Central to Web 2.0 is the requirement for interactive systems to enable the participation of users in production and social interaction. Consequently, in order to critically explore the Web 2.0 phenomenon it is important to explore the relationship of interactivity to social power. This study firstly characterises interactivity in these media using Barry’s (2001) framework differentiating interactivity from disciplining technologies as defined by Foucault. Contrary to Barry’s model though, the analysis goes on to explore how interactivity may indeed function as a disciplining technology within the framework of a neoliberal political economy.
Interaction, participation and agency
Interactivity and discipline
Interactivity and Web 2.0
Interactivity and the neoliberal subject
Interactivity and neoliberal governance
Discipline and seduce
The key feature of Web 2.0 is the development of software which enables mass participation in social activities. These activities in turn are extensively popular and, through the network effects of that popularity, economically significant (O’Reilly, 2005; Tweney, 2007; Madden and Fox, 2006). The harnessing of collective intelligence within Web 2.0 demands platforms where this intelligence can be expressed and collected. The social networks at the forefront of this phenomenon (economy) emerge from the ability of users to represent themselves and their interests in mediated spaces and to activate engagement with others via these representations. These features demand a profound capacity for input into and manipulative control over data as a constitutive component of any Web 2.0 site. This ‘generative interactivity’ (Richards, 2006) and the experience of that as a condition of usage is what arguably differentiates new media from precursor media forms and which is underscored within Web 2.0 systems. Consequently, in order to critically explore this media sector it is important to interrogate the nature of this interactivity and its relationship to the organisation of social power. This is particularly so for the sites associated with Web 2.0 which, in the emerging scholarship about them, have been cast as sites of user power.
This study takes as its basis Andrew Barry’s (2001) contention that interactivity is contrary to the exertion of power as manifested through disciplining technologies as described by Foucault (1991). Barry’s position implies that interactivity can be distanced from the techniques of power which generate and sustain the political hegemony. However, by interrogating Barry’s argument it is possible to interpret interactivity as indeed a disciplining technology, albeit one organised by the dictates of a neoliberal sociopolitical hegemony. This paper argues that, when contextualised in this way, the nature of the power relations being enacted in Web 2.0 technologies demand careful consideration and the consequences of participation require nuanced exploration.
Key sites of the Web 2.0 phenomenon have been celebrated as locations for the articulation of individual and collective social power by enhancing participation in media production and cultural expression. Research on interactivity has long noted the capacity of a renewed agency in media production to disrupt the knowledge/power nexus (for instance, see Landow, 1992; Lanham, 1993) and the basic power relations of mass broadcast media. As Cover contends “…a digital environment promoting interactivity has fostered a greater capacity and a greater interest by audiences to change, alter and manipulate a text or a textual narrative, to seek coparticipation in authorship, and to thus redefine the traditional authortextaudience relationship” . Indeed, as Andrejevic (2004) summarises, the underlying ‘promise of the interactive digital revolution’ has been presented as the possibility of disalienating the consumer from the means of production and reenchanting the world through the return of embodied participation in media forms. Jenkins (2006a; 2006b), who has been a long advocate of the social significance of consumer participation, uses Levy’s idea of collective intelligence to describe the potential significance of consumer participation in media production. This utopian idea posits that the manytomany communication of the Web can enable “…broader participation in decisionmaking, new modes of citizenship and community, and the reciprocal exchange of information” . Although he is careful to qualify and complicate the extension of this idea to online communities, Jenkins’ orientation is to analyse participatory communities and interactive media in terms of the possibility of social empowerment.
