Participatory Surveillance: A critique of our focus on big brother

One common misconception of surveillance studies is that by and large those who engage with this academic field study humongous and dangerous macro scale conspiracies and hierarchy based surveillance.  Indeed, this is a sentiment I fell into until I became more familiar with the field (and subsequently fell deeply in love with the literature).  Just the same, state and corporate surveillance is a major topic and theme in sociology—however, there is also a focus on the mundane.

In a folklore methods course I took in my undergraduate—the professor, Dr. John Bodner, lectured that common sense is a dangerous rhetoric.  Common sense embodies the mundane.  The mundane everyday things that we take for granted.  This could be the various privileges we do or don’t enjoy.  The shade of our gender.  The colour of our skin.  The tones of our voices and pronunciations.  All of these common sense social things are vastly complicated and have real consequences on our life choices.  Common sense is in fact a complex sense.  Because this common sense is embedded in our social relations—it is of direct relevance to a sociologist.  The mundane is actually quite interesting and when engaged through sociological methodology, we can learn an awful lot about human nature (and as relevant to this post, technology).

Surveillance as a value neutral activity is very much embedded in our everyday life.  A very capturing report by The New Transparency titled Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada offers an overview of how surveillance is embedded in the everyday lives of Canadians.  This report is written in a capturing way that is accessible to those who are not familiar with heavy and dense academic jargon.  We are surveiled by our digital technology for marketing and national security.  But we also engage in surveiling each other through the use of social media.  An example of this is when you “creep” or engaging in browsing a friends (or strangers) photos and status updates.  Anyone with a social media connection (Facebook, Instagram or Twitter and many others) engages in this activity.

The point I really want to touch on is that surveillance isn’t always terrible, scary, invasive and big brother(ish).  However, I am not proposing the opposite either.  Surveillance is not inherently good or useful.  Surveillance does not necessarily translate into safety.  One of my favorite sociologists, José van Dijck (2012), maintains that, “connectivity is premised on a double logic of empowerment and exploitation” (144).  I’d like to approach this topic with a curious excitement, as well as caution.  Though we may use communication technology and social media in empowering ways—the Internet is run by powerful corporations who are mandated to swing (large) profits.

I would like to talk about one interesting piece of literature in particular—Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance written by Anders Albrechtslund.  It is an informative and fun read that sets out to address some of the more conspiracy driven surveillance theories.  It can be found here for free published by First Monday.  Albrechtslund, among other things, addresses the dystopian discourse of surveillance.  So what is ‘participatory surveillance’?  According to Albrechtslund, “The practice of online social networking can be seen as empowering, as it is a way to voluntarily engage with other people and construct identities, and it can thus be described as participatory”.  Rather than surveillance in its original dystopic conception as destroying and rendering the subject as powerless and watched over, Albrechtslund suggests that surveillance in social media sites actually produces subjectivity (identity and community) and empowers users in a social realm that flattens (gets rid of) power relations.  In other words, surveillance is not the work of Big Brother, but the interactions of people, strangers and friends, in producing and sharing content online.

In a short and sweet summary of Albrechslund’s conception of participatory surveillance—it galvanizes the user to participate in the construction of identity, through identity construction it empowers the user to grow as a human being, and allows a sense of interactive community through the sharing of user-generated content.  We construct our identities through the use of user-generated content (posting photos, updating statuses and writing autobiographies), we engage in watching and surveiling other user’s content through our feeds or the act of ‘creeping’ while at the same time other users are engaged in surveiling us.  And finally, we are building an information economy of shared content.  All of this occurs through a horizontal power dynamic where instead of surveillance being situated in some state or corporate center—it is spread out in a complex collection of networks that are comprised of us.

I’d like to end this blog post with a thought about human nature (likely a thought that will charge the topic covered in my next post).  Engaging in participatory surveillance and social networking sites are inherently ‘anarchistic’ interactions.  I would like to proceed with caution with this word ‘anarchy’ as it is incredibly media saturated by negative latent meaning.   By anarchistic I mean that the sharing of user-generated content occurs outside of the normalized capitalist ontology of profit (we only do things to make more cash).    Think of all of those interest groups on Facebook where people share ideas with strangers and volunteer there time to generate content for free.  The Internet offers us so many great examples of human nature as inherently cooperative, and not strictly competitive.  Just a thought, but perhaps the Internet provides us with the context to shape human nature itself.



Albrechtslund, Anders. “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance.” First Monday 13.3 (2008). Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

van Dijck, José. “Facebook and the engineering of connectivity: A multi-layered approach to social media platforms.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 19.2 (2012): 141-155. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.


About Abigail Curlew

Abigail Curlew is a PhD student of the sociology of surveillance at Carleton University, a freelance journalist, and an activist. She writes to bring attention to surveillance issues in technology, media, and politics in order to inform the public of the threat of ubiquitous watching.