The Opt-in Panopticon

A story is making the rounds about a Swiss woman who was fired by her employer after they saw her active on Facebook while she had told them she was too ill to work with a computer and stayed home.

Regardless of the facts of the story above, it does illustrate a new dynamic that we are all wrestling with as a society: how to balance our personal, private, and professional identities online.

Welcome to the opt-in panopticon, where you chose to make your online activity easily observed by others.

A panopticon is a type of prison design proposed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The design allowed every prisoner to be viewed from a single point, which creates the perception among prisoners that they are always being observed, even when they are not. The design is still influencing prison design today.

In the context of social media, we are moving to an online environment where we are all prisoners and guards in the panopticon. The more you use social media to reflect your current status and actions (think Twitter or Facebook status updates) the more you are placing yourself into a self-imposed panopticon. You never know who might be following your actions so you must behave as if everyone is following them. This includes: friends, family, spouses, children, employers, employees, clients, members, IRS agents, you name it!

This is certainly a rather negative analogy and ignores the benefits of social networking and other participatory media. However, it is a genuine factor to be aware of and prepared for.

Some things to consider for yourself and your staff or volunteers:

  • Educate staff and volunteers to this new dynamic and how the separation of personal and professional online is increasingly hard to maintain;
  • Set expectations for representing the organization online;
  • Be forgiving. The next variation of Warhol’s famous aphorism may be that we will all be stupid online for 15 minutes. If you fire everyone who makes a mistake online you’ll have very few people left!

What do you think? How might this impact your organization and how you work with your staff and volunteer leaders?

One thought on “The Opt-in Panopticon

  1. With the projected growth of online and virtual association services, the opt-in panoptican concept is alive and well. Associations should develop — in 3G speed — policies, performance expectations, SOP or another protocol for online “behaviors.” These guidelines should be established ideally before the association leaps into social media, expanded digital services, etc.

    Recognizing, however, that many non-profits have already made the leap, it is important that parameters are established which allow for the vibrant interactive nature of virtual space. At the same time, the association must ensure that online activities advance mission, offer member value, and protect or preferably promote the association brand.

    Training? Definitely. Ongoing review of virtual association services, interactions, etc? Definitely.

    We clearly are not in Kansas anymore.

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