The interpersonal interaction between individuals in Web 2.0 has been specifically valued for its capacity to empower users socially and politically. The study of Michigan State University Facebook users by Ellison et al. (2006) shows a tendency for intensive use of the technology to impact positively on a student’s satisfaction with life at the University and individual selfesteem. For teenagers, Web 2.0 social networking sites offer access to and control over public space and, through that, access to and control over the space of power (boyd, 2006a). Involvement in social networking sites has also been identified by boyd and Jenkins (2006) as necessary for cultural capital, and consequently social power, for American teenagers. Bruns (and others) has written extensively on the activation of a new kind of actively productive and critical consumer – the ‘produser’ – within the blogosphere and the wider field of participatory media (Bruns, 2006; Bruns and Jacobs, 2006). This ‘produsage’ has been recognised as particularly socially significant when bloggers have taken up the commentary role traditionally held by journalists (Singer, 2006), or where they have critically appraised the work of established news media producers (Bruns, 2005). The ‘bottomup’, selforganising of the social networking within information sharing sites such as del.icio.us and Flickr have been described as challenging the power of elite hierarchies to determine and organise knowledge and practice (Kolbitsch and Maurer, 2006; Schiltz et al., 2007). These practices have been described as ‘a revolution’ making the Web more democratic  and as having the power to disrupt existing social and economic relations (Pascu et al., 2007). Castells (2007) has identified these collisions between the counterpower associated with the ‘mass selfcommunication’ of Web 2.0 technologies and the established power of unidirectional (state/corporate) mass communication as the key site of power struggle in the contemporary world.
But what is different about interactivity in media that enables this expansion of user agency? According to Barry (2001), it is interactivity’s distinction from the disciplining techniques of power described by Foucault. Discipline, in Foucauldian theory, is a discursive framework by which activity is organised so that ‘the correct training’ of individuals occurs (Foucault, 1991). Disciplining techniques are an effect of power relations which work to ensure the alignment of individuals with the goals or aims of the particular formation of power mobilising that strategy. They allow power to be effective without overt external imposition on individuals. Instead disciplining techniques work by producing and reproducing individuals already oriented to the needs of power. A key technique identified by Foucault (1991) is the often discussed technique of surveillance exemplified in Jeremy Bentham’s liberal prison design of the Panopticon. In the Panopticon the prisoners were arrayed so that every movement could be viewed and evaluated by an elite guard. The prisoners on the other hand were unable to determine whether, or when, actions were being viewed and thus open to possible punishment or censure. For Foucault, this process of immanent surveillance ensured the internalisation by the prisoner of the particular rules of conduct ordered by the prison’s administration. In the fear of exposure and censure, the policing of activity, becomes a selfpolicing activity. This internal alignment of individual practice with the goals of power constitutes the effective disciplining of that individual.
Interactivity though, Barry contends, is not such a disciplining technology. Discipline, he summarises, unifies the body and the tool into a single apparatus, fixing the relationship between them. He cites Foucault’s description of an eighteenth century instruction for handling a rifle in which the soldier and the weapon are brought together in a complex bodyobject articulation through tight organisation and coordination of movements. By comparison, interactive techniques “... imply a much less rigid articulation of bodies and objects ...” . Interactivity does not cohere around the construction of docile bodies by manipulating them in detail. Instead it is associated with freeforming creativity, intended not to regiment the body, but to “…channel and excite the curiosity of the body and its senses, resulting in anticipated effects on the intellectual productivity, questioning and creativity of those who interact” . Interactivity is not exhaustive, but instantaneous, intensive and specific. And importantly, it does not function by the explicit judgement of an expert authority. “Discipline implies normalisation: the injunction is ‘You must!’ In contrast, interactivity is associated with the expectation of activity; the injunction is ‘You may!’” .
These ‘nondisciplinary’ features of interactivity can be readily traced within the participatory media of Web 2.0.
Flexible time: In contrast to the regime of broadcasting, participatory media is predominately a ‘pull’ medium based on persistent databases rather than temporally bound signal distribution. Instead of having content randomly pushed towards them at predetermined times and in predetermined formats, participatory media users have relative control over what and how they engage with a Web 2.0 site. This includes the time of activity both as producer and consumer. The rigid and imposed programming schedules of broadcast television and radio, particularly before the advent of personal recording devices and their capacity to reorganise the consumption behaviours of audiences, have ceded to an extensively flexible temporal arrangement in the 24/7 Web.
