The Naked Crowd is not literal but figurative; one is not able to touch the Naked Crowd because it is a metaphor describing an online community which values exposure in an attempt to gain an emotional connection. In “The Naked Crowd,” Jeffrey Rosen argues that spilling secrets to strangers is how one achieves trust within an online community because giving away one’s privacy freely means one has nothing to hide; therefore, entrance into the Naked Crowd is based upon one’s willingness to surrender innermost details to strangers. “Intimacy and trust are increasingly obtained not by shared experiences or social status but by self-revelation” (J. Rosen 410). While it is true that “self-revelation” allows strangers to trust and form intimate online relationships, Rosen’s analysis of the Naked Crowd overlooks the underlying exchange of power present within “self-revelation.” By revealing oneself online in order to gain entrance within the Naked Crowd, one exchanges power with those in the online community because everyone is vulnerable; therefore, everyone has equal power within the Naked Crowd because everyone’s privacy is now public. Surrendering over privacy to prove one has nothing to hide does not equal the surrendering of power because power is everywhere and cannot reside within the grasp of one agent.
The privacy-consuming community of Facebook is an example of an online space where users achieve trust through self-exposure; thus, an analysis of this social network will show how an exchange of power is at the basis of these online connections. Trust is indeed achieved within Facebook in the way Rosen argues; however, this trust is the product of an exchange of power. To further explore this argument, it is necessary to explain Foucault’s theory of power and use it to show how an exchange of power is at the center of the Naked Crowd of Facebook. Furthermore, this analysis will show how this power exchange within the Naked Crowd of Facebook is an attack on the public sphere.
The fundamental principle within Foucault’s complex analysis of power is the idea that “power is everywhere.”
Power’s condition of possibility…must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point…The omnipresence of power: not because it has the privilege of consolidating everything under its invincible unity, but because it is produced from one moment to the next, at every point, or rather in every relation from one point to another. Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere. (Foucault 93)
Power does not originate from a “central point” because it is ubiquitous. Foucault’s exact language is “omnipresent” which likens power to common notions about the power of God. In Christianity, God is omnipotent and “omnipresent;” therefore, Foucault’s use of this language employs God as a metaphor, meaning that power is unstoppable and invincible, strategically emphasizing the importance and centrality of power within society. He argues that power is “omnipresent” because interactions produce and exchange power from “one point to another.” Within the Naked Crowd, power is exchanged among online users of Facebook each time one surrenders over his or her innermost secrets. Power is not “a group of institutions and mechanisms that ensure the subservience of citizens,” but rather, an agent present in everything, but more specifically everyone. Everyone has power because it “comes from everywhere” (Foucault 92-93). Using his analysis of power, one is able to explain how power is the fundamental agent within the Naked Crowd of Facebook. Because power is everywhere, it can be constantly exchanged within Facebook as online users surrender intimate details of their lives in an attempt to gain each other’s trust.
Conversely, if power is not everywhere, then power cannot be exchanged but instead surrendered or exercised over another. This understanding of power is problematic because trust cannot be achieved through power if power is something that places one group in subservience to another. Before Foucault, philosophers and social theorists mistakenly defined power in this manner and argued for the behaviorist theory which explains that “A has power over B because B’s actions depend upon A” (Detel 11). The problem with this theory is that it assumes only one person can have power at any given time. There is always a stronger group and if this is the case, then trust cannot be achieved because the weaker group will never trust those above them. Foucault’s definition of power proves that “power is not of necessity repressive. Under suitable conditions it can be in the interest of those over whom it is exercised and, above all, without power relationships societies would fall apart” (Detel 12). In the Naked Crowd of Facebook, power is not repressive because those who exercise power over others also have power exercised over them. In these conditions, power is in the interest of all: those “over whom it is exercised” and those who exercise it because everyone has the same role. By exchanging power with one another, Facebook users are able to trust because everyone is on an equal standing once they have surrendered their privacy. Therefore, everyone within the Naked Crowd has the ability to gain and give trust because everyone has the power to relinquish their own privacy or receive that of others. Overall, repression does not exist within the Naked Crowd of Facebook.
Because Foucault’s theory of power argues that everyone has power and is an agent of some kind, power in turn gives agency to everyone. “Power is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society” (Foucault 93). In this case, the society is Facebook and people strategically use power within it to gain and expropriate trust in the Naked Crowd. These strategical situations take the form of status updates, comments on wallposts, notes, etc. The status update is perhaps the most obvious method of exchanging power within the Naked Crowd because it is used to expose one’s thoughts in order to connect other users to one’s current “status” in life. These connections are strategic because they are used as a means of building trust; therefore, the trust created from these false bonds is the result of a power exchange. Because the person shows they have nothing to hide by updating their status, other users are willing to exchange the power they have over their own privacy. After viewing status updates, those in the Naked Crowd feel as though they have power over the exposed user because the user’s exposure is equated with vulnerability; however, because power is “omnipresent,” this feeling of power over another is merely an illusion. In contrast, an eye for an eye is the best metaphor to frame this exchange. The bartering of power between Facebook users is not conscious but an unconscious attempt to gain control over one’s online environment. “Concerned mainly about controlling the conditions of their own exposure, many people are only too happy to reveal themselves promiscuously if they have the illusion of control” (J. Rosen 419). “Controlling the conditions of their own exposure” suggests that those within the Naked Crowd are engaged in a system of bartering which is essentially an exchange of power over one’s privacy. Their “illusion of control” takes the form of an exchange of power since they feel as if they are in control of their own privacy because they have equal power with other users who also expose their own privacy. It is an “illusion” because power is an abstract force. They are not truly in control; they are only appeasing their need to feel in control, to fight vulnerability.
