Through the lense of self tracking and social surveillance

Updated: Sep 23

Living in the digital age we are fortunate enough to benefit from many things like our smartphones, a lot of tasks are easier because of them and we can connect with people all over the world. However, we are quick to use our smartphones as a pastime. About 3.96 billion people use social media and every person has about 8.6 social media accounts. An average social media user spent 2 hours and 24 minutes each day on social media in 2020. If we spend 13% of our day on social media, it must influence us in some way. One effect that comes into play is social surveillance. Social surveillance by definition of Lyons is “Any collection and processing of personal data, whether identifiable or not, for the purpose of influencing or managing those whose data have been garnered” In the following article I want to discuss the effects of social surveillance on society and us as individuals.

We are living in a neoliberal society where the individual is autonomous and responsible for their own luck in life. That is why we are constantly trying to better ourselves to become our best self or “quantified-self”. To achieve this state we collect, record, and share data about ourselves with the help of our phones. Nowadays, every kind of app is on the market that helps the user keep track of their health, their water intake and really anything one could think of. This leads to the users constantly examining themselves. Of course, the individual can benefit from it and get a better understanding of their own behaviour patterns and how things affect them, it can also be a source of motivation.

Nevertheless, these self-tracking applications are one sided. Although you share a lot of data, these apps do not know the person behind it and are not aware of any personal circumstances. Additionally, apps make suggestions on how you would look like with for example “perfect” skin or a slimmer waist and this can trigger self-scrutiny. The app is pressuring the user to fit into social norms and puts pressure on the user to live up to such norms. At this moment it is important to reflect and ask yourself how you feel about it and what made you want to change your appearance or behaviour in the first place. These apps also trigger serious feminist issues and racial issues. Some “beauty” apps for example reshape eyelids or the facial structure, putting western and normative pressure on the user, neglecting other ethnicities. At the same time apps show women how to resemble the ideals of normative femininity leading to female bodies being a constant sight of crisis and regulation.

However, we are not only constantly tracking ourselves but also our peers. Through the usage of social media everybody is constantly gazing at others and is being gazed at; this is called horizontal surveillance. When we post something online, we seek positive feedback and want to feel validated by our peers. This however is not always the case, online hate is an increasing problem. Receiving negative comments will trigger scrutiny in the receiver and leads the individual to question many things about themselves. The need to fit in and to conform to social norms increases as well. According to Westlake (2009) people are offering themselves for surveillance and although they try to resist and be an unchangeable subject, they reinforce social norms. Additionally, certain people and body types are celebrated in pop culture, those few are being watched by the masses, this is called “synopticon”. Celebrities and influencers are under 360 24/7 surveillance and act as role models for many. They share content themselves on social media but also fill the headlines of many magazines. Although celebrities are the personification of society's norms even, they are being scrutinized for being too fat or too skinny, having wrinkles, cellulite and so on.

This has some serious implications on society. Women’s bodies for one are closely observed and scrutinized in pop culture making up the biggest part of media content. Women’s bodies are still quickly objectified and sexualized, and a woman’s appearance is closely connected to their right to speak. Pressuring women into normative femininity through social surveillance can also trigger postfeminist “melancholia” in the form of eating disorders, addiction, and self-harm.

It is a good and natural thing to strive for the best, and trying to become our quantified self. Technology can support us in achieving that goal, nevertheless it is important not to get too caught up in tracking ourselves and only concentrating on our “flaws”. Scrutinizing over every little thing about oneself would drive anybody mad, part of being human is being flawed and having little imperfections. Rather than fixing ourselves constantly, it is more important to accept yourself and to feel comfortable in your own skin.

Additionally, it is important to be aware of the fact that social surveillance is part of our daily lives. In recognizing this, we are able to process the content we see on social media each day in the proper way. Try to keep in mind that social norms are reinforced on social media and just because they are the norm, it does not mean that there aren’t any issues with them, for example the feminist issues which have been briefly discussed in the article. We all want to fit in but pressuring oneself to do so is not good for one's physical or mental health.

By: Elisa Klaffus



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