Social Media as Surveillance

Trottier, Daniel
Ashgate, Aldershot
9781409438892 (hb)

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Cover of book The rise of Web 2.0, the media user-producer (‘produser’), social media, mobile smart phones and the like certainly demands some thinking about. The power of these phenomenal computing networks, with logging, cataloguing and facial-recognition capabilities is truly astounding. Collecting data on likes, dislikes, what people are looking for; it is no surprise that the biggest advertising agency in the world is now Google.

What is more, as users we are all providing the data entry work and churn of generating content and connecting with others, tagging, linking, tweeting, pinning ourselves and others into a massive web database. We’re not like the information workers in an Orwellian dystopia - paid to quietly manipulate data in a darkened back room - we are doing it ourselves, gleefully, 24 hours a day and paying for the privilege. In this way, Trottier’s timely and thought-provoking book is examining social themes that flow more from Neil Postman’s 1985 Amusing Ourselves To Death or Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World, a world where we happily participate in our own ‘surveillance’ by promoting ourselves through modern social media. This scholarly book is far more wide ranging than the title may at first imply. It is more generally about how social media changes the way we live our lives and the impacts it has on identity both private and publically perceived. What Trottier has achieved with Social Media as Surveillance is useful breadth in a cohesive, accessible, well delivered and thoughtful guide through these issues and concepts associated with contemporary on-line life. Fixed in a clear structure with early introductions of concepts, overviews, literature reviews and subsequent chapters exploring topics such as interpersonal, institutional and marketing uses of surveillance, this work discusses the changes and challenges of living online and, as such, what kind of environment this ‘digital enclosure’ presents. The final chapters include ‘What’s social about social media?’ and a chapter of conclusions and recommendations.

Trottier looks at the development of social media: its growth over two decades, its commercialisation and its data gathering capabilities for marketing (and other) purposes. With devices such as cell phones we are tracked through not only what we search but also our geo-location, which takes this surveillance a stage further. We often provide photos of ourselves (the notorious ‘selfie’) and others which further inform on our whereabouts, who we are with and what we are doing. One would think that to talk about modern social media as surveillance sounds both obvious and a little overly paranoid of ‘Big Brother’, but Trottier’s delivery is far more nuanced and is engaged with useful scholarship in the field.

Trottier also discusses the arguments about the ‘democratisation’ of the media with the rise of the prod-user with refreshing insights that acknowledge the commodification of human creativity and that the users themselves are the biggest commodity.

The need for individual reputation management, fluidity of identity and the potential for mis-interpretation, rumour and innuendo to damage reputation (through perhaps an ambiguous image or even mistaken identity) is another thoughtful inclusion in the work. We live in a time when many are rarely without their mobile connection and our fleeting thoughts and actions are fixed and available for public viewing. This is a time when employers check potential employee’s online reputation, a time when we hear reports of abuses of social media such as on-line stalking, identity theft, and more. Daniel Trottier has produced a wide-ranging book with thought-proving discussion and examples that would serve well as both an introduction to this area and to add to a media studies library on the topic of social media and everyday life.

Andrew Mason
University of Southern Queensland, Australia