Creative capacity: From the addition of a tag to a selfselected, bookmarked Web site in del.icio.us, to uploading a personal photograph to Flickr, to creating a personal profile on MySpace, to producing a fully developed short film for distribution through YouTube, individual creative acts form the primary content of Web 2.0. In fact it would be difficult to imagine participatory media sites without this creative input of consumers. This content is also not necessarily valued for its seamless professionalism, with editing and censorship largely determined by emerging individual or community standards rather than abstract professional codes. The creation of media content is here supplemented with the generative (and thus creative) role of users within the control and policing systems stemming from community interactions (Jarrett, 2006).
Bodyobject articulation: Importantly, the form of any given user’s creative input is not absolutely determined by the site. Although the affordances of particular sites may encourage certain kinds of interaction (see for instance Marlow, et al., (2006) on the contrasts between the tagging systems of Flickr and del.icio.us; Scharmen (2006) on the control of users in MySpace), these are rarely fully determining. The individual texture, content and style of any individual’s contribution to their blog, wiki, Flickr image or podcast, although enabled by the interactive functions of the technology, are not entirely structured by those affordances. This leaves space for creative expression.
Furthermore, a fundamental aspect of Web 2.0 sites is to be a platform for the social relationships of their users and the networked intelligence of their input. This networking is never fully determined by the machinic logic of the site’s information architecture but occurs, perhaps primarily, in the affective logic relevant to each user or user community. Much of the use of social networking involves the maintenance of preexisting interpersonal relationships rather than those produced solely by mediated interaction (Ellison et al., 2006; Lange, 2007). As boyd (2006b) reports, the specific textures of social networking systems are defined by the technical infrastructure interacting with wider societal norms. Consequently, there is a less extensive articulation between the site and the body or subjectivity of the user than that described by Foucault. The participatory user is not required to become one with the machine, but is able to use the machine to facilitate a goal determined outside of that relationship.
Intensive use: The social networking facilities of Web 2.0 are based on the premise that there is no exhaustive use of the technology. User profiles, personalisation functions and user histories have been deliberately constructed to help users organise small parts of the broad resources that constitute the contemporary Web. On YouTube for instance all of these functions serve as navigation tools. The folksonomies and tag clouds which emerge from Web 2.0 also help individuals maximise brief interactions with the medium by creating clusters of related information (Marlow, et al., 2006). Acceptance and rejection options in ‘friending’ functions allow users to organise and direct the flow of traffic to and from sites and to manage engagement with the potentially overwhelming sociality of the site. On Web 2.0 it is never expected that you consume all possible content. The emergent nature of knowledge defined by social interaction denies the fixity that would allow this to be achieved (Schiltz et al., 2007). The goal instead is that you are able to use the technology as desired to maximise each engagement with the site.
Concealment of expertise: My own research into sites such as eBay (Jarrett, 2006), the ecommerce portal ninemsn (Jarrett, 2004) and various Web 2.0 sites (Jarrett, in press) indicates strategic denial of authority by commercial Web producers. For sites such as eBay and YouTube this is important in avoiding litigation related to illegal sales or copyright infringement (Baron, 2002) but it is also a fundamental feature of the brand identities of many contemporary sites (see Cloud, 2006 on YouTube’s brand identity). This strategic denial of authority resonates with the apparently free practices of users as they engage with these sites uploading content, selecting information to retrieve or sharing in community norms. On Web 2.0 sites, the authority of the user is allowed (at least the appearance of) full expression while that of the corporate owner is diminished.
Interactivity, and the nature of participatory media, are fundamentally enabling and are clearly associable with the permissive injunction “You may!” Using Barry’s taxonomy, the interaction which is enabled by Web 2.0 would appear to be contrary to any kind of disciplining.
However, despite its construction of ‘active subjectivities’ as opposed to ‘docile bodies’, it is inaccurate to claim as Barry does that interactivity is not a disciplining technology. Barry’s argument appears predicated on reading the nature of discipline through the lens of early liberal governance models dominant in the historical moments from which he and Foucault draw their examples. In these instances the work of power, although liberalised by its enactment through the mobilisation of techniques of the Self rather than corporal (or corporeal) punishment, was to produce citizens inculcated with the relatively structured social orders of the day. However in contemporary neoliberal societies, the ideal citizen is differently configured.