“Power is not an institution and not a structure” but a force acting within the social structure of Facebook (Foucault 93). This argument shows how entry into the Naked Crowd, which is based upon gaining the trust of strangers, is fundamentally founded on an exchange of power; according to Foucault everyone has power to exchange, so it is possible for everyone to exert or surrender their power to their best interest. The ultimate goal of online users is to create an identity that is judged by the Naked Crowd as authentic and encourages trust. An authentic identity successfully creates a brand, or a “trust mark” that is legitimized by an exchange of power between strangers (J. Rosen 413). Upon entering the Naked Crowd of Facebook, one pays a high price for false intimacy. In the words of Walter Anderson, “we are never so vulnerable than when we trust someone;”therefore, power exchanges are a means to cope with our need to control the terms of our vulnerability.
Foucault’s theory of power and its application to Facebook forces one to ask, what is the Naked Crowd within Facebook? Because Facebook is an attempt to create public intimacy within an online social network, its Naked Crowd is a metaphor for the assumption that public intimacy is possible by spilling one’s secrets to a vast online community. On Facebook everyone is ‘naked’ but should feel secure because they are in a crowd of ‘naked’ people.
The crowd demands a sense of emotional connection with everyone who catches its fleeting attention. This means that everyone who is subject to the scrutiny of the crowd-from celebrities to political candidates to the families of terrorists’ victims-will feel pressure to parcel out bits of personal information in order to allow unseen strangers to experience a sense of vicarious identification. (J. Rosen 409)
Facebook users “demand a sense of emotional connection with everyone” because it makes them feel secure and gives them an “illusion of control.” They “demand” it because they themselves have felt the eyes of those in the Naked Crowd; therefore, they “scrutinize” other users in order to feel their vulnerability. The experience is “vicarious” because the Naked Crowd seeks exposure which is by nature “vicarious” because it brings the private to light, exposing that which most hold deep inside.
Fundamentally, people on Facebook want to feel connected and they achieve this false intimacy through a power exchange, granting them entrance into the Naked Crowd. The crowd “demands a sense of emotional connection with everyone” because today we are obsessed with quantity and not quality when it comes to connections. It seems that how many friends one has on Facebook marks how many emotional connections one has; by placing value on numbers, we insinuate that we cannot stand to feel alone online. Cyberspace is too great a frontier to navigate alone. One demands others to self express only to selfishly fill a void within themselves because they crave intimacy; their demands have nothing to do with building a true relationship but are actually an attempt to exchange power through the surrendering of privacy. Therefore, the idea that Facebook is a breeding ground for close connections and authentic relationships is hypocryticism in its prime; authenticity based on the coerced spilling of secrets to strangers is not self-expression, but a false attempt to connect and build trust. Furthermore, the Facebook user who is granted access into the Naked Crowd has had to sacrifice their privacy or their “clothes” in order to become naked and authentic, fundamentally exchanging the power they have over their own vulnerability in order to build trust in a public sphere.
When examining the public sphere, Rosen argues that public intimacy does not exist because surrendering one’s privacy in public is an oxymoron; one cannot be intimate in public because intimacy is defined by close, private relationships. Therefore, the public sphere is under attack by people in the Naked Crowd trying to create this false notion of public intimacy through their power exchanges. In “The Imperial Bedroom,” Jonathan Franzen argues that the public sphere is under attack by people surrendering their privacy. “What’s threatened, then, isn’t the private sphere. It’s the public sphere” (Franzen 446). People no longer value public space because their need for emotional connection overrides traditional norms of public decency. They selfishly choose to forget that in a public space, one can expect certain things to occur and others to remain hidden. “If privacy depends upon an expectation of invisibility, the expectation of visibility is what defines a public space. My ‘sense of privacy’ functions to keep the public out of the private and to keep the private out of the public” (Franzen, 446). Franzen is arguing that the public sphere seeks to “keep the private out;” however, those within the Naked Crowd need the private to be kept “in” in order for them to feel a sense of control over their environment. Thus, they are able to exchange power because self-revelation has overtaken the public sphere in an attempt to create trust between users.
