Twitter is a reverse panopticon: The internal agent

Foucault in a frankly over cited discussion refers to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon- a hypothetical prison in which one never knows if one is being watched because there’s one way glass everywhere. The possibility of being watched instils behaviour similar to if one actually were being watched all the time. Eventually (and this is somewhat my own gloss) the hypothetical watcher becomes internalised within the “watched” person’s own psyche, potentially unreal, but structuring their behaviour and attitudes anyway.

Twitter (and I suspect other mediums like Tik Tok & Youtube) is like this, except instead of fearing(1) that someone important might be watching we are hoping someone important might be watching.

This hope that someone important might be watching reshapes all online consciousness, eventually becoming a kind of internal, clout seeking voice. If the superego is an internal disciplinarian that arises from the external discipline of our parents, I call this figure the internal agent and picture him as this guy, the first thing I found googling “sleazy Hollywood agent”:

Sleaze and racism in Netflix's Hollywood take shine off 'golden age' |  Financial Times

The Rosetta stone to Twitter is that most of the accounts you see on your feed are hoping to be discovered. I held back from saying this for a time because I was afraid that it was really only a reflection of my own weaknesses- “most people aren’t as narcissistic as you!” I thought. But I have slowly become convinced. Maybe not by total number of people, but certainly by total volume of tweets, far more than half of the people you see on Twitter are like the waiter in Hollywood who wants to tell you about his screen play. I think we all know of this Rosetta stone at some level, but partly out of good manners (often an enemy of social criticism), we keep our awareness submerged.

To reiterate, Twitter is an audition held in a panopticon and there’s probably no one on the other side of the glass

This has a couple of effects. Firstly, people are writing in a way which is implicitly dissatisfied with its real audience, aiming at an audience which is cooler and more popular than their actual readers. There’s something eerie about the fact that- at least to a limited degree they are not talking to you.

Secondly, people have sensibly realized that because it’s a very big audition they’ve got to stand out. Just being very good and incisive as a writer is not a great strategy for standing out. Too many people are playing that game- worse, too many people playing that game who also have something else to offer- e.g. good looks or a compelling life story. So if you want to win you’ve got to find a niche and that niche probably can’t just be “is a good writer” unless perhaps you are very good indeed, but a lot more people think they are exceptional than are.

As a further consequence of point two, people are more hostile because it’s an easy way to stand out.

Thirdly interactions have a subtly strategic relationship quality. This is most obvious when when people tweet things like “favourite this for a compliment” or “I reciprocate follows”, but those seem to me to be just the most obvious manifestations. This subtle air of “you help me stand out and I’ll help you stand out” is pervasive.

But fourthly, and above all, the joy of activity that is within itself -that does not point to some greater ambition- is tapered and in some cases eliminated.

You’ve probably already clocked that each of these four facets makes human interaction less authentic.

And all this for the sake of an internal mental observer that, as a general rule, isn’t real.

Now for the ironic part of the article. You can join our email list here: and join our subreddit here:

Panopticon - Wikipedia

(1) We are also fearing that someone might be watching and swoop down to cancel us, but that’s a discussion for another time. To briefly elaborate- not only are we seeking good publicity, we’re also afraid of the bad. The end result is that we’re doing all the work of celebrity with few of the rewards.

Note that I didn’t say “none of the rewards” there is a certain pleasure to the celebrity LARPing Twitter and related offer.

2 thoughts on “Twitter is a reverse panopticon: The internal agent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s