Essentially, neoliberal philosophy is grounded in an underlying belief in “…the selfactivating capacities of free human beings, citizens, subjects” . The two mutually informing components of liberal governance are the reduction of direct and overt government intervention and an insistence on the autonomy and choice of the individual (Wright, 2003). The ideal neoliberal subject is thus one who is conceived as being free, both in the sense of having the capacity to choose and in the sense of being without external controlling forces. Within this framework, the ethic of liberal or neoliberal governmentality is that individuals be allowed to govern themselves. In Rose’s estimation the governable neoliberal subject is one who is a ‘selfsteering Self’, obliged by the form of neoliberal governance to freely choose their life trajectory and to assume responsibility for that path. This couples with the state’s withdrawal from service provision and the installation of a variety of competitive, private or quasipublic organisations as locations for social agency and citizenship. This nexus, Rose argues, reconceptualises the citizen as an ‘active agent’ choosing between consumer options, creating an imperative of activity as opposed to dependence and passivity.
This description of the neoliberal subject aligns very clearly with the subject being addressed within interactive media. By not rigidly defining the relationship of the user to the technology and by allowing the ‘play’ of creativity, interactivity refers to an already agential subject: a subject with the a priori power to act. This subject is also freed from a rigid relationship with the dictates of the technology, licensed by the ‘you may’ exhortation to effect at least the illusion of autonomous agency, making generative choices which steer engagement with the site. The Web 2.0 user thus is represented as both agential and endowed with freedom from externally derived controls. It would seem that the user being addressed in this interactive and participatory media is the ideal, active neoliberal citizen.
It is important to understand though, that interactive media are not merely responsive to a set of preexisting social practices or phenomena in which neoliberal subjects are found exercising their freedom. Barry himself has argued in a slightly different context that the subject of neoliberalism “…does not have a natural existence. The citizen must be formed morally and technically” . Consequently, the significance of interactive technology cannot be accounted for merely by pointing to active subjects in the real world . Rather, like all discourses, the implementation of this technology has a transformative quality, normalising, producing and reproducing those subjectivities in the act of catering for them. The agency associated with the ‘You may!’ injunction subjects Web 2.0 consumers to a normative judgement of practice in terms of activity and selfdetermination central to neoliberal citizenship. This judgement, when (if) inculcated into the subject, becomes the basis of selfpolicing practice, where a regime of free choice is normalised and individuals become disciplined to accept and exercise their own agency. The Web 2.0 user who accepts the call to interact is being shaped into, or reinforced as, the active, entrepreneurial citizen of neoliberalism.
Palmer (2003) similarly argues that interactivity produces neoliberal subjectivities. He says that the interactive customisation options available in digital media which offer a sense of user control embed individual choice and flexibility in the fabric of the technology. He connects this to recent social and economic changes and the shift to an ethic of individual selffulfilment and responsibility aligned with neoliberalism. He associates the selfrealisation of personalisation technologies with Castells’ idea of project identities in which, driven by “…the constant change of roles and situations in a society defined by innovation, flexibility and unpredictability….” , people are required to constantly redefine themselves. These flexible personalities he associates with flexible, participatory technologies. But Palmer does not only see the emergence of a prevailing liberal ethos amongst citizens as a cause of the emergence of interactive media, he views it as a constitutive element in the ongoing production of that citizen and a form of social control. He says:
The paradox of user control, in fact, becomes that of the illusion of choice within which the user is offered up for a form of soft domination. Thus not only are discourses of consumer empowerment embedded in a neoliberal political agenda – embodied by its pillars of individualism, freedom and selfexpression – the ‘performative subject’ produced by most existing forms of participatory real time media is arguably the ideal flexible subject position enabled by contemporary capitalism. 
Although approaching the topic from a slightly different perspective Coté and Pybus (2007) also argue that Web 2.0 sites are technologies of hegemonic political and economic systems. Playing with the ideas of Paul Willis, they see sites such as MySpace as locations where young people learn to ‘immaterial labour’. Users’ continuous development of online subjectivities (or lifestyle brands) within these sites produces value for cultural industries. In the shift from the passive exploitation of the audience commodity to this active exploitation of the creative production of users, Coté and Pybus see the activation of biopower in which mobile and interconnected societies are managed through the creation of subjectivities in service of economic processes. Seemingly contrary to the position outlined here, they argue for a differentiation of disciplinary power and biopower, claiming that disciplinary power “…fixes relations between individuals and institutions”  and is thus an individualising technique. Biopower on the other hand activates the whole social body and provides more flexible and less onerous networks of power relations such as those seen on MySpace. However although the power structures may not be disciplinary in societies governed by biopower, the individual techniques of power are still disciplining. The biopower they identify as fundamental to Web 2.0 still involves techniques of discipline, such as interactivity, within its assemblage of practices.
