1988, p. 499) as “the systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring”, is one way that governments and corporations authorities undertake surveillance. For governments, it is a method to trace (potential) terrorists and do predictive analysis to protect borders, control international financial flows, etc. (Amoore and De Goede, 2005).

Nowadays, surveillance has been successfully applied to the field of marketing. Users’ data is tracked through their web surfing habits, and made valuable as users may be potential consumers for companies. Rettberg (2014) illustrates that websites use users’ demographic information, status updates, and private messages to customise the news and advertisements. For example, a woman might see advertisements for wedding dresses if she changes her status to ‘Engaged’. Therefore, the chance of profits increases with ads targeted at specific consumers. However, it can also threaten individuals’ privacy, which affects political rights and democratic participation. Privacy is important because it is not only related to individual liberty, but also ‘civil or social liberty because it helps to establish the boundaries for the exercise of power’ (Regan, 2000, p. 225; Goold, 2010).

Bottom-Up Surveillance 

Another type of surveillance, operating within a bottom-up framework, called sousveillance is described by Mann, Nolan and Wellman (2003) as the use of monitoring and tracking technologies to mirror and confront powerful organizations. In effect, this creates an “inverse panopticon” (p. 332), thus equalizing the classic top-down relation. Since powerful entities have access to everyone’s personal data, individuals can also attempt to watch back. Many scholars (Galič et al., 2017) see it as a resistance to current forms of surveillance and dataveillance. Sousveillance can be seen as a form of this resistance, one of the many repertoires Marx (2003) identifies for the purpose of neutralizing surveillance and denying social control.

Horizontal Surveillance 

Surveillance that occurs within relationships of similar or equal power can be called horizontal surveillance, or coveillance and social surveillance. Coveillance refers to situations of equal power in surveillance, where citizens or corporations monitor each other (Mann, Nolan, and Wellman, 2003, p. 338-9). The term social surveillance comes with the development of social media, like Twitter or Facebook. According to Marwick (2012), social surveillance can be distinguished from traditional surveillance in three traits: power, hierarchy and reciprocity. Power flows from all social relationships, especially between individuals. Additionally, social media users engaged in social surveillance provide online content that is surveilled by other users, for example through Facebook stalking. Compared with classic surveillance or sousveillance, social surveillance is much more horizontal, as it occurs between individuals with equal power.

Surveillance, among all three of these relations, deals with the power relations between different actors, whether individuals, governments, or corporations. Although surveillance is usually understood according to Foucault’s (1995) panopticon model of societal control of individuals by authorities, in the digital age this relationship has been complicated through new forms of watching, including sousveillance, coveillance, social surveillance, or dataveillance (Mann, Nolan, and Wellman, 2003; Marwick, 2012; Clarke, 1988). Since the surveillance system has already penetrated daily life, everyone is willingly or unwillingly involved in the panoptic mechanism. In the future, there may emerge many new terms regarding surveillance, and privacy issues could also rise to citizens’ attention.




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Edited by Group 7

Qingqing Zhang

Yancheng Ou

Siqi Li

Andra Enuica



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