FM reviews
First Monday


Trottier cover Daniel Trottier.
Social media as surveillance: Rethinking visibility in a converging world.
Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2012.
decorated boards, 222 pp., ISBN 978–1–409–43889–2, US$99.95.



Social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have become “information warehouses”, processing, storing, and analyzing a wide range of personal, communication and usage behavior data. Daniel Trottier’s book Social media as surveillance is a great resource for readers to understand social media surveillance at the interpersonal or institutional levels, where “surveillance” has been conducted by individuals, companies, or the government agencies in the virtual world.

This book discusses risks posed by social media surveillance for information users far beyond privacy concerns, hence traditional “care and vigilance” is inefficient. Thus, attempts to manage individual or institutional online presence are significantly complicated by social media. For example, Facebook friends routinely expose each other, and such information transfers from one context to another, even though the “targets” say nothing about themselves.

Social media as surveillance presents empirical research with a range of personal and professional social media users (such as individuals, institutions, marketers, and police agencies). Using Facebook as a case study, Trottier describes rapidly growing multi–purpose social media monitoring practices. Such scrutiny activities augment one another and lead to a quick spread of online information (visibility), which is vital for new sociality and power relations.

Trottier’s research collects data through detailed interviews with interested parties, such as students, university employees, businesses owners, and police. These interviewees not only reveal how social media is used as surveillance tools, but also discover what is happening and what people think might be happening now. The book gives an insight into both the positive and the negative sides of the social media surveillance issue, as well as some early warnings to future developments.

Trottier examines four different aspects of surveillance: interpersonal surveillance (through which people monitor each other); institutional surveillance (through which institutions,i.e., universities or employers, watch over their students or employees); market surveillance (through which businesses track their customers, potential customers, or even random Web surfers) and policing surveillance (through which authorities might spy on technically anything).

The book devotes a chapter to each aspect. First, students emerge as both spies and the spied–on, which are aware of both aspects. They know and dislike being “scanned” by their parents, potential employers, exes and friends, but they accept it and see Facebook as something they have to be on. The interviewees also change online and off–line behaviors due to their awareness of personal surveillance activities.

Chapters on the role of institutions and businesses are dedicated to organizational efforts to work out what is going on and how to deal with social media. However, issues suggested by the interviews might be unrepresentative. The chapter on policing social media shows complex challenges for authorities, such as self–policing by online community members, policing by consent, police visibility and outreach, undercover activities online, etc.

More interestingly, the first two chapters of this book are theoretical and include an extensive literature review, which help readers become familiar with topics discussed in later chapters. I agree with the author’s conclusion: social media surveillance is an important subject becoming more relevant in the near future. The concluding section also asks some open–ended questions, which might become “launching pads” for future studies.

Individual, institutional, market, security and intelligence forms of surveillance co–exist with each other on social media. Therefore, this book is an invaluable analysis of the new domain of interactive monitoring. Compared with Facebook, Twitter might be an ideal platform to analyze public opinion (another area for further research). However, for some countries, such as China, Weibo (micro–blogging at plays a much more prominent role than Facebook and Twitter.

In the mean time, social media has been experiencing some significant changes since the author completed his interviews, such as “real name” and “real deletion” issues. In the policing chapters, the increasing use of prosecutions or police reactions for certain social media activities merit more discussion. On the other hand, this book’s interviews were largely conducted in Canada, which might also become a concern for readers from other regions.

No one can afford to ignore the power of social media. Information needs and behaviors studies will focus on social media, thanks to the development of new technology. As an instructor of library and information science, I recommend Trottier’s book for MLIS students, librarians, and other information professionals (i.e., data/business intelligence analyst). They will find a great deal of practical information in this work, especially related to data collection and analysis issues, based on Trottier’s research. — Yijun Gao, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University. End of article

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.

Review of Social media as surveillance: Rethinking visibility in a converging world
by Yijun Gao.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 4 - 1 April 2013

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