Participatory media can thus be associated with the production of flexible subjectivities, aligned with the needs of the culturally intensive capitalist industries associated with neoliberalism or advanced liberal economies. Interactivity therefore, is a technology which enables the reproduction of neoliberal regimes of power by producing subjects fit for the continuation of that system of power and its particular regimes of control. The interactive Web 2.0 consumer is, therefore, not only the subject of advanced liberal government as previously argued, but is also subject to that particular form of governance.
Thus, contrary to Barry’s proposition and the apparent differences between interactivity and discipline, I contend that interactivity is a technical rendering of neoliberal or advanced liberal power and as such a disciplining technology. It is assuredly not a disciplining into regimented control such as that effected upon and with the soldiers of Foucault’s account, but it is a disciplining into a liberal ideal of subjectivity based around notions of freedom, choice and activity. This discipline is not about the construction of ‘docile bodies’, yet it remains true to the spirit through which this is achieved – the normalisation and inculcation of subjection to power. The active, selfgoverning subjects who are addressed and produced in Web 2.0 are no less a product of discipline than prisoners in the Panopticon or soldiers in their regimented drill practice.
However, there is a little more to the technical functioning of interactivity in Web 2.0. Through its very nature as a technology which works through activating a subject’s sense of agency, the technique of interactivity works to mollify resistance. It is more aligned with the seductive exertion of power that Bauman (1992) describes in the consumer complex than the coercive, punitive form attributed to the Panopticon. In its seductive form, power requires no need to blatantly legitimate itself, to justify its own ends. Instead, it integrates society through apparent free choice and affective pleasure . Interactive media’s exhortation to be active is a disciplining which works by positive reinforcement. In this context, ‘punishment’ is constituted by decline in or exclusion from the affective relations or productive capacities of the sites. But taking away the gift of agency or enhanced affect is not commensurate with the negative disciplining of denying that agency in the first place. By functioning through positive seduction rather than negative coercion, the technique of interactivity thus serves as a form of what Barry terms ‘permissible control’  within the dictates of liberal governance. This permissibility though must be recognised as a strategic instrumentalisation of power. By being exerted as a diffused and defused practice rather than a straightforward and obvious form of governance power denies its own functioning.
As a seductive expression of power, interactivity is based on condescension: a deliberate masking of power in order to effect control. Discussing symbolic power exerted through language, Bourdieu (1991) describes the act of a mayor of the French province of Bearn who, in a speech to assembled Bearnais, chose to speak in the provincial language rather than ‘official’ French. Bourdieu describes this as a strategy of condescension, which achieves its value for the instigator through a dual motion of negation and simultaneous reinforcement of known power structures.
In order for an audience of people whose mother tongue is Bearnais to perceive as a ‘thoughtful gesture’ the fact that a Bearnais mayor should speak to them in Bearnais, they must tacitly recognize the unwritten law which prescribes French as the only acceptable language for formal speeches in formal situations. 
Condescension becomes possible as a strategy.
... whenever the objective disparity between the persons present (that is, between their social properties) is sufficiently known and recognized by everyone (particularly those involved in the interaction, as agents or spectators) so that the symbolic negation of the hierarchy (by using the ‘common touch’ for instance) enables the speaker to combine the profits linked to the undiminished hierarchy with those derived from the distinctly symbolic negation of the hierarchy – not the least of which is the strengthening of the hierarchy implied by the recognition accorded to the way of using the hierarchical relation. 
By not appearing to be powerful, power continues to be.
