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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Secrecy and the Non-Curated Life.

There is a moment in the recent American “techno-thriller” The Circle when Mae Holland (played by Emma Watson) makes the observation that she is a better person when she is being watched. At this point in the film Mae has decided to go “completely transparent”, opening her entire life to online observation and scrutiny. Those familiar with Jeremy Bentham’s vision of a Panopticon prison, and Michel Foucault’s subsequent reflections on the connections between observation and power, will recognise the broader significance of Mae Holland’s statement.

The idea of being a better person under conditions of surveillance has been on my mind for some time. As a regular user (addict?) of Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, I am very conscious of the particular ways we choose to present ourselves within public arenas. But it was another social media app that really got me thinking about the modern day connections between voluntary surveillance, secrecy, and behaviour. As a regular runner and cyclist  I like to use Strava to record, share, and compare my exercise efforts with my friends. Certainly knowing that my friends will be able to look at my efforts and contrast with their own is a big motivation for my exercise behaviours: it both provides an impetus to exercise in the first place (a kind of look world at how virtuous I am), and a stimulus to work hard when running and cycling (so as not to embarrass myself too much in front of my peers).  What interests me is my unwillingness to go fully transparent on Strava. Sometimes I just like to go for a run without the pressure of knowing my efforts may be scrutinised by others. At other times I simply delete cycles when they are sub par.

Here is the interesting thing though, Strava have just launched a new advertising campaign which develops its own moral take on allowing yourself to go transparent. The marketing campaign states “Curation, negativity, judgment, ego – that’s not us”, and proceeds to promote its app on the basis that it enables users to be more honest about themselves – to be, if you like, a kind of unfiltered self. There are lots of interesting things about this campaign. First, it is a really impressive piece of marketing, which I think will work for the company. But here is the thing, isn’t it interesting how our motivation to use a corporate app should now be driven through a desire to be truer to ourselves – genius! While Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, implicitly relies on our ability to deliver a very curated sense of self identity, Strava now promotes itself on the basis of us not being afraid to become more transparent!

I have written elsewhere on this blog about the connections between behaviour change, social media, and big data. As Luke Dormehl’s excellent book Formula: How Algorithms Solve all our Problems – and Create More demonstrates, the bespoke abilities of social media to use our historical data to shape our future behaviours is unparalleled. Strava’s innovative marketing campaign appears to be upping the behavioural ante, however, as it uses moral discourses of anti-ego, the avoidance of secrecy, and shamelessness as powerful tools of  behavioural persuasion.

Next month sees the release of our new book Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the Twenty First century (Routledge). In this volume we describe how our behaviours are increasingly being shaped through a series of neurologically and psychological oriented strategies. Strava’s appeal to our better selves, and voluntary forms of online transparency, is a form of neuroliberalism par excellence.  


Featured image: Bentham’s Panopticon

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