Within Facebook, the Naked Crowd actively brings the private into the public, further perpetuating the attack on the public sphere Franzen is addressing. Within the Naked Crowd Facebook is used for this very reason; it is a breeding ground for a self-exposure infestation which unintentionally seeks to erase the public sphere in order to gain false intimacy and trust. For example, when one uses the “Notes” function on Facebook, people are able to read what is effectively an online blog disguised within Facebook. People use this application to write personal poems or stories detailing their private lives. In doing this they subconsciously believe it will allow others to gain their trust because they have proven there is nothing to hide. Their actions however come at a high price; writing a personal note on Facebook allows others to see their vulnerability. However, those reading their note have also sacrificed their own privacy on Facebook by using similar applications that also promote self-revelation; every application on Facebook is designed to invite people into one’s life. Thus, everyone has an equal exchange of power because everyone has surrendered some aspect of their privacy and is vulnerable. Unfortunately, surrendering privacy by exposing oneself publicly, infringes upon public space because the public sphere is a place where actions deemed ‘private’ are unwelcome. “A genuine public space is a place where every citizen is welcome to be present and where the purely private is excluded or restricted” (Franzen, 446). Using Franzen’s definition, Facebook is not only not a genuine public space, but also an attack on the public sphere.
In “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves,” Christine Rosen argues that we commandeer public space through the use of our cell phones, showing that the attack on the public sphere is not limited to Facebook. Technology in general is allowing people to wage a war on public space. Christine Rosen argues that this sense of entitlement to what was once public occurs “because cell phone users harbor illusions about being alone or assume a degree of privacy that the circumstances don’t actually allow. Because cell phone talkers are not interacting with the world around them, they come to believe that the world around them isn’t really there and surely shouldn’t intrude…” (C. Rosen 395). Similarly, Facebook users “are not interacting with the world around them,” so they begin to think that the space is open to “intrusion;” people who do not take part in this “intrusion” are not trustworthy because they clearly have something to hide.
The idea of trust in the Naked Crowd is problematic for any medium of technology but especially for Facebook because it connects millions of people around the world; however, the extent to which these connections are sincere is debatable. As argued by Rosen, trust is achieved “not by shared experiences or fixed social status but by self-revelation: people try to prove their trustworthiness by revealing details of their personal lives to prove they have nothing to hide before a crowd whose gaze is turned increasingly on all the individuals that compose it” (J. Rosen 410). An example Franzen gives to back this argument is that we tend to trust politicians who “let us in” to their personal lives. One of Barak Obama’s strengths in campaigning for the Presidential Election was his personability, soothing Americans because he couldn’t possibly have anything to hide if he went on David Letterman? Because he willingly gave up information, does that automatically mean he has nothing to hide? The fundamental exchange in this relationship between the personable politician and the voter is an exchange of power. The voter feels empowered and in control of the situation knowing they have personal information on the politician; therefore, the politician is held accountable by this power. The relationship is not as clear cut and simple as a politician gaining the trust of his constituency.
The Naked Crowd of Facebook is the ultimate tough crowd because the entrance fee is paid in privacy; Facebook has so many functions that allow people to self-expose, from the status update to the “About Me” section. “The ease with which we reveal ourselves suggests that in the face of widespread anxiety about identity, people are more concerned with the feeling of connection than with the personal and social costs of exposure” (J. Rosen 412). “The personal and social costs of exposure” are summed up in the surrendering of private aspects of one’s human experience in order to create a brand “trustworthy-enough” to gain entrance into the Naked Crowd of Facebook; unfortunately, the underlying exchange of power present within these relationships depends upon self-exposure.
Jeffrey Rosen, Christine Rosen, and Jonathan Franzen all mention self-exposure, or the commandeering of public space by individuals in order to gain entrance into the Naked Crowd. They argue that online users sacrifice privacy by exposing personal details of themselves to an online community of strangers. However, the authors do not evaluate the idea of these individuals possessing “personal power” and trading it in order to gain trust within the Naked Crowd; furthermore, they do not evaluate this component in relation to the Naked Crowd of Facebook. Renowned sociologist Michel Foucault transformed the way relationships are defined with his theories on power. His theories show that the Naked Crowd of Facebook exists because power is everywhere; therefore, online users are able to exchange power with one another through self-exposure, which creates a sense of common vulnerability. This joint vulnerability creates a connection, which allows those within the Naked Crowd to trust one another.
Detel, Wolfgang. Foucault and Classical Antiquity: Power, Ethics, and Knowledge. Cambridge: New York Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1. New York: Random House, 1978.
Franzen, Jonathan. “The Imperial Bedroom.” Writing Analytically. Rosenwasser and Stephen.
Boston: Thomson, 2008. 441-48.
Rosen, Christine. “Our Cell Phones, Ourselves.” The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society 6 (2004): 26-44.
Rosen, Jeffrey. “The Naked Crowd.” Writing Analytically. Rosenwasser and Stephen. Boston: Thomson, 2008. 408-19.