What occurs in interactive media in the construction and promotion of a free, active user is this double action. Techniques of power which construct and promote this subject position serve to negate the hierarchy of traditional producer/consumer relations. Yet, this strategy can only function in relation to a producer/consumer power relation which remains recognised and, ultimately, unchanged. Like the Bearnais mayor who can “... create this condescension effect only because ... he also possesses all the titles ... which guarantee his rightful participation in the ‘superiority’ of the ‘superior’ language ...” , interactive media creates its effect through the sublimated recognition of its determining power. The interactive consumer encounters the negation of a media producer’s determining power, but nevertheless remains bound to the sustained recognition of the power relations which retain that producer, and ultimately the hegemonic neoliberal political system, in a position of authority and legitimacy. The interactive user, the disciplined neoliberal citizen, thus encounters their own absence of agency and freedom in the free expression of their generative capacity offered to them within Web 2.0 sites.
It is the veil provided by the seductive, condescending nature of interactive that makes it a difficult system of control to identify and challenge. Barry argues that interactivity is
... both much less and much more than simply a political idea or doctrine. It is much less in so far as interactivity is not, in general, the subject of any political manifesto, nor is it the object of political controversy ... Yet it is political in the sense that is has become a model for the exercise of political power which does not take a disciplinary form. 
Although I contend that interactivity is in fact a disciplining exercise of political power, Barry’s point remains. The construction of the interactive Web 2.0 user can be conceived as a subtle and politically charged activity. It is an instance of the strategic application of neoliberal power in which control is permissibly enacted through its own negation by the activation of users. Interactivity thus sits within the assemblage of techniques through which regimes of domination are enacted by the prevailing hegemony but one which exists under the radar of political critique.
It certainly overstates the case to claim, as the title of this paper does, that interactivity is ‘evil’. This implies that Web 2.0 producers are involved in a sinister plot of global domination and that the disciplining power of interactive media is a deliberate weapon of this dark cabal. This is an absurd premise. It would also be an extremely passive populace that absolutely and unquestioningly accepted any interpellation, even the seductive and appealing subjectivities of participatory media. Foucault’s own discursive analysis method demands the immanent existence of resistance as a precondition for the functioning of any discourse. And finally, the title utilises a naïve technological determinism and ignores the convergence of social and cultural trends which constitute the interactive media environment . The hyperbole of this title though is used as a rhetorical tool to draw attention to the need to continually interrogate the fabric of digital media within the particular sociohistorical moment of its emergence and use. The understandable reflex to align the renewed productive activity of users with a substantive expression of counter power must be resisted in the context of the seductive governance system that is neoliberalism.
In Madness and Civilization (2001), Foucault describes the work of the eighteenth century philanthropist Samuel Tuke (17841857) in ‘freeing the madman’ from the chains and squalor of the penal institutions where the mentally ill resided. Tuke’s liberal approach involved viewing ‘mad’ behaviour and its control as a matter of individual moral responsibility rather than an act of criminality. In doing so, Tuke internalised madness within the person of the insane. Madness thus became inextricably linked to the relationship of individual to Self. Foucault argues that in this construction of freedom, Tuke “… substituted for the free terror of madness the stifling anguish of responsibility” . As Deleuze summarises, what is significant about Foucault’s interpretation is that in this passage he “…analysed the discourse of the ‘philanthropist’ who freed madmen from their chains, without concealing the more effective set of chains to which he destined them” . Interactivity can be construed as offering a similar contingent freedom, complete with an effective set of chains binding people to the neoliberal hegemony. As Internet researchers we must remain always conscious of these chains and, like Foucault, work constantly to reveal them.
About the author
Dr. Kylie Jarrett is Lecturer in Multimedia at the Center for Media Studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
Email: kylie [dot] jarrett [at] nuim [dot] ie
A special thank you to all at the Critical Perspectives on Web 2.0 session at the AoIR 8.0 conference for their stimulating insights, but especially Michael Zimmer for his energy in proposing and organising the panel, and his hard work in preparing this special issue.
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Copyright © 2008, First Monday.
Copyright © 2008, Kylie Jarrett.
Interactivity is Evil! A critical investigation of Web 2.0
by Kylie Jarrett
First Monday, Volume 13, Number 3 - 3 March 2008
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.