In science, power has a very precise definition. It is the rate at which energy is being transferred – a relationship that is captured in a formula and can be thought of more informally as the amount of “work” being done.

So, in a scientific context – specifically physics, the meaning of power is clear. In contrast, power is a far more complex concept in social sciences – as revealed within a diverse range of human interactions.

There are two prevailing views on the nature of power. The first regards power predominantly as a tool for subjugation, while the second acknowledges its potential for harmful use while also pointing to its potential role in maintaining balance.  

Thomas Hobbes championed the first notion, conceptualising one man’s gain in power as another man’s loss. A straightforward illustration of this can be seen in a wrestling match where two people compete, with one eventually winning. That outcome is incompatible with both having equal power. Even if they do so initially, a relative increase in power eventually accrues to the victor. 

The second perspective on power is provided by Michel Foucault, who considered its nature to be more subtle and varied. He proposed that power assumes many forms and is invested in many things. This latent power only arises when an individual engages in conversation around ‘regimes of truth’ or understanding. Foucault’s definition of power is thus more charitable. He thinks of power as an entity that resides in all things rather than a structure through which people/things can mobilise control. He notes that power is synonymous with knowledge and fact.  

In older structures, such as government and politics, it’s challenging for an individual to lose power entirely. A benefit of having power is that can enhance the credibility and longevity of a person’s philosophy. Even though someone may lose their position and ability to make decisions in government, they often retain their power to exercise influence within their social circles provided their personal credibility remains intact. This is how ‘informal’ power (influence) can shape the exercise of formal power. 

This permanence of power is an important determinant of the behaviour of those in power. Confidence in the enduring nature of power (and its ability to ward off adverse consequences) often leads the powerful to make choices that advance their personal interests. 

Social media has begun to redefine the nature of power. The dominant platforms have gained tremendous traction over the past decade, and gradually personal identity has become synonymous with online presence. Widespread fame and the attainment of a quasi-celebrity status has given key ‘influencers’ the ability to exercise ‘informal’ (but none the less real) power through the vector of their online followers. But social media fame is even more fickle than that gained through traditional means as its basis is intrinsically unpredictable.  

As such, social media provides some useful insights into the new dynamics of power within a technological setting. For example, in the case of social media, power is actually being exercised by those who offer a response to what ‘influencers’ post. When you use social media, you use and direct your power through likes and comments offered in response to what has been posted. However, if you disapprove of something you’ve observed, you can withhold your endorsement or even actively express your disdain through dislikes and critical comments – in other words actively withdrawing your support can be part of a conscious act to diminish the power. So, where does power lie? With the influencers or their potentially fickle followers? 

The technology that underpins social media platforms has also ‘democratised’ power in that almost anyone can gain a following and thus have the potential to exert a degree of influence. 

It’s much easier now to establish a position of power online than it was traditionally – because of ease of access and the fact that there is no limit to the number of people who can have a platform and broadcast their views widely.  

But this increase in access to power is a double-edged sword because, as quick as it is for someone to gain power through today’s media, they can just as easily lose it.

As a result, many ‘celebrities’ have short-lived fame. The fleeting nature of power has extended beyond the realm of social media into the offline world. For example, the twenty-four-hour media cycle and the need to feed an insatiable media ‘beast’ means that politicians now operate under an intense and unceasing public gaze. Even the slightest whiff of scandal can end a career – and end access to a formal source of power. 

In modern societies, scrutiny drives and confers power by facilitating influence.

Online power is probably best conceptualised as a mixture of Foucault’s and Hobbes’ descriptions of power. 

Overall, we see how our old structures of power perhaps do not adapt easily to the online world. The reachability and balance of the internet make it easier to comment on those in power and hold them accountable for their actions. Ultimately, the dynamic is shifting; while the factors that give people power – influence, connection, and money – remain prevalent on the internet, the power they generate is no longer as enduring.